Being a sportswriter may not get you much – besides a decent seat and mustard on your tie – but it does prepare you for race relations.
Maybe that’s why, from the start of the presidential campaign, I’ve been less concerned with Barack Obama than some of my countrymen. There were many white voters who were hesitant about a black president. Some were painfully blunt. They spoke, insultingly, about watermelon patches on the White House lawn and rappers like Ludacris as official guests.
Others, who didn’t want to appear so racist, embraced labels like “radical” or “terrorist.” But it stemmed from the same part of human nature: We distrust that which is different.
Well, one thing you get accustomed to as a white sportswriter is “that which is different.” You get accustomed talking to black Americans doing better than you financially, being better known, more widely respected. You get accustomed to black coaches making trades, black executives returning your phone calls – or not.
The music you hear is often not your music. The slang in the locker room is often not your slang. In the case of Latino or Japanese players, it may not even be your language.
But you know what?
You do your job. Everyone else does his or her job. And pretty soon all that stuff fades to the background. Just like in the movies
I remember a scene in the football movie “Brian’s Song,” where Gale Sayers is called into the coach’s office. He is nervous. What has he done wrong? They tell him they are thinking of rooming him with a white man, Brian Piccolo.
“That’s all?” he says. “You had me worried. I thought this was something really -“
“This IS something really,” a coach says.
At the time depicted – 1965 – it WAS something “really.” But it isn’t anymore. And of the two attitudes, Sayers’ is the one to admire. The one that says, “That’s it?” The one that says this is only as big a deal as you choose to make it.
I do believe we are moving to that attitude. I do believe, having done this, having elected an African American to the highest office in the land, the idea of doing it is no longer an issue. And we can focus on the job, which is really what matters. We’re all in this together
Meanwhile, something quiet yet substantial has changed. Now, when a 12-year-old African-American kid is handed a basketball or a political science book, he can look at both as paths to success. There is no subtle voice that says “certain jobs are not for me.” All things are possible when the presidency is possible, when you are convinced that even if you are in the minority, the majority will not hold you down if you prove you are worthy.
That’s not big – that’s huge. And I know enough to know that, as a white man, I can never really appreciate how absent that has been for African Americans, and how possible it may feel now.
In talking to my white friends over the last few days, I have heard many of them say, “Wow, I saw all these black people crying when Obama won. I never realized how much this meant to them.”
And I’ve heard my black friends say, for the first time, they feel totally “included.” That’s an amazing little word, included. You can’t feel it by someone else saying it. And you can say it only when you feel it yourself.
Look, nobody’s being Pollyannaish here. Racism did not die Tuesday. But the first step in dismantling prejudice is taking it out of the system. You room a black football player with a white one, you haven’t eliminated everyone who hates it. But you have eliminated the idea that they’re right.
Maybe, in writing about a world where black people and white people dress together, shower together, block and tackle for each other and douse each other with champagne, we sportswriters have been exposed to something progressive. If so, I can tell those who are nervous that there is nothing to worry about. That world works the way you want a world to work. Get the job done, and everyone respects you.
That is the hope for Obama. It’s not about skin color. His “something really” is running the country, and it begins the moment he sits behind that desk.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).