In my travels, neither distance nor the socioeconomic makeup of my audience reduces the probability I will be asked to share my thoughts on race in America. I was tossed this question recently at the University of Georgia while meeting with college athletes. I arrived prepared to discuss the importance of building a foundation of personal and professional integrity while providing insight into my life as a former NFL and college player. They had a better idea.
Toward the end of the question-and-answer portion, one player asked, "Why haven't civil rights movements of the past and videotaped evidence of the present been enough to put racism to an end once and for all?" I was pleasantly surprised by the honesty and vulnerability of this young man to ask this in a room of his peers and coaches. But I was simultaneously disappointed such a question must still be asked twenty years after I had sat in those same seats. Race is the one subject where energy and fatigue occupy the same space.
My first gut reaction was to provide a biblical answer based on man's sin condition, but too often, we make spiritual that which we are unwilling to face in the flesh. My second gut was to opine on the language problem and posit there is only one race, the human race. Both responses would have been altogether accurate and valuable in the situation. However, I had recently been pulled over by police with my children in the car. The human race argument is beautiful classroom talk but does not play well when you're nervously gripping the steering wheel as the officer approaches from the passenger's side.
Thirdly, I could discuss the strides we have made as a country—and that even though inequality persists, we are better now than before in some spheres. That didn't feel right either. This generation of millennials and digital natives is calling our bluff, especially when research continues to reveal ongoing disparities. Clichés feel like excuses, and data points feel like purposeful complexity to hide our unwillingness to treat each other with love, dignity, and respect.
I am not sure how well I answered the young man's question. It bothered me on my two-hour drive home. To take my mind off my insufficient answer, I cut on talk radio. Have you ever been driving with the radio on, but your thoughts were somewhere else? Then out of nowhere, the radio discussion cuts through your thoughts with a comment that sounds like they knew what you were thinking about? Well, it happened to me.
Answers can arrive in foreign packages not addressed to us. I say this because I might have turned the station if I knew who was being interviewed and had not been daydreaming. The person speaking was Richard Dawkins, famed evolutionary biologist and author of The God Delusion.
We do not share views in common. Rarely would I dare quote him, until now. Dawkins said, "If you base your beliefs on anything other than evidence, it is very hard to change your mind." While he attempted to decay the tenets of faith, his statement caused me to think of racism and prejudice. While Dawkins did not request editorial assistance, I would like to extend his logic. If evidence is not sufficient to change your mind, then maybe the evidence points to your guilt.
While beneficial, rehearsing and exposing the injustice of the past is not the comprehensive cure for the present. We need to, and I wish I would have unpacked this even more that evening, concentrate on solutions. How can each person in this great country of ours feel respected at all levels of government, the workplace, the hospital, and on the side of the road when pulled over? What methods should employ to deliver redress?
As long as we DON'T try to change society, we WON'T change society. Maybe this sounds like fantasy island, but I believe it CAN be done. I sometimes question our willingness to pursue it.
I did not end my answer on a note of pronounced optimism. For a young man absorbing and encountering the implications of sport, culture, and class, reality is a motivator far greater than false hope. If there's one thing that athletes understand, it's diligent work and intentional sacrifice. They also understand that when we turn on the tape, the eye in the sky doesn't lie. Reality can be difficult to confront because it demands a proper response.
And if we refuse to respond accordingly amid overwhelming evidence, then Dawkins would be right. I pray he is not.