Sunday, September 30, 2012

Race, a cartoon, and a missed conversation

It’s probably smart to begin with a disclaimer: We need to talk more about race. We need to talk about its role in the education we provide, the health care we offer, the jobs that still can be elusive to blacks. Whether you want to see it or not, race still finds it way into lending and housing and the administering of justice. It’s real. We need to talk more about it.

Or maybe we just need to do a much better job of it.

This week, Observer cartoonist Kevin Siers decided to poke his pen at the NFL’s Carolina Panthers. The team and quarterback Cam Newton have been playing below expectations, and there’s been some murmuring about Newton performing his standard touchdown dance – pretending to pull his jersey apart to reveal Superman’s “S” – when trailing badly in the Panthers’ most recent game.

So Siers did a cartoon mashup of sorts: A player with “Panthers” on the front of his helmet pulls his jersey apart to reveal the decidedly less fierce Hello Kitty. A plus B equals a clever C.

Some fans didn’t like the joke. They complained about criticizing a second-year quarterback so harshly, especially one who’s brought the buzz back to Bank of America Stadium. Fair enough.

Then, on Thursday morning, ESPN personality Stephen A. Smith took it a step further on air. He noted, somberly, that Cam Newton is black. He pointed out, helpfully, that the Charlotte Observer is in the South. “It makes me uncomfortable,” he said, arranging the letters together without actually saying what they spelled. Let’s do it for him: Racism.

We should note that Smith, along with others who subsequently said the cartoon was racist, didn’t say the drawing itself contained racist cues. The problem was the criticism of Newton, a black man, by an editorial page in the South. A plus B equals an ugly C.

The response was predictable – complaints about blacks seeing racism in everything, followed by complaints of intentional white blindness to race. It’s where these conversations end up – with each side pointing to the other as evidence of their rightness and fuel for their outrage.

Then there are the others, the ones who know we need to talk honestly about race. Especially now. Especially in cities like Charlotte that find themselves resegregating in schools and neighborhoods. They know that our differences, which once brought such collective promise, seem poised again to pull us further apart.

But embarking on that conversation means trusting that it will be a conversation. If you’re black, you fear that bringing up race will elicit that exasperated sigh from whites who believe the fairy tale that racism is a relic, that we’d all get along if we stopped bringing up the reasons we’re not getting along. And if you’re white, you worry that a misstep – or even some candor – will bring that wagging finger. You worry that disagreement will bring that name you don’t ever want to be called.

Here’s an example: In a web video this week for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Walter Dalton, North Carolina blacks talk about how policies favored by Republican candidate Pat McCrory aren’t friendly to them. Those policies include mandatory voter ID and cuts in pre-Kindergarten programs, so it’s an appropriate point for Dalton supporters to make.

But in the video, the speakers and policies are emphasized with a backdrop of pictures from the Civil Rights era. The message is unmistakable – McCrory as today’s George Wallace or Orval Faubus. A legitimate policy debate gets shoved to the inflammatory fringe. It’s done everywhere by both parties. Who wants to get caught in that kind of crossfire?

This year, new Charlotte schools superintendent Heath Morrison wants to try. He says Charlotte needs to have a “courageous conversations” on the role of race in academic success and failure. In Reno, Nev., and Montgomery County, Md., he brought in consultant Glenn Singleton, the author of a book by that name.

Morrison is right. We need to have those conversations. We need to talk about the challenges we face and the obstacles we place in front of each other. But to do so, we need to take the discussion back from the people who see racism everywhere or nowhere at all. As this week showed again, we’re a lot better at pointing than talking.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Getting the 'W' without the win

Let’s begin with an important distinction about Lance Armstrong’s fight against doping charges: He did not merely quit that battle this week. He lost it.

On Monday, a federal judge dismissed Armstrong’s suit against the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, clearing the way for the case the agency had built against him. On Thursday, in the face of public testimony from at least 10 eyewitnesses that included his closest teammates, Armstrong said he was tired.

This from the athlete who summoned unfathomable strength in the same hills of France that wilted his competitors. This from the man who vigorously trashed and threatened with litigation any author or athlete or agency who suggested his Tour de France victories were anything less than legitimate.

And now he’s tired? No. Armstrong is acknowledging that this time, he isn’t going to get the win.

That’s the thing about cheaters – getting the win, the “W,” is more important than actually winning.

For some, that’s almost understandable. Cheating can be transactional, a way to keep a paycheck coming. This month, Major League Baseball players Melky Cabrera and Bartolo Colon were suspended 50 games for taking performance enhancing drugs. Until recently, Cabrera was a mediocre hitter on the back half of his playing days, and Colon’s career had stalled because of age and weight. They decided to game the system pharmaceutically.

That’s how we euphemize dishonesty, sometimes: “Gaming the system.” It’s what the brokers and bankers did a decade ago when they began filling the housing market with toxic loans that took down the economy. At the time, it was good business, working at the edge of the rules – and occasionally over that edge. We like to celebrate things like that.

We also have terrific powers of rationalization when it comes to the W’s in our lives. We talk about getting what’s ours, and we applaud those who “beat the Man.” We condemn the college football program that’s cheating until that program is the one we cheer for. Then, of course, “everyone is doing it.”

A decade ago, a teacher in a Kansas high school gave F’s to a group of students caught cheating on an assignment. Parents were outraged – not at the students, but at the teacher. They harassed her with late-night phone calls and complained to the school board, which finally ordered her to take back the punishment.

Said one of the students: “It probably sounds twisted, but I would say that in this day and age, cheating is almost not wrong.”

Not as long as we can get the win.

This month, I wrote an item criticizing Barack Obama because he didn’t condemn a political ad implying that Mitt Romney contributed to a woman’s death from cancer. Readers emailed to remind me that Romney, too, was releasing factually iffy ads. One insisted that the offending pro-Obama ad was necessary, because a Romney presidency would bring great ills to the country.

And that’s worth a shameful accusation? “Whatever it takes,” he said.

So now we have Lance Armstrong, finally losing this week. The USADA wants to take his seven straight Tour de France titles from him. He may also see the inspiring work he’s done for cancer victims darkened by this official taint of doping.

Or maybe not. Armstrong, after all, is not that unusual. He got the “W” – even if he didn’t win. How much does that really matter anymore?