Racism in the “Postracial” Era: Three Teachable Moments

Over the course of this week, two remarkable, not-so-random, acts of kindness by young people flooded the airwaves: the humble apology of ex-University of Oklahoma/SAE Fraternity member, Levi Pettit, for his participation in the infamous “lynch a n*****” chant; and the mature-beyond-any-age petition for forgiveness of the crass ex-Bloomsburg University baseball player, Joey Casselberry, for calling the great Mo’ne Davis a “slut” because Disney Channel wants to make a movie about her phenomenal sports abilities.

But there is a third story that merits equal attention: the almost slavery-era treatment of Mexican migrant workers in the United States, and the ignorance by young people of this modern scourge.

Thus, I indeed want to discuss three—not two—teachable moments I have learned about this week.


University of Oklahoma—SAE Fraternity Apology

On Wednesday, March 25, there was an uncomfortable news conference from Oklahoma City. A coalition of Black leaders—consisting of one forward-thinking Senator, Anastasia A. Pittman, chair of the Oklahoma Black Caucus, and a cadre of religious and community leaders—presented to the nation their reformed “monster,” a misguided young white man named Levi Pettit, who was caught on video helping to lead his fraternity brothers in a 1950s-style hateful, racist lynch-party song. And it was a song—not a chant; this children’s song’s real title is “If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands.”

The scene was awkward—hastily staged, and fervently rehearsed, with one of the Black community leaders standing behind Mr. Pettit actually mouthing the words of Pettit’s apology, almost in synch. It was also a bit bizarre that this poor young man’s parents were literally pushed to the background, nearly out of sight, behind the Black community leaders, who surrounded the young man and laid hands on him, as if he were a sinner who had nervously made his way up to the church altar to redeem himself before the righteous congregation. The tornadoes that ripped through Oklahoma just hours after this news conference were downright eerie.

But I want to talk about more than the “optics” of this event. I’d really like to take a look at what may have gone on behind the scenes, as well as what may be in store for this young man, his “adopted” community, and beyond, as a result of this event.

It is telling that his parents issued a statement of apology on behalf of their son—and of their family—immediately after the offending video surfaced. [The Pettit family’s website, which contains the full transcripts of both the parents’ apology and young Levi’s apology for his actions may be found at http://www.friendsandfamilyoflevipettit.com/]. They sound like good people.

Even so, I can only imagine what went on in the closed door meeting that preceded the news conference. Was Levi “forced” to watch historical pictures and stories of real black lynchings or, perhaps, to listen to Billie Holliday’s scathing anti-lynching song, “Strange Fruit,” 100 times? I do not say this facetiously, given the number of such postings that appeared on my Facebook page during Black History Month. But more importantly, I remember being taught—in elementary school—about the Jewish Holocaust of World War II by watching newsreels of the Concentration Camps in class. It was a lesson I’ve never forgotten.

And herein lies an important consideration in examining the case of Levi Pettit: I do not believe that he truly understood just how hateful and hurtful his words were! Given the fact that we are 50 years removed from Brown vs. Board of Education, Selma, and so many other turbulent and visceral changes in the area of race relations, and given the fact that this young man is of the so-called postracial generation (he was only born in 1995!), can we really expect him to have the same level of understanding as a person of my generation (born in 1953), or even his parents’ generation?

For all we know, young Levi may have felt peer pressure (it was a fraternity event, after all) to join in. We do know, however, that there is more to the back story of the racist song than anyone—least of all Levi Pettit—wanted to admit to during the news conference. We all know that that back story is the story of The United States of America. And it is, I believe, a burden much too large for young Levi—or his parents—to bear alone. Still, I have to wonder: What about all those other kids on the bus? Why aren’t some of them standing in front of TV cameras apologizing profusely? Why have they gotten away with throwing poor Levi under the proverbial bus?

I also have questions about the motivation of Senator Anastasia A. Pittman to address this sorry affair in the manner she chose. It was almost a bizarro-world mirror image of white slave owners hawking their prized young “buck” at an auction. On the other hand, the good senator is a representative of the constituents of her state—not to mention the Black Caucus—and I hope that the long-term outcome will be positive, not just to the parties involved, but to the Oklahoma City and state community, not to mention the annals of race relations in the 21st Century.

Today (March 27, 2015), in a stunning speech [http://bcove.me/fxbt6tr3], David Boren, the President of the University of Oklahoma, decisively answered not just the question everyone was afraid to ask at the news conference, but also my question above: “What about all those other kids on the bus?” Furthermore, he masterfully addressed the societal elephant-in-the-room, “How do we stop racism?” He answered, “We can stop it, by having zero tolerance for racism.”


Bloomsburg University’s Baseball Kerfuffle

 On Tuesday, March 24, Mo’ne Davis, the Black teen-girl athletic phenom, gave the most mature and gracious interview on MSNBC’s program, The Last Word With Lawrence O’Donnell. She was there to discuss her amazingly kind and well thought-out plea for mercy in response to the sexist slur she endured from former Bloomsburg University baseball player, Joey Casselberry, who complained that “that slut got slammed by Nevada” and therefore did not deserve to have a Disney Channel movie made about her stunning performance at last year’s Little League World Series. Ms. Davis wrote to the president of Casselberry’s former school to ask that the ex-student be given a second chance, because “everyone” deserves a second chance. The 14-year-old Ms. Davis surely has a bright future ahead of her.


“Do You Know What A Migrant Camp Is?”

On March 23, I received the following Facebook post from a friend, who said:

“Many people are not aware of where their food comes from. Migrant workers around the world travel to the harvest and provide most of the fresh foods for countries around the world, but these same migrant workers are disadvantaged, living a 3rd world lifestyle in a 1st world country. This is just a glimpse into their mostly unacknowledged lives.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l5QFm0qeAlk

 The above link takes you to a movie trailer introducing the film, “Invisible America: The Migrant Worker.” Only a few young people had any clue what a migrant camp is, much less the historically—and currently—dismal conditions are suffered by “those people” who pick all of our fruits and vegetables before they are distributed around the world for “our” consumption. Another link [from Mother Jones: http://www.motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2015/03/striking-mexican-farm-workers-vow-us-boycott] contains information about how Mexican farm workers are fighting back against such inhumane treatment. Let’s face it: although black-white inequities get most of the attention on the news, there’s an awful lot of brown-white inequity going on, too.


What all three of these stories have in common is that they involve Clueless young people. I submit that we as a society have miserably failed these young people. By giving them “everything,” we have taught them nothing about the real world. We cushion playgrounds with soft surfaces to prevent scrapes, cuts, and bruises. We would rather allow our children to spend all their time indoors, exercising their thumb muscles as they master the electronic world at lightning speed, while neglecting their need for interpersonal communication, empathy for others, and the true differences between reality and fantasy, good and evil, truth and lies. 

To quote the Dalai Lama (from March 25, 2015):

Ours is clearly a pivotal generation. We have global communication and yet confrontation is more common than dialogue.

 I would amend that to read “…and yet ignorant confrontation is more common than dialogue.”

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