The Devil Inside Us – Thoughts on Racism, Bigotry, and What We All REALLY Have in Common

(The following contains my thoughts on current events in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. There are multiple things which may be uncomfortable to read or to think about. In all instances in which a word generally referred to as “the N-word” is used, it is rendered as “n*****” even if it is a direct quote from something or someone who uses the full word. Although I am generally opposed to censorship, I believe that this form of soft censorship will allow for the message to be more clear, rather than creating a side discussion over whether there is ever a context in which it is acceptable to type said word.)

I’m writing this in May and June, 2020, to provide some type of context for whenever you may be reading this. We are not yet halfway through the most turbulent year in over a half-century.

As a general rule, this site is for hockey, hockey history, and things related to expansion in hockey. I have refrained from commenting on social, political, religious, and racial issues. I have done this not because I don’t care, but because I don’t believe it to be helpful to talk without knowledge.

This post is a break from that rule, because I feel compelled to share what I do know. Everything that follows this line is written free-form; I am hoping that it turns out well and is coherent, but it may be circuitous and rambling.

Recently, protests broke out in three major American cities: Minneapolis, where George Floyd died, Louisville, where Breonna Taylor died, and my hometown of Columbus. One day later, nearly every major city was seeing large-scale protests. At the time that I write this, something like 175 American cities have seen protests of some type.

I’m reminded of a poem by Meiji, emperor of Japan from 1867-1912. It was a period of massive upheaval, and his reign was summed up in 1907 with the statement that “in less than forty years he has brought his country from semi-barbarism to the status of a first class power.”

Meiji, who may have been a pacifist, composed this poem during his reign:

The seas of the four directions—all are born of one womb: why, then, do the wind and waves rise in discord?

What we have seen are large groups of people of all races and ethnicities standing up, marching, carrying signs, and making it clear that the long-lingering remnants of slavery must finally be removed.

I attended a four-year university for one year, in which I learned a great deal despite generally being a mediocre student.

In my dorm, each floor had a common lounge area with a TV, a few chairs, and that was about it. Alternating floors had a kitchen area.

Take a bunch of 18- and 19-year-old kids, leave them to their own devices, and stuff happens. I may have learned more from hanging out in the lounge, talking with people who were not like me in any way except for our age, than I did in any classroom.

One time I went to another floor to say hi to a friend, and I passed by their lounge. There were four young black students in there, just sitting in chairs and talking. I was going to walk by when I heard one say, “My first time….”. So I paused, and he then continued with, “I was 12 and walking to the playground since there as a basketball court there, and someone drove by and yelled.”

So I stood there for a second, and someone else shared a story about a classmate when they were 8. I popped my head in and asked what they were talking about, and one said, “The first time that someone called us a n*****.”

It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts

Earl Weaver, Baltimore Orioles manager

When I was a senior in high school, just one year prior to the discussion in the lounge, one of my football teammates was called by that same racial slur during a game. Sports are the great equalizer, where one’s skill and strength and tenacity are supposed to be the only thing that matters. For one of my teammates, for one of my brothers, that wasn’t enough because an opposing player just decided that it wasn’t.

It’s been almost 20 years that this happened, and if I think for just a moment, I can still picture his face, that combination of blinding rage and fury, but also of a deep hurt, a wounding. If an opposing player had gone for his knees, or hit him after the play, or blocked him in the back, that would be one thing. To call him by that word, of all words, during a game was beyond appalling.

Slurs, by their nature, are the most disgusting form of reductionism. It’s looking at someone, casting aside their name and their personality and their hopes and dreams and family and quite literally everything and using a word that’s simply shorthand for, “You’re one of them. You are the worst of whatever I think your kind is, and no matter how much you may think that you can do better and be better, this is all that you are and it’s all that you ever will be.”

Once riding in old Baltimore

Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,

I saw a Baltimorean

Keep looking straight at me.

Now I was eight and very small,

And he was no whit bigger,

And so I smiled, but he poked out

His tongue, and called me, ‘N*****’

I saw the whole of Baltimore

From May until December;

Of all the things that happened there

That’s all that I remember

Countee Cullen, “Incident”

I thought back to high school the first time I read that poem, and wondered what my teammate must have thought in the days that followed. There’s a perverse legacy to say that he was called the exact same name that his parents were undoubtedly called, and his grandparents, and every prominent black American from Jackie Robinson to Booker T. Washington to Frederick Douglass to Rev. Martin Luther King to Crispus Attucks to Onesimus and Tituba.

At the same time, he may have sat in the locker room before practice the following week and wondered if any of us felt the same way as that opposing player had, and if we simply had the tact to not vocalize it. He went out there wearing the same colors as all of us, but he was the only one to be called that. For a moment in time in which his athletic skill and his tenacity and every single positive attribute that we praise in sports should have been the most prominent thing, he was instead reminded of the same thing that an author said about the great boxer Jack Johnson: his unforgivable blackness.

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

Mark 12:28-33, NIV translation

Bigotry is blasphemy. It’s arguably the worst sin that there is: if the greatest commandment is that we love the Almighty and love our neighbor as ourselves, then what is bigotry except a direct affront to both? Who are we to demean our brothers and sisters on the basis of their skin color or their ethnicity or their religion, offending both them and also the One who created us?

Bigotry cheapens and diminishes us all, and none of us is truly free while the chains of bigotry bind anyone from the loftiest to the least among us.

Why did people participate in lynchings, anyway? They participated to prove to themselves that they were better than those they attacked. What is gay bashing? It’s an infantile effort to prove oneself morally superior to the person being attacked.

We’re beating up Marge Schott to prove to ourselves that we’re better than she is. But are we, really? Which of us has no bigotry in our soul, no dark pockets of unvented anger? We may be more clever than Marge, more discreet in our bigotry, but I don’t really believe that the Lord made any of us tolerant by nature.

Bill James, baseball historian and analyst

I’m reluctant to quote Mr. James; he wrote this almost 25 years ago, and I don’t know if he still feels the same way. It’s far too easy to misuse quotes out of context in order to prove a point or win an argument, regardless of whether the person quoted eventually refined or completely disavowed a prior opinion.

But I use this because it reminds me of a brilliant sermon I heard once but I cannot find the text for. The pastor in question was from a denomination whose doctrine includes “once saved, always saved” – when one’s salvation is assured through faith, there is nothing that can be done to endanger that salvation.

In this sermon, the pastor said that he was “awfully damned tired of it”, and specifically referring to people who acted like “a bunch of damned heathens” because they felt they had the freedom to do so since the worst imaginable punishment (eternal damnation) was off the table. He likened the flippant attitude to being more like the Pharisees than the Apostles, and you can imagine how the rest of the sermon went. He concluded by saying that we all need to act like we’ll be judged by how we act and what we do and what we think, and whether that’s the case or not it makes all of Creation a lot nicer place.

Why was only a single specimen of man created first? To teach us that he who destroys a single soul destroys a whole world and that he who saves a single soul saves a whole world; furthermore, in order that no race or class may claim a nobler ancestry, saying, ‘Our father was born first’; and, finally, to give testimony to the greatness of the Lord, who caused the wonderful diversity of mankind to emanate from one type. And why was Adam created last of all beings? To teach him humility; for if he be overbearing, let him remember that the little fly preceded him in the order of creation.

The Jewish Encyclopedia, entry on “Adam”

I believe that we are in a wave of permanent change in race relations in this country. Fifty-two years ago, in his final speech, the Reverend Martin Luther King compared his journey to that of Moses standing on the mountaintop looking at the Promised Land which he knew he would not enter. Fifty-two years later, less than two weeks after the death of George Floyd in a manner that was shocking in both how barbaric and in how brazen it was, we as a country seem to have realized that when Joshua led the Israelites into the Promised Land, it was supposed to be all the people together as one. None were to have been left behind, but our reality has been different.

In the same speech, Reverend King challenged the country for falling short. He referenced the prophet Amos, who said, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

I do want to share a story from the incomparable Buck O’Neil, referred time by Bill James as “the soul of the Negro Leagues”. I had the chance to meet him in the last year of his life, and to speak with him for five minutes was to feel like reconnecting with an old friend. A couple years later, I found a copy of his memoirs (I Was Right on Time), which has now become dog-eared from repeated readings.

Buck went into the (segregated) Navy in WWII, and this particular incident stuck out in his mind when he wrote his memoirs a half-century later.

Another time, we were taking some ammunition out to a destroyer around five o’clock in the morning. I was a bosun first class in charge of a crew of about a dozen men, and up on the railing of the ship some sailors were watching us. When reveille sounded, we emerged from the hold and an officer leaned over the railing and shouted, “Attention, n*****s!” My men froze when they heard this. We had all been called n***** many times before, but this man was an officer of the United States Navy, not some redneck in a rusted-out pickup truck. I called up to him, “I believe you could have addressed us a little better than that…sir.” And you know what he said? He said, “Oh, I’m sorry.” He was sorry, too. “N*****” was such a natural part of his vocabulary that it probably never occurred to him that it might be offensive. He was just saying the sort of thing he had been saying all his life.

In the days since George Floyd’s death, the initial burst of rage has given way to looking at more tangible ways to provide long-term benefits. Policies are being drafted which address systemic and institutional racism, and donations to charities dealing with racial and social matters have skyrocketed.

It’s not enough.

To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.

Earl Warren, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, writing for the majority in Brown v Topeka Board of Education

Don’t get me wrong – it is wonderful to see a great deal being done, and more time and effort is being exerted to bring true equality than has taken place in my lifetime.

But back up to the story of the guys in the dorm lounge talking about the first time they were called by a racial slur. That wasn’t institutional racism, but the fact that it wasn’t institutional doesn’t make it sting any less. My teammate being called by that same slur during a football game wasn’t institutional racism, it was a high schooler on the other side who felt like he could and should say that. That it wasn’t institutional makes no difference. Buck O’Neil has been called that name hundreds of times before a Navy officer addressed him and his crew, but the worse sting from that officer saying it didn’t diminish the other times.

The problem, sadly, is within all of us. It’s easy to point a finger at institutions and systems as being the real problem, but it’s hard to look within ourselves and see where we fall short.

Any woman covering sports can talk at great length about the appalling overt bigotry that they face on a daily or near-daily basis. Is it institutional sexism that causes these attitudes, or is it a problem within all of us?

In the last month, I have seen no fewer than a dozen actual articles written by actual journalists in which the term “redneck” is used in a derogatory manner to refer to large numbers of people. Is this from institutional bigotry, or is it a problem within all of us?

We are all guilty of prejudice on a daily basis. Some may be innocuous – I’ve been told many times that I’m friendlier than I look, which doesn’t bother me because I’m aware of the fact that I look extremely unfriendly.

But for the less innocuous, we all do it. And it’s tough to sit down and realize it, because it seems innocent even when it’s not. We judge people that we don’t know or that we barely know on everything imaginable.

We judge people on their weight, the way they dress, their accent or dialect, the job or career they have or are pursuing, their hometown or home state, their education or lack of, the car they drive, the TV shows or movies or music they enjoy, and dozens of other factors.

What makes it insidious is that the human mind does an incredible job of deriving and creating patterns where they may not exist at all, and it takes very little for one tiny factor to become two, then five, and the next thing you know, an entire non-existent person has been created entirely out of broadcloth based off of one thing.

Consider this. For the kid I went to college with, who was 12 years old when someone drove by and called him the N-word while he was minding his own business, who called him that? What were they driving, and what condition was it in? Were there visible bumper stickers, flags, or embellishments? What state did this take place in, and what type of area?

If I say that it was a beat-up 1988 Chevy pickup, and that it was in Georgia, did you just nod your head and say, “Yes, that figures”? If I say that it was someone driving a late-model Mercedes and it was a wealthy suburb in San Francisco, did you have the same reaction, or is it different? And if it’s different, why? And more to the point, where did that come from? We weren’t born simply assuming that people who drive certain vehicles possess certain attitudes, or that people in certain areas possess certain attitudes, so where did the difference come from?

(For the record, it actually was someone in a Honda Del Sol somewhere in Annapolis, Maryland.)

We all prejudge, and we have to be vigilant against it.

It’s not enough to simply not assume the worst based on arbitrary factors; we have to not assume anything. And it’s tough to do – it‘s easier to push away than to embrace, it’s easier to mentally fill in blanks than to let them be filled in, it’s easier to let our guesses replace actual experience, and it’s easier to let a caricature replace an actual person who we simply don’t want to get to know.

“Do you still not understand?” Jesus asked. “Do you not yet realize that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then is eliminated? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these things defile a man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, and slander. These are what defile a man, but eating with unwashed hands does not defile him.”

Matthew 15:16-20

Maybe we have the tact not to actually vocalize our prejudices, but is the unspoken thought better than the spoken one, or somehow more pure? Not yelling a racial slur at a 12-year-old kid while driving by might save him from feeling humiliated and dehumanized in that moment and later on, but the thought that the kid is less human on the basis of the color of his skin is still there. Not calling an opposing player in a football game by a racial slur might make him unaware of what one may think he is, but the thought and attitude remains.

And so too do the rest of the unspoken prejudices and assumptions and thoughts that we may have. It’s the evil inside all of us which must be squashed.

At this moment in time, we institutions changing. We see systems changing. We see ways of doing things changing.

It’s not enough. Pointing fingers and demanding that others take action is one thing, but unless we can all look in the mirror, be honest, and change ourselves, nothing will be different.