Every time there is some firestorm involving words, particularly words that suggest prejudice and bigotry, or at the least insensitivity, I try to put things into perspective by recalling what our parents used to tell us when we were kids: Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you.
Not true. Words can hurt like hell. Sometimes they wound, even paralyze. Especially when spoken by people we believe ought to be more responsible, when spoken by someone such as a university president.
All of your life you’re told education is the way out, the way to get away from all the garbage, from the Archie Bunkers and Jimmy the Greeks and Al Campanises. Then you get to the state university of New Jersey and hear the president, Francis Lawrence, say this: “genetic, hereditary background.” They hurt. Just like Campanis’ “lacking the necessities.”
One reaction is to say, “I am not about to get myself all riled up over some stupid remark by a man who is either that ignorant, that mean, or that naive. His views don’t change what I think of myself, and wasting one second of energy even thinking about what he said is time that could be put to better use.”
The other is to say, “What he said causes pain and injury and anybody in that position of responsibility ought to be held accountable for his actions.”
Every time there is a new episode like this I say I’m not going to get all riled up again, but inevitably wind up almost violently angry in a few short hours. Obviously those 150 demonstrators who stopped the Rutgers-Massachusetts game last week reached a boiling point, too.
I wouldn’t recognize Francis Lawrence if he walked into my living room this moment, but I do know some of the people who say his track record when it comes to helping minority students is anywhere from excellent to superior. By virtue of that alone, I’m not going to join the chorus calling for him to be fired.
Black men who don’t dribble or tackle rarely even get into colleges these days, and if Lawrence is a man whose actions help a few gain a formal education, then we may have to suffer some of his words. I’d rather put up with him than somebody promising 40 acres and a mule who has no intentions of delivering.
But, if Lawrence had sought out groups of students and apologized to them - not to a governor - I’d bet there would never have been a demonstration. A touch of sincere damage control could have gone a long, long way. What Lawrence said doesn’t offend me nearly as much as officials in the Rutgers athletic department telling members of the basketball team they are not to talk about the situation. Or even worse, that there could be consequences for those who do.
It’s amazing how, for all their physical prowess, black athletes at predominantly white schools are generally the meekest people on campus. All it takes is one player with moderate courage to say to any reporter, “My coach has threatened to take away my scholarship if I come out in support of the demonstrators.”
You know what happens next? Coach fired, A.D. fired, student reinstated and lauded by everybody. As is, in their frightened silence, too many leave school, completely uninformed and dispassionate about the issues that affect everybody in this world not protected by a basketball court or football field.
Ultimately, this isn’t about Rutgers or some silly basketball game or even Francis Lawrence, but about how we deal with people who continue to spread prejudice and ignorance with words that hurt. It’s about the stereotypical notions that too many people have about one another.
What happened at Rutgers isn’t isolated. Two weeks ago in Miami during Super Bowl week, I got together with five friends, all between the ages of 33 and 36, all black males, all doing exceptionally well in their chosen professions by any standard. The average income in the group was well in excess of $100,000. Yet wherever we went, people asked, “Excuse me, who do you play for?” At the restaurant it was “Who do you play for?” At the health club it was “Who do you play for?” Shopping in Bar Harbor it was “Who do you play for?”
At one cafe, I introduced a waitress, one by one, to the group - the investment banker, the lawyer, the venture capitalist, the manufacturing executive, the international marketing executive. She looked at me as if I was making up these occupations. Linebacker was something she could have accepted, I think. I got so angry I couldn’t see. On the credit-card slip I left her a tip of one cent. That was my protest. I’m too old to sit in.