The story of Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper’s racist slur at a Ken Chesney concert at first seemed innocuous if you judged by the way the National Football League and the Philadelphia Eagles handled it (which seemed to be not all). Was this just a case of yet another football player behaving badly?
The video of his using a racial slur at the concert went viral relatively quickly, and then people started looking deeper at this matter. Outrage began to gain momentum, and faster than you could say “Paula Deen,” Cooper was becoming another person with a target on his back and, even though he deserved it, there had to be more to the story and more had to be done about it.
After the story broke, other NFL players (black and white) were quick to comment on the situation. Soon thereafter Cooper offered an “apology” and then headed off to parts unknown. Though it is 2013, we should not be surprised that someone would use the derogative word for a black person, but this affront to our sensibilities also begs the question – what can we do not only to prevent this from happening but to get deeper at the issue of why it is happening. You see, this is not an NFL problem, just as it was not just a Food Network problem with Paula Deen. The “authority” can either fire Deen or Cooper or suspend them or whatever, but that doesn’t get at the deeper issues.
We should be at a point in this century where race does not matter. We have a President of the United States who is black, many other politicians are, and many of our top celebrities are also. Black people have won Academy Awards, they have gone up the corporate ladder, and many are teaching at our top universities. So why then, after all this time, is race even an issue? Because, deep within the heart of America, racism continues to beat its drum; therefore, it is necessary and compelling to confront it and deal with it proactively.
Race is not a comfortable subject. It never has been. People like to think racism is confined to one part of the country, but you can find it anywhere. Should the fact that Cooper was born in Oklahoma and raised in Florida come into question here? Of course, racial slurs can be heard anywhere. Growing up in New York City, I heard racial slurs hurled at everyone – and I mean everyone. Going to a city public high school, there was no group that did not get it from another group. In this kind of situation, some people become so inured to the repetitive nature of the insults that they seem to become uneventful, even meaningless. But I would say that is part of the problem. We can hear these slurs in movies and sometimes on TV, and it becomes something of mistakenly acceptable behavior by people who should but obviously don’t know better.
It is safe to say that our president has been called this word at least once in his life. I would believe that so have our top celebrities and politicians. I recall not that long ago when actor Danny Glover could not get a taxi cab in Manhattan because none of the drivers, even though on duty, would stop for him. Racism is not something of the past; it is something which needs to be reckoned with now! There are those people in this country who seriously believe that Mr. Obama doesn’t belong in the White House simply because he is black. We can say this is wrong, which it is, but more importantly need to get at the root of this pernicious attitude.
In the past we have heard talk about changing “hearts and minds” of people in the Middle East, in Africa, and so on. We are so concerned about those beyond our shores, but what about the hearts and minds within our borders? What can we do at the most basic level to get at the root of racism and deal with it effectively?
Which gets us back to Riley Cooper’s racial slur, because, according to the above referenced Sports Illustrated article, Cooper has been “excused” from all team activities to attend “counseling” for his actions. If this is the Eagles and the NFL’s idea of discipline, don’t let Alex Rodriguez (or any sports player guilty of something) hear about it. Why is it that people think that “counseling” is going to change deeply rooted behavior? More importantly, how does Cooper come back from this? How does he step on a field anywhere in the country and not get booed? More importantly, how does he look his fellow players in the eye (black or white) and get beyond his scripted apologies and really play the game?
All this remains to be seen, but there is a more important issue here. Just as I have noted in the past with guys like Ryan Braun and A-Rod, the best thing about the worst thing these guys have done is that it provides teachable moments. All these professional ball players seem to forget (again and again) that’s it’s not just a sport watched by adults – a large segment of their fan base is children who are very impressionable. Kids watch these sordid events unfold and absorb everything; therefore, it is essential that MLB and the NFL and anyone else in authority get it right.
This is getting back to the root of racism. When I take my little boy to the playground, he never looks at a black kid or a Chinese kid and says, “Oh, I’m going to play with that black kid and that Chinese kid.” He simply says, “I’m going to play with those kids!” We adults are doing something very, very wrong by our children that they lose this innocence somewhere along the way. Is it what they hear us saying at the dinner table? Something they hear in school? Or a combination of a bombardment of stimuli from society, the media, and personal experience where racism becomes evident and part of their DNA?
Perhaps Cooper can attend his counseling, but that does not change the pervasive issue at the heart of why he said what he said. Yes, it was a Kenny Chesney concert at Lincoln Field in Philadelphia, but can we say that we would never hear that word at a Jay-Z concert at Barclays Center in Brooklyn? I think the point is to get to why the word is used, who is using it, and how offensive it still is for people (black and white) to hear it. It is not a word any of us should ever want our children to hear, either, and I think that is the starting point.
Just as we teach social studies and math in school, we need to have some kind of racial sensitivity training, especially in high schools across the country. Whether it is taught in an all-white classroom in Nebraska or a racially diverse one in Illinois, it has to be taught and it needs to be handled seriously by professionals.
We can develop all the Common Core courses in the world, but none of that matters if we are not treating one another with deserved respect. Remember the song “You Have to Be Carefully Taught” from the great musical South Pacific? Well, Rodgers and Hammerstein hit the nail on the head with that song, capturing all the engendered racism that affects characters in the show. In the end some of the characters and viewers come to realize the truth, and we need Americans to be carefully taught too. I think it is the only way to get at the root of what caused Riley Cooper (and thousands others like him) to use a word that should never be heard by anyone.
So Cooper can make his apologies and seek his counseling, and perhaps he comes back from this, but we cannot let the teachable moment pass. Every parent in America should take the opportunity to discuss the situation with the children, and hopefully we will one day reach that place where we are all “carefully taught” in order for something like this to be just a bad distant memory.
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