The Difference Between ‘Racial’ and ‘Racist’

By Courtesy of The Norman Transcript
Updated: October 31, 2005

OKLAHOMA–The controversy surrounding Air Force football coach Fisher DeBerry’s comments this week demonstrates how far we as a society have to go to reach racial harmony.

The frustration isn’t in what DeBerry said, it’s the continued inability by some to discern the difference between the adjectives “racial” and “racist.”

Tuesday, three days after Texas Christian pasted his team 48-10 ? yes, THAT TCU team that upset the Sooners in their season opener ? DeBerry said his 3-5 squad is struggling due to a lack of speed. The Air Force Academy has a high percentage of white football players compared to most Division I programs, and DeBerry thinks that is hurting his team’s athleticism and ability to compete in major college football.

“It’s very obvious to me the other day that the other team had a lot more Afro-American players than we did, and they ran a lot faster than we did,” he said. “It just seems to be that way, that Afro-American kids can run very, very well. That doesn’t mean that Caucasian kids and other descents can’t run, but it’s very obvious to me they (African-Americans) run extremely well.”

That statement landed the 67-year-old coach in hot water with the Air Force Academy. DeBerry wasn’t fired, but the academy reprimanded him and had the coach issue a public apology. A reasonable response to DeBerry’s comments, “Good, the jerk had it coming and should have known better.”

But let’s take a closer look at what DeBerry actually said.

Indeed, part of what he said could be taken as a racially sweeping statement that all blacks share the characteristic of being fast which, of course, wouldn’t be true. There are slow African-Americans and, as the coach said in his statement, there are fast athletes of all other races.

Even so, check any prestigious track event, from a high school state meet on up to the Olympics, and there’s no denying a high percentage of the fastest sprinters are black athletes. What’s more, in this nation with a 12 percent black population, about 70 percent of players in the NFL are African-American.

Those aren’t stereotypes, those are facts, and they were the basis of DeBerry’s observation. Could he have stated his case more articulately? Sure. But Air Force athletics director Hans Mueh said the coach’s statements are “totally against anything the Air Force stands for.”

Totally against what? Trends and statistics? Taking one’s head out of the sand and observing the landscape? Publicly stating what millions of people of all races already know and say in private?

My fear is the Air Force’s disciplinary action and public scorn toward DeBerry that are meant to champion non-discrimination will, instead, add more bricks on walls that block open dialogue.

This incident proves again that race is a taboo subject fraught with peril. Sure, it can be discussed in a sterile, politically correct fashion to make people “preaching to the choir” sound enlightened. But any other discussion of race is just asking for trouble.

The first question asked when anyone makes a controversial race-related statement usually isn’t, “What did that person mean?” or, “Is that right?” but rather, “Why would he say that publicly?” The sin often isn’t the message; it is that he or she was foolish enough to say it in public.

Thus, people (usually white) who have legitimate questions, observations or experiences that have anything remotely related to race bite their tongues and keep quiet, lest they be branded as racist or insensitive. On the flip side, those who see possible signs of racial injustice in a particular issue (usually minorities) are quickly dismissed for “playing the race card,” with the accusers unable or unwilling to understand the source of those red flags.

This environment causes people to withdraw and discuss race only within the security of their own people and most trusted friends. This lack of meaningful communication between people of different races and cultures prevents them from getting things out in the open to further understand each other.

Sadly, that leaves too many folks with media portrayals and stereotypes as their only windows to other cultures.

My other fear is the DeBerry overreaction will serve as a battle cry for knuckleheads who decry the aims of political correctness (when they don’t run amok) so they can perpetuate racist views and statements. Stereotypes about various groups of people remain strong, along with other manifestations of racism.

It’s been less than six months since former University of Oklahoma baseball coach Larry Cochell resigned May 1 after using a racial slur on two separate occasions with ESPN reporters. Cochell is widely viewed as a good man and he had the support of his two black players, but his startling use of the n-word came from somewhere, likely the subconscious residue of our nation’s segregationist past.

Another example is the mindboggling continued use of “Savages” and “Redskins” as school mascots. Depending on which supporter of those mascots you talk to, using those longtime race-based insults either a) honor American Indians, or b) are important part of a school’s tradition that shouldn’t be messed with.

Blatant racism still exists. Subtle forms of it are more prevalent, but so are honest misconceptions, questions and differing perspectives. To understand which is which, or simply feel more comfortable with people who don’t look like ourselves, we must feel free to discuss race in an open and honest, yet respectful, way.

They say you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet, and that holds true, too, in achieving racial understanding. Problem is, it’s hard to walk on that path with confidence if everyone must tread too gingerly on the resulting eggshells.