Meaningful Dialogue On Race Is Unlikely

By Dave Fairbank
Updated: October 29, 2005

VIRGINIA—Leave it to a 67-year-old white guy in suburban Colorado to spark a national discussion about race.

Check that. Not exactly a national discussion. More like a national reflex.

Someone makes a remark. Folks pop out of their foxholes long enough to lob a reaction or two, then retreat back to the safe silence of their preconceived notions.

It’s sad, really. The week that civil rights heroine Rosa Parks passes away – 50 years, mind you, after her courageously simple act – we still have not even framed the discussion about race, never mind come to any sort of understanding.

Two points: It isn’t always about race; but it’s about race more often than you think.

Air Force Academy football coach Fisher DeBerry got the machinery started this time with remarks he made in the wake of the Falcons’ loss to TCU last Saturday.

After watching TCU run circles around his team, DeBerry at first explained it by saying, “You don’t see many minority athletes in our program.”

Asked a day later if he would elaborate, DeBerry 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 run extremely well.”

Of course, DeBerry was called on the carpet by his superiors. He apologized and said he meant no harm or disrespect.

DeBerry’s remarks were more indelicate and wince-inducing than truly offensive – that “Afro-American” reference was amusingly outdated. The entire quote almost sounds as if he had just emerged from a cave after 40 years and had experienced some sort of revelation.

DeBerry didn’t come close to Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder or Al Campanis territory. But the cost of even approaching racial stereotypes today is a good whacking in the court of political correctness.

The irony is that DeBerry, by all accounts a surpassingly decent gentleman, was reprimanded for saying publicly what lots of coaches say privately. He would not have caused a ripple had he spoken in coach’s code: “They had more speed,” or “We need to recruit more speed.”

As he said, speed comes in all descents, but the pool is larger among black athletes. When coaches and fans talk about speed and athleticism, the implication most often is a reference to African-American athletes.

A few numbers: African-Americans make up 12 percent of the population, but 76 percent of NBA players and nearly 70 percent of NFL players. White sprint champions are as rare as Bigfoot sightings.

(In the interest of full disclosure, we media beanheads often aren’t any more enlightened than the average bear. If a college basketball team starts five white guys, the folks on press row automatically start to calculate their margin of defeat.) Ski coaches never take a hit for saying, “We need more Austrians.” No one bats an eye when a sailing coach says, “Boy, we could use some New Zealanders.”

A few words about blacks running faster or jumping higher, though, get the sensitivity police in an uproar for a couple of reasons: our sorry racial history; and the odious stereotype that blacks may be superior athletically, but inferior mentally.

Labels are limiting at best, hurtful at worst. Unfortunately, all of us engage in labeling of some sort as a means of getting through the day a little easier.

If it’s true that African-Americans are disproportionately more athletic than white Americans, that’s all it means.

DeBerry, and lots of other coaches, would love to have more of them on their teams. That’s all he was saying.

As ill-considered as DeBerry’s remarks, you’d like to think that perhaps they can be a starting point for a meaningful dialogue about race relations.

Not likely. He stumbled into that minefield alone and paid the price.