My hometown of Birmingham, Alabama is a terrific social laboratory for exploring race, politics and sports.
The very first thing said by the very first person I met on the very first day of freshlaw orientation at the University of Texas law school in 1992 after I told him where I was from was, “Oh, you mean Bombingham? That place where they bombed that black church and killed those little girls?” The guy was in his early twenties, fresh out of college, and had probably never had an original thought in the entirety of his short life. I was a bit older, having just come off spending six years post-college in the Army. I knew of the bombing, and other atrocities of the Civil Rights era, though I only really learned of them after high school. Growing up in the seventies and attending a high school with about a 70-30% white to black ratio (graduated in 1981), I knew something of the racial tensions in the area, but the memory of the troubles wasn’t yet distant enough that such things as bombings and fire hoses and police dogs were openly discussed.
In six years in the Army, I had never encountered anyone so narrow-minded in their view of my hometown as that fella I met on my first day at law school. Of course, in the Army everyone was from somewhere else, so insulting another’s home town was sure to get you some insults on your own. At the University of Texas law school most everyone was from Texas, and insulting others about where they come from is how Texans justify feeling good about living in a place that’s remarkable only for how big it is and how much oil it has. All it takes is understanding just a little of its history, geography and climate to understand that it’s so big because the land is so poor and the climate so unpredictable that it takes a whole lot of land to raise just a few Texans, or did, until oil was discovered.
But as I slowly grew to realize, Bombingham, as he called it, certainly has a chip on its shoulder about its past. Search the data base of The Birmingham News for stories about civil rights or race and you’re apt to pull thousands of articles from the last year alone where the terms appear for some reason or another. It seems that all Birmingham does these days is talk about race relations. So I shouldn’t have been surprised to see two stories on race gracing the front pages last Wednesday.
In the first, Majority-Black Boys Basketball Team Hopes to Set Example for Vestavia Hills, the surprising play of the Vestavia Hills High School basketball team was explained as not resulting from the nearly all-white school (90% or so) having a basketball team with five black starters. It had nothing to do with their race, except in so far as the support for the black players on the team–they were bussed in from a west-Birmingham neighborhood pursuant to an integration order–could show how open-minded the white people at Vestavia were. What a beautiful thing, that race didn’t enter into the white coach’s calculations when deciding on who got to start and play; that the team represents how far past this race thing the area has come, etc., ad nauseum.
When does this kind of drivel become a non-story? A dog bites man sort of thing? Have any of these journalists watched an NBA game lately? Or even an SEC basketball game? The courts are filled with black players and the stands are filled with white fans. If federal courts hadn’t ordered the bussing of black students to Vestavia Hills several years ago, it’s likely that Vestavia would have gone recruiting for the basketball team and stumbled across them along the way, and likely already has for the football team. (Everyone knows that basketball in Alabama–even at the high school level–is just a filler between the fall football season and spring football practices.)
Vestavia Hills is one of the white ringlet cities surrounding Birmingham like a moat against integration. They (Vestavia Hills, Mountain Brook, Homewood, Trussville, etc.) arose as whites left the inner-cities to the blacks, and moved to the suburbs. Vestavia Hills has never prohibited blacks from either living there or playing sports there, i.e., they have never practiced de jure racism or discrimination. It has always been racism of the passive sort: Going somewhere else when they see the blacks coming. Except that basketball and football are so deeply-ingrained as meaningful expressions of a community’s pride and values that consideration of the color of the kids playing on their sports teams eventually yielded to the talents they displayed when doing so.
If there is any good to arise from the fanaticism of sports fans, it’s that sports fanatics don’t care about any color other than the color of their team’s jerseys. Just as a basketball doesn’t care what color are the hands that grasp it and send it soaring to the hoop, neither does a basketball team’s fans. The desire to win trumps the desire to indulge petty racial biases. When Sam “The Bam” Cunningham of the Southern Cal Trojans came to Birmingham in 1971 and scored six touchdowns on the Crimson Tide, Bear Bryant never had to worry again about objections from the contingent of prominent white racist alumnae for recruiting and playing blacks. After the ass-whipping the black Mr. Cunningham and his Trojan offense put on the Tide’s lily-white defense that day, no longer would Alabama recruits be judged on anything other than their ability to play the game.
By now, nothing about this story of black kids starting on the basketball team of a nearly all-white school should be newsworthy. Watch a Boston Celtics game. None of those Irish Southy’s in Boston (I was once accused of being like a “Southy” by one of my Army buddies from Boston. I don’t think it was a compliment) that support the Celtics cares in the least that Rondo, Pierce, Garnett and Allen are not white like them. They just care that they win. So do I. (Whether I really am like a Southy or not, I love the Celtics.)
But there is a place where race still matters to Bombinghamians: In the political arena, as the other story, Birmingham Committee’s Choice of Judge Raises Bias Concerns makes clear. When the committee on the Birmingham City Council (the city is about two-thirds black) that recommends municipal judge appointments voted for their latest appointment, the eerie lack of choices that weren’t black perplexed at least one (non-voting) member of the committee who openly expressed some doubts, that were summarily disposed of by Council President Roderick Royal, from The Birmingham News:
Royal refuted any notion that the process was unfair or biased, calling the proceedings “absolutely objective.” He added that finalists included a white candidate.
“It’s been my observation as of late that we have always had more minorities to apply for city vacancies than not. In fact, 90 percent of the applicants for the court were minorities. Of course this increases the likelihood of a minority being chosen. I think Ms. Abbott’s point is well taken, but is overblown in this matter,” Royal said.
Apparently Royal misunderstands the definition of “minority”. In regards to a political entity, such as is the city of Birmingham, it means a group that hasn’t a majority of the polity. It is a group comprising less than fifty percent of the entity’s voting populace. If the distinguishing characteristic is race, blacks are not a minority in the city of Birmingham. They are the majority. Whites, and the few other racial groups sprinkled in amongst the population, are the minorities, but his mistake is a common one. As blacks and other races become majorities within American political entities, it remains to be seen how long it will be until “minority” evolves in practice to mean “majority”. Since the term has mathematics in its etymology, it may be a more difficult matter for it to make the transition than, for example, the transmutation of the meanings of “liberal” and “conservative” over the last century or so. Perhaps a qualifier will be added, such as “historical” minority or something similar, so that the root meaning of the word can retain its mathematical foundation.
That the political appointment of judges might turn on the race of the judge or the racial composition of the appointing power is another dog-bites-man story in Birmingham. (See my post on how race was the primary factor in doling out a judgeship in Jefferson County, the county in which sits most of the city of Birmingham). Politics in Birmingham (and to be fair, in other cities; and in the state and nation at large) are not post-racial. If anything, politics is the one arena in which racialism, i.e., the consideration of race above all else, holds sway. Sport is perhaps the only arena in which anything approaching pure post-racialism obtains.
Instead of doing as the local rag and tut-tutting every instance of revealed racialism in the political arena and celebrating every instance of apparent post-racialism in sports and other endeavors, it might be useful to consider why the dispensation of political goods retains a racial basis when so many other areas have moved past such concerns. Doing so necessitates getting at the source of bigotry, particularly of the racial variety.
It is the most natural thing in the world to be a bigot. According to The American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition, a bigot is “One who is strongly partial to one’s own group, religion, race, or politics and is intolerant of those who differ.” Nature makes us strongly partial to our own groups. For an extreme example, consider that humans must necessarily be bigoted against non-humans, else there wouldn’t long be any more humans around. Humans reasonably object to the propensity of lions, tigers and bears to kill and occasionally eat us. Although not a great concern now (except in a rare few locales, mostly on the Indian sub-continent), it is clear that our ancestors had to exercise profound partiality toward human life and intolerance to those life forms which sought to make us their lunch. Humans– in fact all life forms—have, at some level, the capacity for bigotry hard-wired into their very souls.
But humans aren’t partial to all humans. Just like lions and tigers and bears were not tolerated because they wished us harm, so too were other groups of humans sometimes considered intolerable. Before man learned to domesticate plants and animals, human groups were extended families or clans, not unlike chimpanzee troops, ranging over the countryside, hunting and foraging for food. Chimpanzee troops occasionally find themselves in bloody and deadly conflict over territorial and reproductive rights, and so too, it must be imagined, did human clans. The human individual depended on the survival of his human clan, if necessary, to the exclusion of competing human groups or clans. Human against human bigotry, though considered evil in its connotations now, was a naturally-selected attribute necessary for our ancestors’ survival.
It’s only been about ten thousand years since humans started leaving their nomadic lifestyles as foragers and settling into domesticating plants and animals for their sustenance. (Incidentally, every time I consider the insignificant time scale of civilized, i.e., agriculture-based, history, it reminds me of the words to the Christian hymn, Amazing Grace, “when we’ve been there, ten thousand years” that seems to assume that ten thousand years in heaven is a long time. It isn’t even a long time here on earth.) But the switch to agriculture from hunting and foraging did nothing to ameliorate the need for human-on-human bigotry. If anything, since agriculture required reducing to ownership and control specific and identifiable lands, the need for partiality to one’s own group and for intolerance of others was magnified. Planting crops or domesticating animals required the ability to protect the crops or animals against interference from anything that might be detrimental to a successful harvest or slaughter, not least other humans and groups of humans. The most partial and intolerant groups, presumably comprised of the most partial and intolerant people, flourished at the expense of the less partial and intolerant. The hard-wiring for bigotry got an extra sheath of insulation with rise of agriculture and civilization.
Anthropologists believe that man left Africa around 200,000 years ago, spanning out across the globe. Though verboten to academically acknowledge it, the dispersion to varying climates in the locales to which they spread inevitably resulted in the development of variations in human skin, hair and eye color and texture; in variations in the facial features, particularly noticeable around the eyes and nose, and in variations in the amount of fat normally stored on the body. Adaptation to the local environments by natural selection of favorable environmental traits by stages turned a tall, lean, dark African into a squat, bulbous, light-skinned Inuit. The isolated breeding populations of various locales yielded humans in far-flung places that looked quite different from their African ancestors. (I have my personal doubts that racial variations such as we see today could have occurred in such a short time span as 200,000 years, but that’s roughly the consensus, and the question of dispersal time is another matter entirely.)
When eventually some of the newly-distinct racial groups developed far enough along that their imaginations exceeded geographical barriers, thus beginning the age of exploration, it was likewise inevitable that they would encounter human groups with people and customs radically different from their own. That the people they encountered were not of their own group was readily apparent. They looked different. The innate bigotry, the partiality towards their own and the intolerance for others eons of selection had hard-wired into their psyche, immediately rendered suspicious any group that was visually-distinct from their own. Visually-discernible differences amongst racial groups laid the foundation for racial bigotry, i.e., bigotry based on racial distinctions.
Bigotry is, however, something of a derived instinct. Its foundation lies in the solitary compulsion of all living creatures to survive and procreate such that the individual creature’s genetic code survives. The magnificent fur, teeth and claws of lions, tigers and bears are simply parts of the edifice of the genetic vessels their magnificent bodies represent, perfected by nature for carrying their genes to the next stage of their journey through time. Bigotry helps ensure genetic propagation not just because partiality towards the group and intolerance of others aids in the survivability of individuals within the group. It also aids in genetic propagation when the individuals within a group are genetically more similar to each other than to outsiders. As humans dispersed into environmental niches with isolated breeding populations, the genetic code within the isolated groups concentrated in similarity, while simultaneously diverging from the code carried by outsiders. Thus partiality to the group and intolerance for others was not just hard-wired by individual survival dynamics, but also by the genetic similarities within groups.
Within racial groups, bigotry was celebrated as honorable and desirable, yielding the cohesion groups needed in order that the shared genes within them could survive. One of the first, and perhaps the finest, expressions of man’s innately bigoted nature towards other races was compiled only a few millennia after the rise of civilization. If the ancient Hebrews could be considered a distinct racial group, and their near-maniacal obsession with lineage, i.e., the careful tracing of their origination with Abraham and the Patriarchs and the subsequent twelve tribes of Jacob forming the basis for Hebrew nation, suggests that at least the Hebrews considered themselves racially distinct, then the balance of the Hebrew Bible, in so far as it concerns the history of the Hebrew people, is nothing less than a celebration of racial bigotry. How is proclaiming one’s racial group “chosen” by God, an entity claimed to be omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent, anything less than a pure expression of the partiality that the Hebrews had for their racial group and the intolerance they had for others? Even their God in all his glory was a racial bigot, directing them to wipe off the face of the earth all the natives in the land of Canaan when they arrived to colonize it. Racial bigotry is a powerful and deep-running current, flowing throughout the whole history of humanity.
But why has racial bigotry been abandoned in so many areas of American life, while it persists in the political arena, particularly in the Deep South states that comprised much of the Old Confederacy?
It must be remembered that racial differences only provide a visual shortcut for delimiting group members. It is a quick way to ascertain whether an individual is apt to help or hinder the group to which one belongs in its struggle for survival. As races intermingled and interbred as contact was reestablished in the age of exploration, visual cues became less obvious, particularly in the petri dish of human societal evolution that was Western Europe. By the time European races made it to the New World, it was all but impossible to tell a European of English or Swedish descent from one of German or Dutch, except by language or custom. In the US, the miasma of European races “melted” in a pot of cross-breeding, both physically and culturally. Africans, Asian, Indians and Native Americans were still easily pigeon-holed by their distinctive differences in appearance, and remained mostly distinct breeding populations. Since visual cues had a long and successful history as a good proxy for determining group membership, the groups that retained visual distinctiveness were easily susceptible to continued bigotry based on racial differences alone. This sort of bigotry continues today as anachronistic biases against different-looking people, and will likely retain some measure of viability for many years to come. Prejudicial views based on visual differences are mostly immaterial, so operate like dormant genes that remain in the genome because they experience no selective pressure.
But the connection between group survival and individual survival that historically animated racial bigotry has been substantially weakened over the course of American development. America was founded by two main groups. One wished to be pious in its own peculiar way (the Puritans, Quakers, et al). The other came seeking only riches (the Virginians). The compulsion to riches quickly overwhelmed that for piety, and America became a place where only one color mattered—the green of the dollar bill. In so far as racial bigotry became a luxury impairing the acquisition of more greenbacks, racial bigotry fell by the wayside. The group upon whom one’s survival depended changed from a closely-related group of humans in a clan, tribe or nation to the business entity through which resources for living could be secured, and money, like basketballs, knows no race. Unfortunately, in the South, racial bigotry and making money were intricately intertwined, so racial bigotry flourished there even as it waned elsewhere.
Because racial bigotry was so profitable with plantation agriculture, the South has a unique history so far as the relations between its whites (i.e., Europeans of mostly U.K. ancestry), and its blacks of mostly African descent goes. White Southerners, just like their Northern counterparts, were racially bigoted towards black Africans, thinking them an inferior race, which justified slavery for the Southern (and some Northern) mind/s. Even Lincoln, celebrated as he is for having emancipated the mostly-black slaves, was profoundly worried at what would come of blacks after the Civil War ended, proposing that they be shipped back to Africa. The abolitionist Lincoln was not alone. Northerners, even those opposed to slavery, were often racially bigoted against black Africans, though humanitarian enough to realize that enslaving them was an abomination.
The question of what to do with millions of freed slaves in the South was answered after Lincoln’s death and the war’s end by the abolitionist Congress that sought revenge on the South for the bloody carnage they believed the Confederacy had unleashed. Though fought every step of the way by Andrew Johnson (Lincoln’s Tennessean Vice-President that acceded to the presidency on his death) Congress eventually was able to completely usurp the traditional Southern power structure and use the newly-freed slaves as tools for punishing the Southern aristocracy. By dint of federal military occupation of the South during Reconstruction, former slaves became de facto masters and former masters became peons, at least until the federal troops left. Then things reverted with a vicious vengeance to white mastery and black oppression. Some years later, federal troops were again required to equalize treatment across the races, but again the government went too far, imposing enforced integration, and eventually affirmatively requiring racially-determined set-asides be established in various arenas of society.
Were it not for the unique Southern history since the Civil War of race almost always being the determinative factor in the awarding of political spoils (forced as they were by federal government intervention), it may well be that, e.g., Alabama or South Carolina would have long ago abandoned race-based politics and elected black governors, et al, such as have Virginia (a border state now dominated by its proximity to D.C.) and Massachusetts. But politics in the South, particularly at the local level, particularly in Birmingham, is yet today mired in racial bigotry because people still see race as being the primary determinative when awarding political spoils, including elections and judicial appointments. Southern politicians, black and white alike, rarely discourage the idea. It is the manner with which they retain power. They get away with racial bigotry in local politics because it works, and nobody outside the local area pays much attention or really cares. In the big picture scheme of things, it matters very little whether the appointment of a municipal judge in Birmingham, Alabama was motivated by racial bigotry. There are enough checks and balances on a municipal judge’s power until very little is left to discretion such that racial bigotry could dominate rulings from the bench.
Racial bigotry in politics, particularly local politics, remains viable because there is little negative consequence to its perpetuation. The jobs of politicians, judges and government bureaucrats with which racial bigotry is rewarded require no special abilities unique to any particular race. Practically anyone that can read and write and speak intelligibly could be a competent municipal court judge. The city can indulge its compulsion to racial bigotry and not fail of its essential purposes.
The same is not true of sports. For better or worse, there seem to be substantial differences in average athletic ability amongst the various races, so far as they are still identifiable. On average, blacks are better athletes than the melted pot of Northern European whites that colonized the land. Anyone doubting so should simply watch a college or pro basketball or football game on television. In the state of Alabama, both Alabama and Auburn’s starting teams in football and basketball are overwhelmingly black. The state itself is only about thirty percent black. If whites and blacks in the state had, on average, the same innate capability to play the sports, it could be assumed that the representation of the races on the playing fields and courts would more closely resemble the ratio of races in the population. The same can be said of pro basketball and football. Blacks comprise only twelve percent of the national population, but are several times that in the percentage of black athletes playing the games. No football or basketball organization could indulge a compulsion to bigotry against blacks and expect to win.
It is not racist or bigoted to acknowledge such a reality. Racism is the belief that one race is superior to another. Racial bigotry is favoring one’s own race over another, because of race. Acknowledging that blacks are, on average, better athletes than whites, speaks only to athletic ability, and only so far as group characteristics are concerned. It says nothing of individual attributes and abilities that vary amongst the races in every endeavor with a bell-curve-like distribution. It would be racist and absurd to assume a particular black person is a better athlete than a particular white person because of his race. But it is high time we quit pretending that racial differences don’t exist. Of course the Alaskan Inuit are better, on average, at enduring long, cold winters than, on average, would be black Africans, and innate differences wrought by environmental influences on the Inuit and African genetic codes make them that way. To pretend otherwise is to simply ignore the evidence. Given the carnage that racial bigotry has inflicted upon the human experience throughout history, hoping the idea of differences among the races can be ignored is perhaps forgivable.
Racial bigotry has been abandoned in sports because it is a luxury that no team wishing to be competitive can afford, which carries no small irony. A great many sports employ skills that would have enhanced the possibility of racial-group survival in our not-so-distant past. Racial bigotry often led to conflict, and, football, for example, is nothing more than mock hand-to-hand combat. Yet, instead of the mock-combat aspect of sports such as football concentrating the impulse to racial bigotry, the compelling desire for victory yielded its abandonment, which shows, if nothing else, the marvelous adaptability of the human mind. The old allegiances founded on genetic similarities fell away when it became clear that racial bigotry detracted from, instead of enhanced, the prospects of success on the athletic field. Partiality to one’s team and intolerance for its competitors trumped partiality to one’s race and intolerance of other races when racial partiality meant fielding a losing team. Coaches enhanced their own survival prospects by abandoning racial bigotry for discrimination based on athletic ability. Basketballs and footballs don’t care what color are the hands that carry them, and neither now, do coaches and fans. They simply want the best.
Thus, though, racial bigotry is the most natural of human compulsions, it is not necessarily durable. Like all instinctive impulses, it arises from the animating purpose of all of life—survival such that the genes are successfully propagated. When racial bigotry no longer is perceived to enhance survival and propagation, it is abandoned. That it remains viable as the primary determining factor for local political decisions in the South is more a testament to the South’s unique history than to its innate durability. That it has been altogether abandoned in sports speaks to the reality that the compulsion to survive, i.e., in sports, to win, overrides any compulsion to racial bigotry. In environments in which discrete abilities like speed, strength, skill, stamina and quickness determine success or failure, the world is about as post-racial as it can possibly be.
For the time being, racial bigotry will determine a great many outcomes in Birmingham politics, while just down the road at the two state schools fielding championship football teams, the only metric that matters is ability. The flip side of abandoning racial bigotry for sports team fanaticism is you get the stupidity revealed by the guy that poisoned the trees down at Auburn, which is indeed regrettable, but better than the use to which trees were put in Alabama’s not-so-distant past.