I'm Not Sure Langston Hughes Would be a Great Wide Receiver
“TCU ha[s] a lot more Afro-American players than we did and they ran a lot faster than we did…it just seems to me to be that way, Afro-American kids can run very well. That doesn’t mean that Caucasian kids and other descents can’t run, but it is very obvious to me that they run extremely well…you don’t see many minority athletes in our program.”
Fisher DeBerry, Head Coach
United States Air Force Academy Football Team
Mr. DeBerry went on to be reprimanded by the Academy’s superintendent. He was not fired.
Okay, so, you ready? I don’t think he should have been reprimanded or fired.
Before I launch in, I’d encourage those with sound to hear, the always insightful and provocative, Frank DeFord on this topic. Here’s the link where you will hear DeFord argue that DeBerry’s biggest error was not using the right buzzwords.
DeFord also argues that at some point, the abundance of African Americans (note, NOT Afro-Americans) in speed positions in sports suggests a gift in that regard. He talks about how we lampoon it in some settings (“White Men Can’t Jump” and "white man's disease") and deride it in others. I always enjoy DeFord, but this time he missed the boat.
Here are my observations.
Race is very difficult to discuss.
All points, when made using stereotypes become difficult, less salient, and less impactful.
Not all African-Americans are fast or athletically gifted.
First, to me, it is fair to challenge whether his analysis is fitting. Did his team lose because it lacked African-Americans with speed and athleticism, or did his team get beat by a team with more savvy and better execution of its game plan?
But, in general, what is troubling about DeBerry’s comment, to me, is not that he claims his team lost (48 to 10) because of its lack of African Americans, it’s that he speaks too broadly about African-Americans.
When these comments are elevated and when general comments about African-Americans are considered as a whole - when they become stereotypes - what emerges is a tendency to primarily praise us for how good we are at sports and for how well we entertain. We can run fast, and throw hard and well; we can sing and dance. We cannot swim, and, for lack of praise in this area, I’m not sure I’d pick us to be a CEO. In effect, an entire race of people are being damned with faint praise.
And the comments must be taken in context. This is the context. Africans were enslaved, in part because of the perception that we were suited to physical endeavors. And though DeBerry’s comments come 120 plus years later, they must be associated with those past misperceptions. Take it all down to the basest element, and both slave traders and DeBerry are saying the same thing. Please don’t misunderstand me there. One outcome was genocidal and horrible, and the other was just ill-informed, but, in-effect, both are saying the same thing - blacks are suited to physical endeavors.
And to me, in further disagreement with DeFord, what is troubling about DeBerry's comments is not that he made them, but that, in making them, he failed to understand the historical significance of his comments. Instead, he joined a long and tired string of only praising African-Americans for physical talents and of not recognizing that, like every other racial or ethnic group, there are, within our ranks, people who run fast, people who jump high, people who write well, people who sing well, people who are extraordinarily bright, people who have a flair for entrepreneurial matters, people who have knack for inventing things, people who make great doctors, people who make great lawyers, people who make great CEOs, and so on and so on and so on.
And in light of that, only praising Af-Ams for being good at sports is a shame. Those who do so should not be punished, but they should be enlightened. I would, instead of reprimanding DeBerry, encourage him to study black history.
SIDE NOTE: Mr. DeBerry’s comment regarding the lack of minority athletes at the Air Force Academy is worth further consideration. While I would not be one to argue that we need more minorities in the military, I think it is compelling that the majority of minorities who are in the armed services are not in the Air Force flying around in multi-million dollar jets. Instead, they are relegated to the ground troops where they see a lot of bullets and a lot of bulls--t. There’s plenty within that imbalance that should trouble us. If he sincerely wants more African-Americans on his team, I hope he will take steps to recruit them away from the Marine Corps and the Army, where they are disproportionately represented, and disproportionately targeted for the front lines.