MLK: Work to Ride

Disclaimer: Some of my best friends are black. No, seriously.

It’s become trite to talk about race issues in terms of opportunity. It’s very typical to say that certain minority groups, including African Americans, need to be given more opportunity — in education, in business, in management, in coaching. But, I think we misperceive what exactly the sentiment means to say. I suspect many unthinkingly reinterpret the phrase “more opportunity” as something like “help” or “correction” or “adjustment” or “reparation.” In other words, the opportunity is not seen as correlated to overlooked merit or qualification; it’s just some sort of make-up.

But, opportunity is not just a debt owed. It’s the cure for present wrong.

I used to hear black people lament a lack of ethnic Barbie dolls or say that they couldn’t imagine a black President or question the racial casting on television shows. The criticisms seemed related to whether or not they could hope for something themselves. I couldn’t really understand it. How did the race of others in cultural position affect one’s ability to imagine it for yourself?

And, then I had a son. Who wants to play pro basketball. And, he starts asking about the color of his own skin.

We only know what we know. And, if you’ve never seen something it’s real easy to conclude that it doesn’t exist. And, the thing about racism is that it’s so self-fulfilling. Is it any strange thing that when a group of people have been excluded from an activity for generations and generations that you would fail to find them there? That when people have been refused education and training that they’d be unqualified? That when they aren’t allowed to have financial opportunity and status they don’t become members of your country club or golf course?

And, so the prejudice is compounding. They aren’t allowed to participate and then you fault them as personally incapable when you don’t find them in precisely the place where you excluded them from in the first instance.

I was pretty moved by this ESPN Outside the Lines story about black youth from West Philly who participated in a Work to Ride program, which gave them an opportunity to ride horses in exchange for working their stalls. During the boys’ time in the program, they were also taught polo, a sport of the predominately wealthy and white. They’re now national scholastic champions. The first black team ever.

There are few things more sacrosanct in hip hop than Ralph Lauren. I don’t know when it started. Raekwon and Ghostface looked like Macy’s men’s department mannequins gone wild. Thirstin Howl III apparently works at the Brownsville Polo Outlet Mall. But, when rappers display markers of status, including Polo, that’s really all it is. It doesn’t mean they’ve actually been accepted in any meaningful way. It’s like the difference between a fan and playing the game.

So, when kids go from wearing Polo to playing it, and receiving Ivy League scholarships for their ability, opportunity begins to change perception and perception, reality. Not because it’s some sort of saddlebacked make-up call for all the lost generations of black polo players, but because they’re good as crap at polo. It’s just no one cared to check.

We still live in a world where words like “ride” and “polo” and being “in the club” can have very different meanings depending on the color of your skin. Here’s to Kareem Rosser and his teammates for starting to blur the distinctions in slang. I suspect the Doctor would have been a pretty big fan of the Sport of Kings.

Performed by the ipoetlaureate. Music produced by Diaz from Hungary.

Today’s song blog here:

A King's Sport