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

8 thoughts on “MLK: Work to Ride

  1. That’s some powerful stuff right there in this blog and, being one of your friends who is black (not going to say I’m one of your “best” but…) its always been good to be able to have open conversation on just about anything.
    The impact of MLK is one that, I don’t actually believe, is capable of being properly measured, as much for the span of its reach as for the fact that it is still an ongoing thing. In many ways, there is merit in granting his dream the distinction of being more like a living and breathing organism that is still growing. There is always going to be a need for it to expand further into new areas.
    I was unaware of this polo team story and read into it online, after seeing this blogpost. Fascinating stuff, on the one hand, and sad, on the other. It struck me a few days back, while watching something about the expanse west after the civil war, that this country has long sat at a slow pace of being what its often referred to, “the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.” It’s almost laughable to look at that phrase, then travel about the country to see how much the truths of that are NOT evident. I’m not attempting the bash America here, mind you. Lord knows there are PLENTY of people who do that and in a far more eloquent manner than I am capable of. The point is, there IS an ugly undercurrent. It exists and, whether some want to “look in the corner over there” or not, it really isn’t HIDDEN at all.

    It’s my hope that the dream grows and expands…not just in its outward expression of different hands clasped and walking around laughing together, but in the collective consciousness of this country’s heart and mind. The inner workings need the dream to be imbedded there, so that “expression” becomes more than “reaction to…”

  2. Yeah, Conduct, I am so thankful for our dialogue, always, and your friendship through the years. It’s still weird we’ve never kicked it in person.

    It’s a super cool story but some melancholy at the same time, for sure.

    And, I agree that Dr. King’s vision, which is simply just a more perfect echo of numerous and other great moral and spiritual teachers, will never be satisfied. In the way we treat each other, there will always be ceiling to do more.

  3. I’ve read this entry several times and something about it just bothers me. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is. It’s not the ESPN story at all. It’s something about the way we look at “opportunity.” I see the wrongs of the past–and I know my nature well enough not to say “I would never have done that.” The line of evil runs through us all. But, I guess the question is what are we striving for? And how do we decide we have arrived? If every player in the NBA were African-American, should we do something to change it so that your son would feel his dreams more attainable? That doesn’t seem to be the right answer. Perhaps, ipoet, your response that we will never attain Dr. King’s vision is the right answer. But it is not satisfying.

    If I can nail down my thoughts in a more clear way, I’ll let you know.

  4. Awesome, Cari. I’m pretty sure your confusion is my lack of clarity. I think I meant to make two points with respect to the opportunity issue. The first is that providing opportunity sounds like charity when in many cases it’s just ensuring that actual merit has a chance to be recognized/discovered. I jumbled that point with one about the value of seeing someone like yourself (not “yourself” as in Cari, but as in the universal Cari, wait that didn’t make sense . . .) in various positions of accomplishment and how greatly I had underestimated that value until it was more personal to me. I did not mean to imply that opportunity meant making room for my son in the NBA because he’s white, although otherwise unqualified, or ensuring that he had sufficient modeling of the occupation to realize his dreams. In fact, I meant the precise opposite. That opportunity is simply making available something to the already qualified.

    But, I think the two points relate insofar as when we make sure that opportunity is real, then diversification can follow. When barriers are reduced, like in polo or golf or politics, then we see a natural and appropriate and non-contrived migration of talent and race to those activities. So opportunity increases the likelihood that accomplishment will be modeled effectively among the races. But, I also wanted to emphasize that to the extent there exists an underrepresentation of talent among a racial group, it may in fact be due to a systemic and over-time denial of participation in the first instance.

    I’m pretty sure I made things worse.

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