What is racism? The Michael Cox story

During football season, I read the Sports Sunday section of the New York Times before any other section.

For a while now, the Times sports coverage has gradually shifted from strict beat reporting into long and deep essays about aspects of sports, and portraits of players. For a long time now the Times sports writers have been more than sports jocks; they are fine journalists.

Yesterday, the front page of that section was dominated by Bill Pennington’s powerful “A Lesson: Persevere.” The story, an extraordinary story, is about one of my guys, Michael Cox, a running back for the New York Giants, number 29.

Everyone should read this story. It is not about football, or about one football player. It is about the heart of racism: what it is to live as an obvious minority. It’s a narrative that must draw in anyone who may be in the minority — a Jew, for example, my example — but who does not look noticeably different from the majority, who does not walk around with dark skin in a white-skinned community.

It should, it must draw in everyone in the majority. (It should be irrelevant, but is not, that Bill Pennington is white.)

Plenty of dark-skinned people have, over the centuries, eloquently described what it feels like to be looked at and treated with suspicion or fear, or overlooked entirely for one reason, skin color. While their exegeses may resound with some of us white guys who have or are capable of developing empathy, they go over the heads of a remarkable number of people.

I think of this every day when I read the Daily News’ Voice of the People, the letters to the editor section. In it I read naked racism (cloaked as it is nowadays in the weird buzz phrases of Fox News, etc.). And I am appalled. (Let me point out, too, the ugly scandal of racial bullying in the Dolphins locker room. The bully has an Italian name; most of the racist letters in the Daily News are signed with Italian names.)

There’s been a lot of recent news — and lawsuits — about the potential humiliation of shopping at Barney’s or Macy’s if you’re black. But the story of Michael Cox’s family and what his father, a cop in Massachusetts, went through, should give everyone insight into the danger of being not white.

I have been privileged. Not only was I raised utterly without prejudice of any kind, I have a few times in my life briefly been in the minority. I once spent a weekend at an old farmhouse in Vermont, owned by a friend who was gay. In a party of five or six people, I was the only straight person. It felt odd for about, oh, a half hour. Then it was unremarkable — so natural, in fact, that when after the weekend I was dropped off on Central Park West and waited for the downtown bus, I saw something that for a few seconds seemed abnormal: a young couple was holding hands. A guy and a girl. (What? Oh, yeah. I laughed to myself about it.)

In the early 2000s, I was one of the few white people in a large hotel party room celebrating the publication of Johnnie Cochran’s first memoir, Journey To Justice. (At the time, I worked for Johnnie.) And yes there were other white people in the room — Katie Couric, for one — but the proportion of white people came pretty close to the proportion of black people in the United States.

Later in the 2000s, I spent a wonderful weekend at a Birmingham, Alabama wedding of two black friends. There were maybe four or five of us whites there, among hundreds of African-Americans.

Clearly, I have been acutely conscious about those experiences as a minority but in that consciousness I have always been, equally acutely, aware that I had no fear, no reason to fear. And acutely aware that if those proportions had been reversed and I had been black, or gay, I would at the least have been wary, in defense of my right just to be, to live.

Michael Cox’s father did file a lawsuit against the City of Boston and won a settlement, but the real story is why he had to file it, the pain and betrayal he had to take into that lawsuit.

The story of Michael Cox and his family pulls us whites right into it. You can’t read it without understanding that most black people must live with caution among the rest of us every day, every minute of their lives.

And that is inherent racism.

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