It’s a slippery slope when any columnist writes about race relations.
But I think this is a critical juncture and that having these conversations, discussions and debates are important.
With thirteen per cent of America, sixteen per cent of the State of Florida and thirty per cent of the residents of the City of Jacksonville identifying themselves as Black or African American, if we’re not having these discussions we’re just talking at, and not with each other.
And sports can be a starting point. Teams that we all report on and cheer for are made up of different races and cultures. Players will tell you though, on a team, race isn’t an issue, it’s a meritocracy.
“Inside that team, we’re family,” former Jaguars linebacker Lonnie Marts said this week of race relations during his college career at Tulane and ten years in the NFL. “If you offer respect in the locker room, sometimes it changes how guys think. I have guys tell me they’re relationship with me changed their perception. So that’s good.”
“We need to keep having these discussions because the more we keep talking the more we have an understanding of different cultures,” former Jaguars Vice President Michael Huyghue added this week.
“I’m African American when I fill out a form but “black” in conversation,” he explained. “That in itself creates a separation, an instant distinction. It’s as if we’re considered outside of America like people who came here from other countries. I was born here.”
“I’m a Black-American. I have to select “African American” on forms but I was born here. Some people want to tell me I’m African but I’m not. I’m from here. I’m an American.”
“One of my coaches asked me about it last year,” Marts, also a former high school head coach and athletic director, told me this week about growing up Black in America. “He called me the other day and said ‘I wouldn’t have known anything about this.’ The more we talk to each other the better off we’ll be. I told him what it was like (to be Black in America) and he was shocked. He had no idea.”
That seemed to be the consensus among the friends I talked with this week. All men of color who have been made keenly aware their whole lives that they’re black.
“My perception of being Black in America has had my feelings all over the place,” former Jaguars defensive back and Englewood High product Rashean Mathis told me this week.
“It’s way bigger than George Floyd. It’s just the tipping point. I didn’t have empathy for George Floyd; It was much stronger than that. I literally felt myself in his place. I thought of my son in his place.”
Mathis lives in Ponte Vedra, raising his three children, including his seven-year-old son.
“I’m raising two boys, and the talks I have to have with my seven year old are heart wrenching,” Mathis said while acknowledging he supports the protests over the last week.
“Why are we marching in the streets, why are we blocking highways? Because we need to be heard,” he explained. “We’re trying to raise families and live our lives. You can’t silence truth. And what is true is that there is injustice. You can’t protest just to make everybody comfortable.”
“Most African American’s experience elements of bias on a daily basis,” Huyghue explained. “I don’t go one week without something happening that reminds me of the difference. There are stereotypes that people have and they’re always something you have to explain to your kids.”
Huyghue worked in the legal department for both the NFL and the NFL Players Association. He was the first black agent who represented a white player in the NFL. (He was my agent for twenty years) He cited an example from early in his career where his skin color impacted his work.
“The first time I was a lawyer representing the NFL,” he said. “I went into one of the hearings and the judge said ‘We’ll get started when the NFL lawyer gets here.’ I said ‘your honor, I am the NFL lawyer’. And he said ‘Well when your boss gets here we’ll get started.’ I told him I was the only one.”
It’s that kind of unspoken bias that is a reality according to Huyghue, Mathis and Marts when growing up Black in America.
“I think all black families have an understanding that you have to explain to your kids about the inequities they’ll experience with the police, in the classrooms and other places,” Huyghue said on how he has explained to his children what to expect.
“I let my kids know there are things you can and cannot do,” Marts said. “If you get pulled over you keep your hands where you can see them and you say yes sir and no sir. It’s the perception. You have to teach them. There’s no way around it.”
Several times security guards in Marts’ neighborhood have stopped and questioned his kids about being on the local basketball courts.
“They said, ‘We live here,’ Lonnie explained. “Racial profiling is wrong,” he added. “If my boys aren’t doing anything wrong, why mess with them. Why did you pick them out here?”
“I don’t think we’re acknowledging the problem yet,” Mathis said. “There are still people who have been taught generationally to think like this. Until we acknowledge the state of this country was built upon, we won’t move in the right direction.”
“We cannot fail our children,” Jaguars Owner Shad Khan said in an editorial penned this week. “Children who deserve to know they have the same opportunity to earn a living have a family and live safely — no matter the color of their skin.
Khan, who identifies himself as a person of color and as a Muslim-American, says while he can’t claim to know what it means to be a young African American today, he has been “the frequent target of prejudice, discrimination and hatred.”
He added that he has also felt the kindness and generosity of people in what he calls “the greatest nation on the planet.”
“While I am often described as “self-made,” he wrote, “The truth is I benefitted tremendously from hundreds of good and generous people early on, from all walks of life, who supported me unconditionally and contributed mightily to my realization of the American Dream.”
My friend Calvin and I worked together for over three decades. We met in the early ‘80’s, had children the same age, ate meals together, talked sports, played basketball and generally hung out during breaks at work. We often talked about how his experience, as a black man living and growing up in downtown and Northwest Jacksonville, was very different than mine.
He told me the story this week of being stopped by the police just outside of his neighborhood, walking down the street.
“A white cop and a black cop stopped me and said I looked like somebody they were looking for,” he explained. “I said to myself, ‘I wonder who I look like?’ We have to prove who we are and that’s not right for just walking down the street.”
Calvin’s story continued, “I asked the black cop, ‘Why are you stopping me, the guy you’re looking for is 5’5” and 180 lbs.! I look nothing like that! He said, ‘It’s his call’ pointing to the white cop. That’s where the police need to have some accountability to each other. Why didn’t one of those other officers get that guy off of Floyd’s neck? He’d be alive today if that happened.”
Everybody agrees that what happened to George Floyd was heinous and criminal and hopes justice will be served for Floyd and his family. Calvin believes in taking to the streets to protest but says, “The whole movement got sideways because of those agitators who promoted violence.”
It reminded him of a similar time when he was young.
“We went to Hemming Plaza in the ‘60’s to listen to H. Rap Brown or Stokely Carmichael who were in town. We had some agitators from my neighborhood that just wanted to stir things up. Their incentive was selfish. They were looking at their own personal interest. They weren’t interested in the cause at all.”
“I think peaceful protesting is a way to get things done,” Marts agreed. “Not violence, that’s a low means of communication. Tearing up stuff or attacking the cops, that’s backwards.”
“It’s always going to be rough on the edges,” Huyghue responded when asked about protesting. “Protests are intended to shock the system. There’s no perfect way to protest. You can go back to Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the Olympics. They (the protests) have value because they stop us and force us to look at things in a different way.”
Rashean’s take was a little different.
“I don’t agree with looting or rioting,” he said. “I’m a law-abiding citizen and that’s against the law. But I understand it. Some people are taking advantage of the situation; others are expressing their frustration. If you kick a dog enough, eventually he’s going to bite you. People are screaming because their parents and grandparents haven’t been heard.”
With the influence sports and famous athletes have on young people through social media, Calvin believes they can make a difference.
“The more pressure that is put on by athletes that kids look up to will cause the dialogue to start again and work toward the changes that we need,” he said. “The difference will be made when black leaders and athletes keep bringing attention what’s going on.”
Mathis is one of those athletes who are leading the conversation, trying to effect change.
“I spoke to the Vanderbilt football team today,” he said. “I told those guys, black and white, that they have to have these conversations together. They will be the ones to affect some sort of change. Change will not happen without both sides going together. We need white America to stand with us. We need more. We need to do our part as a black society, but we need white America to go with us.”
I tried to get Calais Campbell to add his voice to the discussion and was disappointed I couldn’t reach him. He’s the kind of guy you hoped would stay in your city after he retired from playing and I told him so many times during his tenure with the Jaguars. He could have an impact on our city that’s always been divided by roads and rivers, oftentimes along racial lines. He tweeted this week:
“The ballot is more powerful than the bullet! Put people in office that can and will create legislation that will make a difference. And most importantly do it locally because the federal govt can only do so much! City and state govt is just as important.”
It’s one of the reasons I was so disappointed when Calais was traded to the Ravens. As the Walter Payton Man of the Year in the NFL for 2019, Campbell’s work in the community is unparalleled.
Mathis believes there is a lot of work to be done, more than has ever been done before.
“We have made progress for sure, there’s been a lot of change, but the majority are still suffering,” He explained. “I acknowledge there has been change. I mean, I live in Marsh Landing. But we can’t let the change we’ve already made outweigh the fact that the problem that still exists.”
Perhaps somebody like Leonard Fournette can pick up the mantle locally and continue the work players like Mathis and Campbell have started. I’ve seen the charity work he’s done here and it’s heartfelt. He’s inviting people to join him in a peaceful march this coming week.
I’m sure there are a lot of people who would love to join him but would like to know who “they” are in this tweet from last Wednesday:
“They’ll never understand until it’s one of there (their) kids or friends . . .. “
Because if the conversation starts off with “us” and “them” we’ll never get to “we.”