By Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
8:00 AM EST, December 23, 2012
Author's note: This piece concerns racial healing in America. It is submitted as we continue to mourn the incomprehensible tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. May those families, that community, and the nation that grieves with them know the comfort that only faith can provide.
An open letter to Drew and Josh Ehrlich, from your parents:
Both of you have children of different races and ethnicities in your schools. They are your classmates, teammates and friends. Some were born down the block, others on another continent. But it does not matter: You are taught to accept these diverse backgrounds in forming your friendships. More importantly, your mom and I want you to make friends and, yes, judge others according to the content of their character rather than their skin color. A famous man named Martin Luther King Jr. gave this same advice to a divided nation a long time ago. Unfortunately, too many adults continue to ignore his advice.
You are truly Ehrlich children; SportsCenter is the most popular television show in our house. But recently, you watched how one person's rejection of King's advice became a national news story and reminded us how far we (still) have to go before that character test truly defines how we interact with people who do not look like us.
The story began on an ESPN show entitled "First Take," wherein a sportswriter named Rob Parker questioned Redskins' quarterback Robert Griffin III's racial credentials:
"My question, which is just a straight honest question: is he a brother, or is he a cornball brother? … He's black, he kind of does his thing, but he's not really down with the cause, he's not one of us. … I want to find out about him. I don't know because I keep hearing these things. We all know he has a white fiancée. Then there was all this talk about he's a Republican, which there's no information at all …"
Mr. Parker's comments reflected a viewpoint that RGIII is not sufficiently black — his racial insufficiency stemming from the way he has gone about the business of being a professional athlete rather than a political activist. Apparently, he has also committed the racial-identity sin of getting engaged to a white woman, which, presumably, would be forgivable but for his other monumental (alleged) transgression: a Republican voting card.
If you find Mr. Parker's opinion confusing … we are proud of you.
Drew, you are studying the Civil War and the role that slavery played in that awful struggle. You are learning about the unconscionable brutality that accompanied the practice of buying and selling human beings. Later this year, you will learn how the vestiges of slavery lived on for many decades, marking a horrific chapter in American history — one that Martin Luther King sought to heal with his movement and teachings.
Unfortunately, that healing process is taking a lot longer than it should. Some people continue to harbor ill will toward black people. Others resent growing prosperity within the African-American community. Fortunately, such racism has been on the decline for many years. Your generation's goal should be to eliminate it.
But there is another aspect to the issue that is difficult to comprehend. It's racial straitjacketing as practiced against African-Americans by African-Americans who dare run against the grain. Which brings us back to Mr. Parker's unfortunate comment.
You see, some folks are so consumed by racial identity that they fail to understand how others with the same skin color can possess different opinions and values.
Your "Uncle" Mike (Steele) was also treated poorly by this crowd. He was degraded as a "token" and an "Uncle Tom." So was my friend, Congressman J.C. Watts. And Congressman Gary Franks. And Justice Clarence Thomas. And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. And columnist Gregory Kane. And Professor Walter Williams.
I could go on, but a smart 13-year-old gets the point: Racism knows no bounds. It comes in all colors and is never attractive. In fact, it's always ugly — and stupid. That's probably what King would have told your class if he had the opportunity.
As for RGIII, he graduated from Baylor in three years, won the Heisman Trophy, respects his parents, treats fans well, and is charismatic and articulate in dealing with the press. He might really be what we have taught you is the exception rather than the rule: a role model in professional sports.
With regard to Mr. Parker, he has issued an apology and been suspended by ESPN for 30 days. But is this really a suspend-able offense? The man spoke his mind about a major public figure. It is a point of view we should illuminate in order to take it down at every juncture, a goal made more difficult by the decision to shut him down.
Remember, value your friends for what they are, not who they are or what they look like.
We know you will.
Love, Mom & Dad
Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding and the author of "Turn this Car Around," a book about national politics. His email is email@example.com.
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