New Haven Register (New Haven, CT)

‘Opting in’ to hard discussion­s about race

- By Chris Doob Chris Doob is an emeritus professor of sociology at Southern Connecticu­t State University and the author of a variety of books involving sociology and sports.

In “Privileged” a reporter asked Kyle Korver, a white NBA veteran, about an incident involving his Black teammate Russell Westbrook and a fan. Korver, who hadn’t been present, replied, “[Y]ou know Russ … gets into it with the crowd a lot.”

Later Korver heard that the fan made racist comments, upsetting other Black players, who demanded a team meeting during which several spoke about suffering similar encounters. Korver, too, was upset, abruptly discoverin­g “what it means just to exist right now — as a person of color in a mostly white space.”

Afterwards, Korver remained unsatisfie­d. He stated, “[N]o matter how passionate­ly I commit to being an ally, … I’m still in this conversati­on from the privileged perspectiv­e of opting in to it[, meaning] … I could just as easily opt out of it.” Korver vowed to learn about racism, especially by listening to people of color, and to encourage other whites to follow suit.

Whether the topic is race relations or the broader issue of social class, the traditiona­l American approach has been decidedly less open-minded. Let’s consider social class. In 1859, scientist Charles Darwin asserted the significan­ce of natural selection, explaining that organisms’ observable traits reveal their capacity to survive and reproduce. Sociologis­t Herbert Spencer considered the conclusion “perfectly in harmony” with a ranking of human groups, using the phrase “survival of the fittest … to apply to the fate of rich and poor in a laissez faire capitalist society.” Wealthy businessme­n immediatel­y felt liberated from restraints in seeking wealth. Andrew Carnegie, the leading steel manufactur­er, ecstatical­ly wrote, “I remember that light came as a flood and all was clear.” Spencer’s viewpoint remained largely unchalleng­ed, producing a self-fulfilling prophecy validating affluent white males’ dominance.

While Americans no longer cite the survivalof-the-fittest doctrine as a rationale for economic success, recent survey findings still emphasize the primacy of individual achievemen­t. A national representa­tive sample of nearly 2,000 American adults concluded that “hard work” was the dominant factor promoting economic achievemen­t. The greater interviewe­es’ earnings, the more they concurred, but at least 87 percent of four designated income groups chose it. In contrast, none of the four categories provided over 37 percent support for such well-recognized influences as racial/ethnic membership and family affluence.

Like their counterpar­ts in the survival-of-the-fittest era, contempora­ry successful Americans appear convinced of the virtue of their work, undoubtedl­y feeling freed to pursue wealth unrestrict­edly. It isn’t surprising that in such a permissive setting, data show that inequality in wealth and income is greater in the United States than in other rich countries, particular­ly among CEOs. In 1965 an average CEO earned over 20 times more than a typical worker, but by 2018 the figure had ballooned to a mind-boggling 278 times as much.

Stringent measures to bring CEOs’ economic advantage more in line with counterpar­ts in other affluent nations include elevated income-tax rates for wealthy corporatio­ns, particular­ly those with higher ratios of CEO-to-worker earnings, and revision of corporate regulation­s improving less powerful colleagues’ chances of reducing CEOs’ compensati­on. However, while considerab­le economic inequality in the U.S. persists, current support for significan­t social change is evident. About threefifth­s of Americans assert that economic inequality is too prevalent in the nation.

Two recent developmen­ts have bolstered such views. Mobile-phone images of a white policeman slowly suffocatin­g George Floyd, a Black man, while kneeling on his neck went viral; in addition, extensive media coverage publicized that Black deaths from COVID-19 were nearly twice the white rate. Together these events produced increased nationwide awareness of the devastatin­g impact of racism, promoting massive social-media response and extensive protest along with sharply increased support for Black Lives Matter. These, however, are teetering times, and within a year as Black Lives Matter protests decreased and Joe Biden’s replacemen­t of Donald Trump somewhat reduced a sense of controvers­y, Americans’ commitment to the movement declined.

On the other hand, an unknown number of Americans have recently had insightful experience­s linked to major social issues — personal versions of “aha moments.” This piece began describing Kyle Korver’s revelation about racism. The Rev. Al Sharpton, a prominent Black activist, had such a moment. Decades ago he joined a protest where a young white woman “looked …[him] right in the face and said, ‘N ***** , go home.’” Recalling that encounter, Sharpton mentioned a recent march during which a white preteen girl “tagged my suit jacket and … I braced myself, and she looked at me and said, ‘No justice, no peace.’” He concluded,

“It’s a different time.”

Like their counterpar­ts in the survival-of-the- fittest era, contempora­ry successful Americans appear convinced of the virtue of their work, undoubtedl­y feeling freed to pursue wealth unrestrict­edly.

 ?? File photo ?? Kyle Korver (26) stretches with teammates during the NBA Finals in Oakland, Calif,, in 2018.
File photo Kyle Korver (26) stretches with teammates during the NBA Finals in Oakland, Calif,, in 2018.

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