My professional life has been defined by three principles: excellence, integrity, equality. They were bred into me by my father, a Tuskegee Airman and elementary school principal, and by my mother, a curriculum advisor for the Dayton Public Schools. Their point was simple. Black people do not yet experience equality, but in the meantime, we can situate ourselves in spaces where equality lives and work to extend them. Through a commitment to excellence and integrity in all that we do, we can lead by example and also sleep soundly at night.
Credit: Jamie Squire
Credit: Jamie Squire
My parents went to school and worked primarily in settings that were required by law to be racially divided and in the beginning so did I. I am a proud graduate of Fairview High School in Dayton, Ohio, and Morehouse College in Atlanta. But the son of the segregated-school teachers and Tuskegee Airman found an equality space in sport which puts everyone regardless of their race on the same starting line and has them ending on the same finish line. I became a multiple Olympic and World Champion, earned an MBA from Pepperdine University, and have led global efforts around fairness and equity in sport and education that embody their ideals.
What White America has learned over these last weeks Black America has known since the beginning. It doesn’t matter who Black men are, how excellent and brimming with integrity they might be. Equality remains elusive. So elusive that (literally) our lives but also our sense of safety and our opportunities in just about every sphere remain in the hands and beneath the knees of White people like Amy Cooper and Derek Chauvin, who don’t even begin to strive for excellence or integrity. It doesn’t matter that now my son also has a graduate degree and is a champion athlete and citizen of the world. As I told him when he was a student at the Atlanta International School, your White friends may be able to hop the fence to take the short cut across our neighbor’s property, but you can’t. It’s not about who you are inside, your excellence, your integrity, and your commitment to equality. It’s about the fact that you are a Black man. Because of that, unlike your friends, you’re not privileged to make that move.
I was reminded of that talk, which all Black parents have with their Black sons, when I heard about Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot while he was out on a jog. That could have been me and it could have been my child. One of his alleged killers, Travis McMichael, is said to have uttered the N-word as Arbery lay dying.
The McMichaels and Chauvins of the world are irredeemable. Excellence and integrity will never be theirs. But what Amy Cooper (more overtly) and the NFL’s Roger Goodell and Drew Brees (more covertly) reveal is that it’s not only the literal killers who are the problem. Others both wittingly and unwittingly continue to hold the important chess pieces back and thus to deny us equality in the game of life. When White people don’t recognize that by denying that there is a different starting line for Black people, by wielding their privilege and denying the power and pervasiveness of everyday, nonverbal expressions of racism, they are complicit in the perpetuation of our inequality.
In recent days, Roger Goodell and Drew Brees have moved toward the right side of history. They did so in part by acknowledging publicly that they now understand they should have listened, so that they could see their original complicity, and by making a commitment to support respectful protests and change. Being excellent teammates and leaders, having integrity, will require more of them both going forward, as it will require more of all White people who ask what they can do to help, now that they too have begun to listen and to see.
Beyond these expressions of understanding and empathy, the most critical things on our agenda are the ones we’ve been focused on for decades. See and protect us from out-of-control, racist citizens and police officers. Support excellent police officers with integrity who want to ensure that all of their colleagues meet their standards. See and address race-based educational, environmental, and health care disparities. See and give us a fair starting line by tackling disparate treatment in the criminal justice system and race-based economic inequities. Restrictions on access to capital for black-owned businesses have always been pernicious but are especially devastating in the current economy. And once and for all, stop pretending that “voter fraud” is a real problem that needs to be fixed by making it harder for us to vote. If you actually believe in electoral democracy, work to promote ways that make that right finally real for us.
I will wrap myself in the flag when it comes to symbolize promises kept.
Edwin Moses won gold medals during the Olympic Games of 1976 and 1984. He holds three World Cup titles and broke world records four times as a 400-meter hurdler. Studying on an academic scholarship, he earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from Morehouse College and received an MBA from Pepperdine University. He was awarded an honorary doctor of science degree by the University of Massachusetts Boston. He was personally selected by Nelson Mandela to be chairman of the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation and has served for the past 20 years. He is chairman emeritus of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. He lives in Atlanta.
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