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Sorry if failing to 'stick to sports' makes you uncomfortable

In the absence of presidential leadership — and this nattering nabob of narcissism outdid himself the other night using the Bible as a prop — our nation turns its lonely eyes to others for influence and initiative.

And just as Simon and Garfunkel's timeless lyric cited "Joltin' Joe," so, too, does our fractured culture turn to athletes again. They have no other choice now but to use their celebrity and their forum to nudge the narrative, from outrage within the black community to outrage in all the other communities, too.

Sorry to all you "stick to sports" cowards who would rather not have your sports section make you uncomfortable. Sorry your blissful bubbles have been disrupted with real life. Athletes must be louder and prouder than ever now, using what Dan Wolken in USA Today calls "platforms (that) should be used to tell the truth about the experience of being black in this country."

We begin with the words of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who wrote this the other day in the Los Angeles Times:

"The black community is used to the institutional racism inherent in education, the justice system and jobs. And even though we do all the conventional things to raise public and political awareness — write articulate and insightful pieces in the Atlantic, explain the continued devastation on CNN, support candidates who promise change — the needle hardly budges," Kareem wrote.

"Yes, protests often are used as an excuse for some to take advantage, just as when fans celebrating a hometown sports team championship burn cars and destroy storefronts. I don't want to see stores looted or even buildings burn. But African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer. Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you're choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it's everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant because it's always still in the air."

Kareem's words are downright ... presidential. And it is up to athletes, among others, to keep shining the metaphorical light. White America needs to be educated. I am no different.

Hence, I beg some of our forward-thinking town leaders around here — Rob Brule in Waterford and Mark Nickerson in East Lyme come to mind — to be strong, white voices encouraging members of their mostly white towns to listen. Because here is the genesis of the disconnect:

Most of us white people think things like "our police don't act like that" and "things like that don't happen here." Oh, but they do. We don't know it because we're white and have never had to experience it. Whites and blacks can be the best of friends and still have different histories and perspectives. We cannot know another person's truth.

Know what happens here? This does:

My friend D.J. Exum, a young African American man, is an assistant basketball coach at New London High. He's a good dude. He told me this story a few years ago:

"I was in a store not in New London walking around with my girlfriend," Exum said. "Someone from the store was following me for no reason. He thought I was going to steal something. It's frustrating. But I accept it. This is the world we live in now. I could have easily turned around and said, 'what the (bleep) are you looking at and why are you following me?' But you've got to be the bigger person. That's what they want. If you act that way, you prove them right."

How many whites around here have ever been followed around a store for no reason? I sure haven't.

La Chale Gillis, an African American woman and freelance photographer in the region, told me a story last week about how she left a basketball game at Waterford High a few years back and had a Waterford police officer follow her. Again, for no apparent reason. Gillis had to seek refuge at a Mobil station where she knew the owner. She stayed inside for 30 minutes. It took a while for the officer to finally drive away. She was angry. But mostly scared.

And these are the subtle forms of racism we as whites need to understand and process. It doesn't happen to us in our nice little safe hamlets ... thus it doesn't happen at all. Au contraire.

All but the most lost of causes can look at the video of what befell George Floyd and want to vomit. That's overt racism wrapped in murder. But it's the other subtle forms that Pete Abraham, a writer at the Boston Globe, referred to Tuesday on Facebook when he wrote, "Life is easier in the United States if you are white."

And that's why we don't need mere words and clever hashtags. Athletes need to bang the drum. Repeatedly. Overtly. They need to encourage gatherings and forums where we all get to listen to African Americans tell their stories. The ability to enact change begins with awareness, perhaps channeling our inner President Bush in the wake of Sept. 11: "I hear you ... and soon they're going to hear from all of us."

I'd like to think most of us whites, once educated, would become more versed in seeing subtle racism and more militant against it. Of course, there will always be the folks worshipping the false idol in the White House who simply choose not to care. Why disrupt their blissful bubbles? Ignore them and focus on those of us who want to be educated.

Meantime, Kareem and others with forums and influence need to keep writing and talking. And we need to keep listening. All of us, all the way to our little corner of the world. I pray there are as many African Americans around here willing to share their stories as there are whites willing to listen.

This is the moment, folks. We are living history. This can change. If we listen. If we act.

This is the opinion of Day sport columnist Mike DiMauro


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