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Voice of NFA grad McAlister resonates in black and white

In a week as tumultuous as it has been educational, we still have choices. Listen to and learn from people with wisdom stemming from first-hand experience with race relations ... or indulge the muttering misanthropes of myopia, who opine from the comforts of The Bubble.

I'll take the former.

In that spirit, meet Garvin McAlister. He's far more than a 2007 graduate and former basketball player at Norwich Free Academy. He's immersed in both sides of the conflict that confronts us. He was a black kid in a mostly white elementary school. He and his white girlfriend are the parents of a biracial son. He's been the only black assistant on coaching staffs at mostly white colleges. A meaningful perspective.

"I've been doing a lot of reflecting. A lot more reflecting than I ever have," McAlister was saying Thursday, noting that this would normally be a busy time for a college basketball coach. McAlister, a former men's basketball assistant at Connecticut College, has the same job at Division II Assumption College in Worcester, Mass.

"I've thought a lot in the past week or so about where we are as a society and how I want to raise my son. It's tough," he said. "My family is from Norwich, born and raised. My girlfriend's family isn't as knowledgeable about all this. A learning experience for everybody. It's made me realize a lot of this comes from just not understanding. A lot of people were raised to believe a certain thing. It's tough to break that."

McAlister was raised by a strong mother, Linda. A friend of McAlister's sent a photo the other day of Linda protesting in the wake of George Floyd's death. Linda held a sign in downtown Norwich that read, "Is my son next?"

"My goodness," McAlister said. "If that was me, the emotions of making that sign — 'is my son next' — is enough to floor you. It's important for people in our area to see that. My mom's been protesting for 60 years. That's some kind of stamina."

Linda began protesting the Watts riots in 1965.

"Even she can't believe she's still doing it 60 years later," her son said. "Maybe when my son is 30 I'll still be protesting, too. But I don't want to be that situation. Back then, a lot of the older generation was scared to speak out. They couldn't stand with the younger generation because of fear. They know what it's like to be literally beaten down. The biggest thing for me is I have a son now. He's of mixed race, but always will be identified as black. My fear is tough to put into words."

And there is the word that begins it all: fear. On all sides. Manifest in many ways. McAlister's fear began as an innocent kid while shopping. EbLens in Norwich.

"In there with my friends," he said. "We noticed people who worked in the store would follow us up and down every aisle. The fear is what people don't understand.

"When I started coaching, my best friend and I were going to drive to the Final Four in Tampa. He's white. His parents told us to stop along the way, like maybe in DC to take pictures. Have the time of our lives, they said. My mom told me to go straight to where we were going. Make sure your license is on the dash board at all times. Basically, she said 'make sure you come home alive.' That really resonated with me. As a kid I thought she was just stricter. No. She had a view of the life she was trying to protect me from and also trying to educate me."

If that story doesn't illustrate the difference between white and black households, maybe this one will.

"A cop pulled me over in front of my house once," McAlister said. "He told my mom, 'your son was very respectful.' She got angry. Of course he's respectful. Why wouldn't he be?' It's like there's a different expectation."

It's reminiscent of the story Jim O'Neill, the athletic director at New London High at the time, tells about accompanying the boys' basketball team to a game at a school north of Norwich. After the game, an administrator from the school said to O'Neill, "your kids really behaved well today."

O'Neill knew the athletic director at East Lyme, for example, would never hear that. Good behavior is expected from white kids. But a bunch of black kids from New London? O'Neill felt like saying, "Did you think they were going to burn the place down?"

McAlister: "That's exactly what we have to change. There was a fear there. Until we change that fear, we'll always have this conflict."

It's easy to prey on fear, though. Rational and otherwise. Some even get elected that way.

"What a lot of people don't understand is that as a black kid, you are taught in households to be fearful of the cops," McAlister said. "Maybe not in a direct way, but they are raised to be suspicious. It stays in your head as you get older. As you get older, that fear becomes hatred. Now you have a cop encountering a black man. They don't know each other. But they are both fearful of each other because of what they've been through. Now their first interaction may be conflict."

Have you learned anything here yet? I sure have.

"I've been some people's first black friend, some people's only black friend," McAlister said. "The only black coach on staff in places I've been. I guess it's taught me don't wait till it's someone you know for right vs. wrong to kick in. We didn't know George Floyd. If it's someone you know, there's more anger. That's not right. Right and wrong is right and wrong. I don't know how the lines between right and wrong got so blurred over time."

Then Garvin McAlister paused and said, "But I think the younger generation has a chance to get us out of it."

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro


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