No question, the history of race in America is a vexed one. There are real wrongs to address, certainly, but there is also a persistent state of grievance, a kind of moral or spiritual condition, in which one eschews peace of mind, an abyss of soul where one relives injustices done or imagines the goods of which one has been deprived.
Last week, I got the news from my brother in Georgia that our high school football coach had died at the age of 88. Coach Dan Pitts was a legend, not only in our hometown, but throughout the football world of Georgia, where football is a civic ritual that borders on religion. Reading through the article in the Atlanta Journal, I was particularly struck by two passages. The first one describes Coach Pitts’ attitude toward racial integration, a matter of great intensity in Middle Georgia in that turbulent era. As the article has it, “Pitts was remembered as an important bridge in the early 1970s when Mary Persons [the name of our high school] was integrated. He had brought in black players the previous spring to get a jump on the introductions, to ease the tensions. When a former assistant once asked Pitts what the racial makeup of his team was, Pitts told him he had no idea. That wasn’t something he’d count.”
That certainly gets at the spirit of his approach, but he actually began earlier than the 1970s, because the first four black students in our high school entered during my senior year, 1968-69, and one of them was on our football team during the 1968 season. A decade later, of course, after full integration, there were many more black players. I did not know David Sewell, who played quarterback under Coach Pitts in the late 1970s. As the Journal explains, “Sewell would be the first black quarterback to start for Persons, and the two of them never discussed the significance of that. ‘Everybody’s watching me. He had done all this winning and he took a chance on this skinny black kid,’ said Sewell, who went unbeaten during the 1979 regular season. ‘He never talked about race. He never brought it up.’”
He never brought it up. Was that cowardice on his part? Absolutely the opposite. He could have quietly given the position to a white player. Instead, he put his most talented player in the most crucial position. That player happened to be black. The town accepted it because they accepted the hard-won authority of a man who had already coached a generation of the men who might otherwise, under someone else’s more toxic tutelage, have been the first to complain. In this, too, he was a guide, because he pointed not to the color of David Sewell’s skin but to the quality of his play and the content of his character, as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it.
I cannot help contrasting Coach Pitts’s approach, which smoothed the way for the righting of real injustices, with the current loud insistence on bringing up race in every context, even the construction of highways (as the Wall Street Journal recently reported). The question seems to me simple: does insisting that you pay attention to the color of someone’s skin in every interaction (the actual daily practice of racism in my childhood) bring about more just and natural relations? Or should character and talents be the important things about that person’s identity?
No question, the history of race in America is a vexed one, but the way out of the past is not to orchestrate some Orwellian rewriting of history, but to acknowledge where we came from, to encourage forgiveness, and to open the promise of liberty to every citizen. The most fashionable stance today, however, scorns forgiveness and has little to do with rational liberties, which are already present and amply guarded by law. Fashion demands that society answer with cowed compliance an essentially unanswerable and endlessly ramifying grievance. There are real wrongs to address, certainly, but there is also a state of grievance, a kind of moral or spiritual condition, in which one eschews peace of mind, an abyss of soul where one relives injustices done or imagines the goods of which one has been deprived. Would correction of these things make one whole? Or has one been permanently distorted, like Tolkien’s Gollum, by the dark savor of grievance?
Several months ago, I wrote about Homer’s Eumaios in the Odyssey, born into a royal family but then captured and enslaved. He could live his life in a state of grievance, but instead he chooses the full exercise of the virtues that fall within his power. He does not comply with the institution of slavery or internalize a low estimate of his self-worth. He accepts the responsibility of self-rule despite his condition.
Even more to the point, however, is the way of Christ, “who emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:7). Human nature will not find a higher ground than Calvary. But has anything in the contemporary culture of grievance been more scornfully rejected than Christian forgiveness, which frees the soul from grievance and opens the possibility of new life? This week at Wyoming Catholic College, our students put on a production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, which ends with a stunning act of forgiveness. A liberal arts education should free us to do what Lincoln writes in his First Inaugural: to listen “to the better angels of our nature.” It is dismaying to think that the culture at large, especially in higher education, gives moral superiority to grievance and victimhood, instead of the liberty of forgiveness and the responsibility of self-rule.
Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College‘s weekly newsletter.
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