White grabs air in trying to tackle race

March 28, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

Fuzzy Zoeller and Al Campanis must be outraged. A black sports figure, Reggie White, has joined them and the late Jimmy the Greek in the Insensitivity Hall of Fame.

White is a good man who was well-intentioned even in his worst moment. But his remarks to the Wisconsin Legislature were inexcusable, and he deserves the same criticism as those who stumbled before him.

Gay bashing, racial stereotyping, it doesn't matter whether the offender is black or white, a minister or a layman.

It's wrong.

Yet White, an ordained fundamentalist Christian minister, refuses disavow his comments. Just as God told him to sign with the Green Bay Packers, God told him that whites "know how to tap into money" and other such nonsense.

"I know the type of person I am. I know I care about people," he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "I'm not going to back off what I know God has put on my heart to share."

That, of course, is his prerogative.

But now he must live with his words.

Can you imagine if a white athlete had said: "When you look at the black race, black people are very gifted in what we call worship and celebration. A lot of us like to dance, and if you go to a black church, you see people jumping up and down because they really get into it."

Or, "Hispanics were gifted in family structure. You see a Hispanic person and they can put 20 or 30 people in one home."

Or, "When you look at the Asian, the Asian is very gifted in creativity and invention. If you go to Japan or any Asian country, they can turn a television into a watch."

The white athlete would be ostracized, forced to apologize, dropped by his sponsors. Not all of that is going to happen to White, but CBS already is saying it won't hire him as a studio analyst, which is absolutely the right call.

Stereotyping is the product of ignorance. White is a spiritual man with powerful beliefs. That doesn't make him infallible.

The point of his hourlong speech to the Wisconsin legislators was to celebrate diversity by comparing races. White wound up insulting all of them, and attacking homosexuals for good measure.

In his opinion, the struggle for acceptance by gays and lesbians should not be compared to the struggle by blacks, because, "Homosexuality is a decision, it's not a race."

Freedom of religion entitles White to call homosexuality "one of the biggest sins in the Bible."

Freedom of speech entitles him to speak his mind on any subject.

But White's stature gives him a special responsibility -- a responsibility he had always embraced before.

In 1996, he received the Simon Wiesenthal Center's "tolerance award" for his "commitment to fostering tolerance and pursuing his vision for a better America." That same year, he also received the Jackie Robinson Humanitarian Award.

So, how could he give a speech filled with blatant, ugly stereotypes?

Stereotyping leads to intolerance; intolerance leads to discrimination. But White doesn't seem to understand.

"What people missed was the message," he told the New York Times. "I was discussing the gifts people have. It's just like a marriage. People bring different gifts to the marriage."

You know, men go out and work, while women stay home and cook.

Civil rights groups criticized White immediately, and his apologists surely will defend him, saying the issue is overblown, claiming he is being portrayed unfairly, recounting his good deeds.

We've heard it before -- from Zoeller's people, from Campanis' people, from Jimmy the Greek's. Some of their best friends were black, right? Really, it was all just a misunderstanding.

White, though, doesn't seem worried about the fallout, about the sponsors who already are expressing their concern to his New Hope Ministry in Knoxville, Tenn.

"People are saying they're going to have to re-evaluate me," White said. "I said: 'Don't re-evaluate me. Forget about me. I don't need your money.' "

But what about his credibility?

It won't be the same now.

Some will view White's remarks as harmless -- if you offend everyone, you can't offend anyone. Others will say he's entitled to a mistake, an argument that would carry more weight if he had been speaking off-the-cuff.

The sad part is, he's not Zoeller, Campanis or Jimmy the Greek. He's a man truly devoted to community service, whether it's financing programs for the underprivileged or rebuilding burned-down churches in the South.

He's Reggie White, of all people, the Minister of Defense, one of the true role models in sports. One speech can't undo all of his accomplishments. But one speech can create a perception of him that didn't exist before.

It's a free country, all right, but a country so racially charged, words must be chosen carefully. Reggie White should be upset that he offended so many. In America, as in football, the idea is to move forward, not backward.

Pub Date: 3/28/98

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