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It’s Time We Had A Talk

NCAA Football: Clemson Football Players Protest Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Almost two weeks ago, approximately 3,000 people attended an on-campus protest organized by Clemson football players Darien Rencher, Mike Jones Jr., Cornell Powell, and Trevor Lawrence. The crowd marched along to various Black Lives Matter chants, and chanted the names Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, two of the most visible and recent Black Americans killed at the hands of the police. There have been more since, and there will be more after this article.

Clemson’s protest is one of the many that have taken place in all 50 states since May 25th. Fortunately, the only push-back in Clemson involved only a handful of jackasses flying the flag of treasonous losers from their pickup trucks.

The Clemson protest was on the heels of a change to the name of the Calhoun Honors College (and a successful first step in an attempt to change the name of Tillman Hall), largely spurred by Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins speaking out on social media. That is not to say that they alone are responsible for the changes; these changes were demanded during the 2016 Sikes Hall sit-in, and objections to the name of Tillman Hall were old even then. But, we all know how much weight football carries on campus.

I think it is fair to ask what exactly was being honored by naming buildings after Calhoun and Tillman. Tillman Hall was named Old Main until 1946, a time period when both African-Americans were beginning to push for their legal rights and Clemson was entirely segregated. Calhoun’s name wasn’t attached to the honors college until 1982.

Benjamin Tillman was a proud white supremacist who boasted of murdering Black people and rigging elections. Calhoun is as responsible for the American Civil War as any single man in history, and described the institution of slavery as a “positive good”.

These are the men whose names adorned our university. These are the men responsible in large part for Clemson’s very existence. The blood of slaves lies in the foundation of our university. What do we do about that?

I certainly don’t think the answer is to honor the men who held the slaves. It is uncomfortable to ask, but discomfort is part of the process here. As Trevor Lawrence said, “It’s uncomfortable to set aside everything I know about America and listen to someone else’s perspective. However, it’s necessary.”

America is a nation that has consistently failed to face its history of racism, then turns around and wonders about the racial inequality of outcomes in the present. We have always been like this, a country born with a constitution both fundamentally compromised by slavery and afraid to say the word until the Thirteenth Amendment.

This is not to point the finger at the South, or at Clemson. Calhoun has a street honoring him in my home city of Chicago. The factories of the North ran on Southern cotton, and there’s no escape above the Mason-Dixon line; the Confederate flag flies in more rural areas north of the line to this day than many would believe. The first time I saw a Confederate flag, I was in Wisconsin. We cannot pretend this was all in the past when the ghosts of our past haunt us today.

Ultimately, we have to conclude that whatever we are doing to address racism isn’t enough. You don’t have to look further than the two biggest news stories of the moment — COVID-19 and police brutality — to see evidence that America hasn’t faced its history of anti-Blackness.

The current wave of Black Lives Matter protests were set off by the video-taped murder of a Black man and a Black woman being murdered while sleeping in her own home. In Chicago Black people make up 30% of the population but 60% of the COVID-19 deaths. Similar statistics (Black people making up nearly twice as many COVID-19 deaths as one would expect from their share in the population) have been reported nationally.

Dabo, introducing his players at the rally, said, “we should no longer expect them or our players to hear our cheers if we do not hear their cries”. He also said that he “wholeheartedly supports Black Lives Matter” earlier this month.

If one were to read Dabo generously, this represents an enormous evolution for a man who in 2016 said some of the people kneeling for the national anthem to protest police brutality should leave the country.

If one is to read Dabo cynically, this is a man who recognizes he still needs to be able to recruit and coach mostly Black American players to keep his job. The cynic would see Dabo as acting to avoid a situation like those in Iowa, Oklahoma State, and Tallahassee. Regardless, I think it is fair to ask Dabo why he is only supporting his players speaking out now.

The debate is muddied by the revelation that some players do not feel Dabo adequately addressed an assistant coach using a racial slur. Although former players almost universally defend Dabo as a good coach and a good person, there is room to talk about whether he has had a blind spot when it comes to addressing racism.

I am not the first to suggest that Dabo, who came from an incredibly difficult background, seems to believe the system can work for anyone if they try hard enough. I am also not the first to suggest this worldview fails to account for people who fail through no fault of their own due to the structure of said system. Darien Rencher acknowledged it, saying

Dabo, as one of the faces of the university and a leader of a mostly Black team, ultimately has a responsibility to address racial inequality in the community. The man lives in a massive home paid for in no small part by the hard work of the athletes he leads. If Clemson football really believes its familial rhetoric, the Clemson family is impacted by this. You don’t have to look far for examples: Christian Wilkins’ grandfather was killed in his own home by the police in 2011.

I have been disappointed in Dabo before, but he did the right things last Saturday. Beyond that, the players have been exemplary. Trevor Lawrence, at twenty years old, spoke more quickly and forcefully than many professional leaders. Darien Rencher, Mike Jones Jr. and Cornell Powell have not gotten as much attention nationally, but they have taken leadership on campus in ways we should be proud of.

The Clemson family will remain to be impacted by racial inequality, probably, for the rest of our lifetimes. A wound born four hundred years ago will not heal quickly. Hopefully these men, as well as their coach, are able to continue providing leadership as we try to address it.