Editor’s Note: A strong piece by Florida track and field coach Mike Holloway that can be found on Floridagators.com
By Mike Holloway, Head Coach – Men’s and Women’s Track & Field and Cross Country
Anger. Disgust. Sadness.
Those emotions left me unable to say more than a couple words about George Floyd’s death before my throat swelled and tears filled my eyes.
Some of the comments made things even worse. White friends comparing their difficult life experiences to the systemic oppression and casual racism endured by generations of black Americans. There is no comparison.
People peddle this fantasy that, because of slavery’s abolishment, the country’s desegregation following the Civil Right Movement, and the election of our first black President not once, but twice, we are living in a post-racism society. And that’s exactly what too many people in our nation are living. A fantasy. I thought Jordan Peele shattered that myth three years ago, when his directorial debut, Get Out, revealed how oblivious white Americans are to the harsh realities we confront on a daily basis. I guess too many people just saw it as entertainment.
I will admit, it’s easy to buy into the fantasy when you don’t live these experiences. But allow me to open your eyes to the world we live in as black Americans.
We can walk into stores wanting to buy something fairly expensive, and employees will ignore us. Because we’re black, they assume we can’t afford it.
Back in the days of pagers, my white girlfriend and I went to an electronics store in Gainesville. As I examined different models, she went to the bathroom. In the five minutes she was gone, nobody spoke to me. No one walked up and asked, “What are you looking for today?” But the second she came back and stood beside me, an employee made a beeline for us. She called out his ignorance, we left, and I bought a pager elsewhere.
More recently, I wanted a new television. The one I settled on was $1,500. When I flagged down an employee and let him know which model I wanted, he condescendingly responded, “You do understand that’s $1,500, right?” Because I’m black, there is no way I can afford a $1,500 television, right?
In other stores, some employees pay extra attention to us. They even follow us, practically stalking us as we shop. Because we are black, they assume we are thieves.
When I went to buy a car, the salesman told me, “I’m going to assume you have good credit.” Another salesman tapped him, and I said, “No, let him go. Please let him go. But if I was white, would you say that to me?” Once he admitted he would not, I walked off the lot.
Police officers pull us over if we drive high-end cars. It has to be someone else’s, they think, because we’re black.
I was once pulled over in my SUV. Justifiably. I made an illegal turn. An honest mistake, but a mistake nonetheless. “I’m tired of you people always making wrong turns,” the officer said bitterly. When I asked which people his comment referenced, the officer told me, “You limo drivers.” Because I’m a black man in a nice SUV, it can’t be mine, right?
We are stopped, frisked, arrested, or murdered in cold blood because our skin tone matches the description of a suspected criminal. Or those things might happen simply because the way we dress, or the way we walk looks suspicious.
Like The Central Park Five 21 years ago. Like Kalief Browder in 2010. Like Trayvon Martin in 2012. Like Ahmaud Arbery this past February.
Until you’ve had someone spew hateful, racial slurs at you solely because of your skin tone, there is no way to comprehend what it means to be a black American. You just can’t imagine it. You can’t conjure up such a degrading feeling and experience it for yourself.
Every time my 19-year-old son leaves my house, I pray. He’s a great kid, and I don’t think we live in a community where anything is going to happen. But you just never know. That fear extends to my grandson, to my nephews, my godsons, sons of my close friends. You just never know. Because we are black Americans.
We are told to dress differently, to adopt white societal norms, because we need to ensure white Americans feel comfortable. But that did not save Arbery’s life.
We are told everyone is innocent before proven guilty. Unless your skin tone matches the description of a suspect. Like The Central Park Five.
We are told to comply with orders made by police officers, to just submit to their demands. Floyd submitted until he could not breathe, much like Eric Garner six years before him.
We are told to ensure our children excel in our public school systems so they can eventually earn college degrees, secure higher wages, and give our grandchildren better lives than we gave our own sons and daughters. Except many of the people we tell that to live in under-funded school districts with inadequate resources, which essentially sets far too many kids up for failure and pushes them toward a cycle of drugs, addiction, and violence. The Wire has taught us this much.
We are told to protest peacefully, to hold a mirror to our system’s flaws calmly and respectfully, to utilize the national platforms our activists stand atop. Unless we demonstrate during the national anthem. Protest elsewhere, they shout in anger. Show some respect, they yell repeatedly.
Once we appease the masses who are either too uncomfortable or too entrenched in their views to listen to us, to understand the need for such a demonstration, we organize peaceful protests on our city streets. And what are we met with?
Fear. Anger. Resistance. Excessive force.
We are told to change this system with our votes instead of our voices, to elect officials who will weed out corruption, enact meaningful change in our communities, and empower the historically disenfranchised. People I grew up with my whole life. Democracy is what this nation is built on, we are told. Your vote counts the same as ours, they like to tell us.
Except it doesn’t.
Not when the system waters down our votes through gerrymandered district lines. Not when our names are unjustifiably purged from voter registration rolls because we sat out a recent election. Not when hurdle after hurdle is put in front of our ability to register or physically cast a vote, hurdles which the historically disenfranchised men and women of this country eventually give up trying to clear, a fact sinister politicians within our system exploit time and time again.
We are often asked what changes we are demanding. Some are even crude enough to ask how much money it will take to end our protests, or whether paying reparations to black Americans will finally free them of white guilt and silence all this talk of racism. This is not a problem money can solve.
Money will not change the fact that, despite black men and women making up roughly 13 percent of America’s population, they comprise almost a third of the country’s prison population. By contrast, white Americans are roughly 60 percent of the general population, but just 30 percent of the prison population.
Those numbers drive home the point of the social injustices we deal with every day. They represent the inherent racism within the criminal justice system, which feeds off mass incarceration, plea bargains, and mandatory minimum sentences. That’s just wrong.
So how do we stop it?
Not with riots and looting. I understand the frustration, but those actions are not helping. They will only cause more pain, suffering, and violence.
This generation is probably stuck, and that is painful to say. Racism will exist as long as people harbor prejudicial feelings and spit such ugly rhetoric. That’s why it starts with ensuring our children (and their children, and their children’s children) do not carry either of those things into their adulthoods.
It starts with education at home, whether you’re African-American, Asian, Hispanic, Latino, Native American, White, or whoever you choose to identify as. Help your children understand there are good people everywhere, and to never judge somebody by the color of their skin, by the way they talk, by the way they dress, by the way they walk. Those are the things we’ve been judged for forever.
Make sure they understand all black people are not bad people, just like all white people are not bad people, and everyone with a badge is not a bad person.
Until I was in about third or fourth grade, that venom was in me. I thought all white people were bad, that they didn’t care about me. A lot of them didn’t. But several of them are standing with me now – with us as black Americans. And we need them to stand by us every day until we break this cycle.
One of the toughest things in the last five years was when my son came home from school, distraught over an educational film about racism and social injustice.
“Dad, why do people have to be that way?” my 15-year-old son asked me, as he bawled his eyes out on the couch, completely unable to comprehend the atrocities his fellow Americans are capable of.
I told him it was, unfortunately, the world we live in. It’s something to always be cognizant of. You can’t turn a blind eye to it. You can’t think it’s going to be okay. But you can’t walk around with this chip on your shoulder and want to fight everyone either.
I’ve been watching this for 60 years. Whether it was Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, or whoever gave their lives to try and make it better, there has always been somebody behind the scenes that feels like we don’t belong, that we don’t deserve the things we get. Because we are black.
“Racism in America is like dust in the air,” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “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.”
Stay vigilant. Remember those words. Especially those of you standing beside us today. Because unless you stand with us every day, racism will continue to thrive.
Silence implies acceptance. Will you be silent next week? Next year? In 10 years? Or, will you stand shoulder to shoulder with us until we rid the world of this evil?
Maybe what we’re envisioning is an unattainable utopia. But that doesn’t mean we can’t demand more from each other. And if enough people listen, if enough people understand that all we’re asking for is the ability to walk around a store without employees being leery of us, to drive a nice car without the fear of an unexpected traffic stop, to be seen as equal human beings, we can stand together as the greatest country in the world.
Because we are proud black Americans.
Mike Holloway recently completed his 13th season as the combined men’s and women’s head coach for Florida Track & Field and Cross Country, prior to which he was head coach of the men’s program for five seasons. Holloway was named head coach for the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team last year, and he was inducted into the United States Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association Hall of Fame in December of 2016. In 2010, Holloway became the first African-American head coach in history to win the team title at the NCAA Indoor Championships.