Category Archives: politics

DeVos Confirmation Rant

I am reposting this rant from my Facebook wall so that I can share it more broadly. Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments.

You can’t tell the story of modern conservatism and the neoliberal project without discussing the all-out attack on public education. It’s been there from the beginning and has taken many forms. Today’s confirmation of Betsy DeVos fits into the long struggle to dismantle not just New Deal programs, but major Civil Rights accomplishments. It represents a decade long effort to dismantle essential public democratic institutions and hand them over to the an ill-equipped private sector so they can profit off legally required public goods.

Seriously, read Dochuk, Kruse, Lassiter, Farber, Hartman, Rodgers, Moreton, Mehlman-Petrzela, Delmont, and tons of other historians of modern conservatism and the culture wars. These movements come through in each of their books and articles. You have the fundamentalist “Save Our Children” movement, Georgia threatening to end public schools rather the de-segregate, the so-called bussing crisis, the school voucher movement, the never-ending textbook wars, the battle over bilingual and sex education, the prayer in school movement, the home school movement as well as many others — all aimed at undermining, weakening, and de-funding public education. And that’s just K-12! It has been done with phrases like “choice” and “local control” that are code words for the neoliberal market ideology that funnels tax money into private corporations that subvert federal regulations meant to ensure equality. Charter schools and the complete bullshit Teach for America program are among the biggest offenders of this. They rebuild class and racial barriers, promote unqualified and unproven teachers and teaching methods, all in the name of an anti-American ideology where the myth of hyper-efficient corporatism and so-called choice matter more than an educated public. Indeed, education has been shown over and over again to be an important factor in improving your quality of life, in upward mobility, yet under the corporatist structure, a good, equitable education becomes harder to access and afford. This re-inscribes existent structures that sustain widespread inequality along race, class, urban/suburban/rural divides.

This is why the DeVos nomination mattered. This is why so many of us our outraged. This isn’t some kind of leftist conspiracy, this is well-documented history. And I’m sad to be a part of this movement. My parents were duped like many average Americans. They believed in vouchers and homeschooling. They tried to trick me into agreeing at a young age, encouraging me to write my Senators about it. They were naive, wrong, and misguided. Democracy demands strong public education. The American Dream requires it. I don’t want to live in a country where we treat our children — our future — like a commodity that we can sell to the highest bidder, and those who can afford it are screwed. I don’t want to live in a country where education is a corporate product watered down by the customer is always right mentality. I don’t want to live in a country where universities brag about what kind of salary their graduates get rather than quality of education they receive and the impact they are making in the world.
Education is a public good. It is a central component of a civilized and modern society.

Today’s vote undermines that. It is a failure to uphold the basic tenets of our social contract. It represents a selfish oligarchy that values money and power over equality, and millions of the nation’s schoolchildren.

Books Worth (re)Reading to Understand Trump’s America

I’ve been chatting with my brother, Malcolm McGregor (who studied politics and public policy at the University of Virginia), recently about books and ideas that have helped us understand and diagnose the current state of American politics and culture following Trump’s election. We keep coming back to a handful of foundational ideas and perspectives, centered on notions of neoliberalism, postermodernity, truth, and, of course, race and class. We created a short list that is not exhaustive list by any means, but we think that they help get at important concepts. With a few exceptions, most of the books are accessible and easy to read.

Here is our list [in no particular order]:

  1. Daniel T. Rogers, Age of Fracture, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011). — This is by far the best primer on understanding the intellectual developments that shape our culture post-1975.
  2. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, 20th Anniversary Edition (New York: Penguin Books, 2005).  — Originally published in 1985 as somewhat of a polemic against TV, many of its ideas remain relevant.
  3. David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change, (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1999).  — This is not an easy read, but I think it is foundational for wrestling with notions of postmodernity and changes to the capitalist structure throughout the 20th century.
  4. Thomas Frank, Listen Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2016). — Frank anticipated and understood many of the issues within the Democratic Party that led to Clinton’s loss.
  5. Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, (New York: Nation Books, 2016). — This is a long book, but easily read in small sections.
  6. George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998). — This book peels back notions of colorblindness and highlights what privilege looks like and how it operates through public policies and cultural ideas.
  7. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the world and me. (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015). — A great account why people of color are probably not surprised about Trump but also fucked?
  8. James Baldwin,Giovanni’s Room, (New York: Random House, 1956). — Humanizes the gay rights movement and makes one aware of the challenges they face in the coming years.
  9. Junot Díaz, The brief wondrous life of Oscar Wao, (New York: Penguin, 2007). Similar to seven and eight but from the perspective of the Dominican community.
  10. Vladimir Nabokov, Bend sinister. (New York: Vintage, 1947). A novel about the rise of a scary authoritarian government and a philosopher’s refusal to aid it.
  11. Tyler Cowen, Average is over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation. (New York: Penguin, 2013) and Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. Race Against the Machine, (Lexington, MA: Digital Frontier, 2011). (read together). Economic/policy background on the state of the economy that set the conditions for a Trump presidency.
  12. David Farber, The Rise and Fall of Modern American Conservatism: A Short History, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).  — A useful primer that charts the trajectory and development of the modern GOP from Goldwater to George W. Bush through a series of biographical chapters.

Have something to add? Need to rant? Let us know what you think in the comments!

 

There is No Winning Team

Every time I scroll Facebook or Twitter, I am reminded of the election. I don’t want to think about it right now. I still have a bit of a numb feeling. It reminds me a lot of when my Kansas City Royals lost the 2014 World Series. I’ve been a rabid Royals fan all of my life, and after losing Game 7, I felt disappointed and like the build up that gave me so much hope that October had been taken away.

After that game, I stopped reading about the Royals for a long time. I didn’t obsess over them that offseason. I couldn’t read the think-pieces about why Alex Gordon didn’t try to score from third on a shallow fly ball. Sure it would have been risky, but it could have been the difference. I hated the Giants for a long time after that too. Madison Bumgarner’s name still irritates me.

Then came 2015. They played more games. They won a lot of them. We returned to the World Series and won. It was magical. Not quite the same after losing the year before, and experiencing that disappointment, but still incredible. I grew up dreaming of that moment, and to fall short really hurt me, but winning in 2015 helped heal that.

Politics are a lot like sports. We treat our candidates and our parties like opposing teams. This is unhealthy, by most accounts, and has likely contributed to the polarization in our society. There are some fans who love a good story, who enjoy the game, and then there are some who are provincial, loyal to their core, and haters of those not like them. What kind of sports fan are you? I’m a little embarrassed to admit I am the latter. I love my hometown team. I’m loyal to them. I want them to win. And I’m a hater otherwise. What type of fan are you?

Is this how I am politically? I don’t think so, or at least I don’t want to think so. It’s no secret I am liberal. Yet, I, like many of my friends who grew up in middle America, have always been reluctant to embrace or take on the Democrat label. Indeed, I find myself critiquing the DNC quite often. As I kid, I leaned right. It was mostly because of my surrounding, the influence of my family, and lack of education about the world and the people in it. I’ve never felt particularly tied or represented by either party. Yet, last night I was clearly on team blue. I don’t really care for Clinton and I disapprove of her style of politics and many of her policies (she is so easy to critique) but she was the clear choice. So too were some local Democratic candidates (that also lost). They best fit my views.

Politics, to me, are not about morality or conscious. It’s all about compromise. It’s about understanding you may view the world one way privately but also recognize subjecting everyone to the limitations or your views is unfair. It’s about seeing others and trying to accommodate both views. What type of political behavior do you engage in? Is it inclusive?

Team politics blur this, I think. It creates a myopic and oppositional view of your team versus their team. It dehumanizes the other side acting as a barrier to understanding. As a sports fan, this is OK. Rivalry is fun and important to sporing traditions. Narratives of us versus them are inspiring and amusing because it is just a game; it’s just entertainment. Sure, sometimes fans get violent and unruly, but that is rare. The other great thing about sports is that there is always next year. My team may lose, but we’ll have another chance to win before too long.

The pain many Americans are feeling is not just because their candidate lost and the opposition scares them. It’s the the realization that there is no next year. Instead, the next “big” election is four years away. The build up and excitement crashed down into disappointment because we’re left with an oppositional winner that we fear because the narratives of the game have told us to. I’m not saying Donald Trump and his election rhetoric is not scary, but the overwhelming fear and dumbfounded feeling we have is, at least in part, a product of the Team Narrative, which encourages us to imagine our opponents as sick and vile, and see their fans in a certain derogatory way. We’ve been conditioned to operate this way. And when we lose, we’ve been told there’s another game tomorrow night, next week, or next year. The next game helps us get over the last. It gives us a new opponent, new hope for winning, and a reason to keep improving.

Although I didn’t follow the Royals too closely during the offseason between 2014 and 2015, I stayed abreast of their moves. The front office analyzed its weaknesses and worked to improve the team. They signed new players, drafted young talent, and rebuilt their roster for the new season. In 2015, we won the most games in the American League, and used our experience from 2014 to march through the playoffs and into the World Series. And we won.

For some, the “next year” in politics is the 2020 presidential election. For others it is 2018 midterms. This means the next two to four years are our offseason. What do we do to make our “team” better? I hope that step one is to think beyond our “team.” We need to try to better understand our country, all of it. We also need to work to make sure our country — and everyone in it — better understand us. How well do you know the other side? How well do they know you? The answers to those questions point to, I think, the disunity of the country. Unlike sports, politics are not entertainment (even if the media treats them that way), there is no us versus them, it is all about us.

Race, Class, and Media: An Impromptu Education on the 2016 Election

It has been busy but a fantastic week in the Ivory Tower. I’ve met some amazing scholars and had some really enlightening conversations. As the week draws to a close, I’ve begun to see it as a bit of an impromptu grad seminar with some interesting themes emerging that help me better see the 2016 Election.

Monday I had lunch with Nicole Hemmer after Purdue’s political history seminar and we got to chat more about her new book Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics and its connections to the current political climate. The role of media and the debates over media ethics, and questions of fair coverage (e.g. the fairness doctrine) are so fascinating as it applies to conservative media. She breaks its history into multiple periods, and tracks it rise. We see how conservatives have an almost anti-establishment dogma, even when they are the establishment, which has intensified the rightward turn and played out in conservative media. It has become a constant race to be the most anti-establishment figure, for some, which is why we’ve had things like the Tea Party. There is a lot at play there, but it definitely is a huge influence and helps shape conservatism as it rises to power and seeks to maintain power. And I think the ways media does these things are crucial for understanding modern political conversations and “how” we can get someone like Trump doing what he’s doing.

Next, on Wednesday Ibram X. Kendi, was on campus talking about his new book Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America and afterwards I joined him for dinner where the conversation continued. In his book (and his talk) he highlights how racist ideas and racial policies work hand-in-hand to re-inscribe racist views, pointing out that there is an interesting producer-consumer dynamic at play. He also outlines various types of racial ideas, such as segregationist, assimilationist, and anti-racist. The goal is to embrace anti-racist views, but the politics and policies of the previous forms continue to linger, and re-inscribe themselves through things like faulty thinking, self-perpetuating data that is misunderstood, and other things. Policy, in many ways, seems to be at heart of the matter, and creating an anti-racist world requires changing the policies (which requires disrupting and altering systems of power). He offers a few ways on how to do this, but generally, it requires convincing folks that anti-racism is in their best interest so that they will support and advocate for anti-racist policies.

Last night, my grad colleague Wes Bishop invited me to participate in a discussion of Nancy Isenberg’s new book White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America at a local bookstore downtown and with the general public. It was a wonderful conversation and so much fun to talk history with *real* people. Questions of class often get overlooked or folded into debates over race and racism. Isenberg’s book helps us look at how class has functioned and its role within the power structure of American society asserting (poor) whiteness along the lines of other racial categories. We see quite a bit anxiety within these relations  and the tenuous nature of class as an identity that seems to be more assigned from the top (in Isenberg’s view) than embraced or created from below. Elites use the “white trash” as both a coalition they ran rely on and a scapegoat they can blame. My understanding of this book is still rudimentary as I have not finished reading it, but in relation to Kendi’s book, I begin to see more clearly how class ideas are crucial for understanding power and policy (of course, any good Marxist would tell you that), but also it seems that the “white trash” operate as a tool of a power doing some of the dirty work that elites don’t want to do (and not just in terms of creating wealth).

 Just prior to the book discussion, I read Timothy Lombardo‘s fantastic blog post on Tropics of Meta, “New Right, Far Right, Alt-Right? Donald Trump and the Historiography of Conservatism.” We chatted briefly about it on Twitter, but he argues the whole conservatism historiography has been a tad flawed, and we need to understand how the alt and extreme right have been tacitly nurtured by mainstream conservatism, even if not wholly embraced until now. It’s a really interesting read, and I think it helps get at how and why extreme ideas and logical ideas have gotten spliced together allowing so many Trump supporters to be rational people with some what crazy views. This is an issue I have been thinking about quite a bit. My Aunt is a proud Tump supporter. She is a well-educated, fairly wealthy, business owner and not an anti-establishment type (though she is anti-Obama and anti-Hillary). She doesn’t fit the Trump supporter stereotype. So it has been puzzling to me to understand how she can be a smart, rational conservative, yet become so seduced by Trumpism. I think Tim is right. There’s something within the history and rise of conservatism that has nurtured and spliced together rational and logical views with extreme views, normalizing them. Historians need to dig deeper to better understand that process.

 I list these events not to brag about how lucky I am to meet amazing people or how engaged I am with new scholarship (fact is, I’ve barely read any of these books so maybe I am just writing non-sense). Rather, I list the events because they have helped me rethink and better understand much of the current dynamic at play with Trump and the election. Media, race, whiteness, and our pre-conceived views/understanding of conservatism all factor into how we try to make sense of it. I hope my short synopses help show some of these connection (even though I didn’t  explicitly draw them out in this post). I won’t say that I had a big “Ah-Ha” moment this week, but the juxtaposition of all of these things in my schedule have helped me see some of the larger trends and understand a bit more of the nuance. I’d encourage everyone intrigued by these various elements to take a look at some of these books or essays to dig a little bit deeper.

It’s not common that my weekly schedule arranges itself as an impromptu grad seminar/meet-and-greet, but damn, this week was fun. I’m lucky to be where I am.

On Kaepernick

I’ve kept most of my commentary about Colin Kaepernick confined to Twitter, and “clicking like” on people’s posts on Facebook. As many of you know, I was an MA student at Nevada while he was the quarterback for the Wolf Pack. During that time I became a fan of his, and I have been following his career with interest ever since. What’s more, I teach an African American Studies course here at Purdue called “The Black Athlete.” So the story is relevant to me as both a fan and a scholar.

First, I think it is important to take note of the evolution of Kaepernick’s image. When I was a student at Nevada he was a community hero, a beloved figure to almost everyone. At Nevada he was a hero, but people also recognized he had a complex identity. They respected that and sought to understand him. The media did countless profiles on him and his background, revealing the nuance to his identity.

That treatment and that understanding did not follow him to the NFL. Once he went to the league, few people were aware of who he was, his complex identity, or personality. The national media did not dig up or rely on the Nevada narratives. Instead, while they liked his play, they also saw his tattoos and celebrations, making their own narratives. Quickly he became labeled a “thug,” immature, etc. He was caricatured along the lines of most black athletes, and became stripped of the complex nuances in his life; turned into a stereotype not a man. This representation held no matter his success. In fact, I witnessed many of my own colleagues openly rooting against him in Super Bowl XLVII because they didn’t like his image, attitude, etc., buying into the new and revised narratives.

Of course, the difference between local, college media and national media is important here. But what has struck me, and I have only been able to fully recognized what troubled me for so long in the last year after teaching my course, is that in watching the revision of the Kaepernick narrative from college to the NFL I have been watching how racism works in America. We are capable and even willing to understand and appreciate certain athletes, behaviors, images, in a local, friendly, (and perhaps possessive) setting, but when they become unfamiliar, when they are the enemy, have a larger stage, etc. we care less, take less time, to dig deeper. Nationally, we are OK and comfortable with the caricatures and stereotypes that we would never tolerate in other contexts.

Following Friday’s demonstrations, the stereotypes continue for most. Entitled, ungrateful, prima donna, anti-American, etc. Others yet seemed baffled that an alleged “thug” could also be an activist, retreating to the commonly held stereotype that athletic ability and intellectual depth are mutually exclusive. The perpetuation of these stereotypes are indicative of the exact culture and treatment that Kaepernick is speaking out against.

Second, the analysis of Kaepernick’s demonstration and activism that I have read, has largely ignored the connections to W.E.B. Du Bois. As I learned today, Friday, when he refused to stand for the national anthem, was also the anniversary of Du Bois’ death. Du Bois, of course, coined the term “double consciousness” referring to how African Americans are both black and Americans, a twin identity that is often hard to reconcile given the history of this country and its relationship to race. Indeed, this likely was not lost on Kaepernick. As my friends at Nevada know, each student is required to take “Core Humanities” courses, one of which covers the American Experience. These courses are about perspectives and include discussion sections. DuBois is almost certainly a topic covered.

Additionally, Kaepernick joins a long tradition of black athletes engaging in activism. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar famously refused to play in the 1968 Olympics, saying “It’s not my country” about being unpersuaded by a patriotic duty to compete. Ali, of course, refused induction in the Army. They too invoked Du Bois’ concept, explicating their black identity from larger American nationalist and imperialistic goals that they could not reconcile with their realities. There are several other examples that I wont list here.

I offer these two points to help us understand the historic context of Kaepernick’s actions. The present context is equally complex. A flawed criminal justice system has given rise to the Black Lives Matters moment, Donald Trump has incited a resurgence in white supremacist ideals, and the NFL continues to be the “no fun league” with a major image problem. All of these issues continue to unfold, while Kaepernick pledges to continue “demonstrating” until some sort of real, substantive change happens. Some will say that regardless of the outcome, Kaepernick has been successful redirecting our attention and starting conversations. This is true, but like our awareness of nuance and complexity at the personal level, it can too easily be ignored and written off from a distance. As the story continues, I hope that the narratives surrounding Kaepernick will help us rethink and reevaluate national stereotypes and policies, help us better empathize with pain of living with racism in America, and inspire us to work together to not nostalgically “make American great again” but instead progressively make America a great place for all of us.

John Carlos and My Charmed Academic Life

I’ve lived something of a charmed academic life. I’ve been incredibly fortunate and lucky in the opportunities I’ve had. My advisors at every level have been top-notch and selfless. Incredibly encouraging and passionate about their student’s success. The institutions have been equally giving, even if no one has heard of my undergraduate institution or I get funny looks when I say my master’s degree is from Nevada.

Tonight I was reminded of this charmed life when I met 1968 Olympic 200m bronze medalist, John Carlos. The Black Cultural Center here at Purdue sponsored the talk. Carlos chose to speak here, instead of attend the track and field hall of fame induction ceremony. His Grandson is a current Purdue student (and a fraternity brother of one of my students this semester). You could tell that this familial connection was important to Carlos. So was talking to a young crowd. He shared a lot of personal, family stories. He spoke little of his athletic career or Olympic moment, and instead encouraged us to stand up for what is right, to not be fooled by the distractions of mass media, and reminded us that we can’t go back in time to change our choices. This last point stems from his experience in 1968.

A major theme of his talk was sacrifice in the face of criticism. Any movement, any major achievement, requires sacrifice. And that sacrifice is not momentary. It’s often lifelong. Sometimes it is a stigma, sometimes it’s mistreatment, other times it’s delayed gratification. Carlos experienced bits and pieces of all of theses. Yet, he’s extremely proud of his actions and statements. He knew he was right — and firmly believes that what’s right never changes. His actions were misunderstood — and continue to be — and opposed by many then, though now they’re largely celebrated. People thought he was advocating Black Power, but according to Carlos, “the only black power was my black ass running down that track.”

Narratives, however, painted him as radical and anti-American. This confusion has often overshadowed the Olympic Project for Human Rights and his own commitment to the larger civil rights movement. He laughs when people trying to re-write that history, but kindly explains what he was and continues to be about, encouraging them to join his cause.

Encouraging people to join his cause — the cause for civil and human rights — is important, increasingly so, he argues. This is our life, our history, and our time to deal with what’s right and wrong, he said. We can’t keep waiting for “more time” because it will never come. We’ve got to wake up and look beyond the media narratives that discounted him for so long, and continue to ignore or move past serious social ills, and act. Indeed, he is particularly worried and concerned about the future given the rise of police violence and continued systemic inequality.

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John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s iconic salute on the 200m medal stand at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics

The talk was humorous, heartfelt, and inspiring. It was clear that it came from his soul. Carlos wants young people to continue the fight, think critically about the world they live in, and work to make a difference. One line from early in his talk to this effect particularly struck me. We have such a “fear of offending our oppressors” he said, but we must not let it limit our right to express ourselves and stand up for what is right. In the end, that is his message to all of us and the way he has tried to live his life.

Hearing those words from Carlos meant so much to me. I’ve long looked up to him and Tommie Smith. I had the iconic poster of the two of them on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics on the wall of my dorm room my freshman year. I was a track athlete and loved their bravery, but back then I don’t think I ever fully understood what it really meant. That image, however, was one of my first introductions into the connections of history and sport.

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John Carlos and I at Purdue University, October 2015.

Now, here I am tonight, sharing the story that I heard firsthand from a man I looked up for most of my adolescent life. I even had my photo taken with him on stage after the event. I live a charmed life.

What’s insane about all of this is, this isn’t the first time I have met one of my heroes. In the summer of 2010 I met 1964 Olympic 10,000m Gold Medalist Billy Mills for the first time. Mills was the main subject of my master’s thesis. That summer, I was in Lawrence doing research on him at KU and Haskell that summer, when I serendipitously learned he was in town and giving a free public talk. I already had a mutual friend with Mills — a fellow Baker University track alum, Mark Misch — who promised to introduce us, but providence intervened.

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Billy Mills and I at the Haskell Cultural Center, June 2010.

Meeting him meant the world to me. I grew up in Kansas, running cross country and track. The state cross country meet for class 5A and 6A schools is annually held at the University of Kansas’ Rim Rock Farm. The course is decorated with silhouettes of Kansas’ most famous runners and many of its features — such as hills, curves, and bridges — are named for them. The final hill of the course bares his name. It’s called the Billy Mills Ascent. It was hell. A near 400m hill that separated you from the sprint. Your legs burned and ached as you pushed yourself to the summit, where you could see the finish line 400m away. The hill tested your resolve and endurance, and only the best prepared dared to attempt a final kick after it. In high school we trained all year with that hill in mind. Every Wednesday my team did hill repeats until our cool down was nothing more than a walk/job. That hill was on our minds. We knew it by name. We knew what it meant — perseverance, toughness, and survival. What today, in the traditional of Gerald Vizenor, you might call survivance. It was an ode to both Billy Mills’ championship and his struggle.

Mills and I met again 6 months later, this time at his house in Sacramento. He generously invited me to spent a cold January day with him and his wife, Patricia. I came away with over 6-hours of recording as we chatted about his life, pre-and-post ’64. It was a remarkably engaging and intimate conversation. He was so open and giving, willing to move beyond his usual rote and rehearsed talk. Without the generosity, my master’s thesis — and probably my academic career — would not have been possible.

My thesis was the first major study of Billy Mills. I connected his life to Jim Thorpe and evolving federal Indian policy to describe and interpret the conditions that framed his life and connect his impact to that larger history.  When I finished my thesis that summer, I shipped him a bound copy. Both he and Pat read it. They loved it and asked about getting more copies, prompting discussions about the future of the project.

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Billy Mills, Purdue Native American Students, and I at Purdue University, October 2014.

Since then we’ve stayed in touch, mostly through Facebook, and become friends. They visited Purdue last fall and requested that I be invited to have lunch with them.  They wanted to catch up, and continue our conversation from years ago. It was another charmed connection. Another surreal moment with one of my heroes.

In addition to meeting these sporting heroes, I’ve also had the chance to meet a variety of inspiring academics. Last year I had tea with Michale Oriard — the eminent scholar of football. We sat and talked for nearly two hours about his books (which are required reading for any football scholar), my research, our thoughts on higher education, and more. Oriard played football at Notre Dame and later for the Kansas City Chiefs — my hometown NFL team. So, of course, Kansas City and barbecue was yet another topic. A similar moment occurred last week, when I was invited to have lunch with Bruce Schulman, a leading political historian from Boston University. Bruce was friendly and encouraging. He enjoyed hearing about my dissertation and, though it was a brief conversation, offered some constructive thoughts on the topic.

Perhaps I’m making too much of these moments. Maybe I need to let go of my inner fanboy. But whenever I think of them — and my insane ESPN appearance in August — I can’t but help wonder if I am living a dream. Meeting my heroes, hearing them share their stories, becoming friends with them, and then sharing those stories in my own classroom and publications is more than I ever imagined. I knew at an early age I wanted to study history. I stumbled into the history of sports in undergrad, but never knew any of this was possible.

These stories mean so much to me, not only because they’re dreams come true, but also because this journey has and continues to be incredibly hard. Writing is tough work. Teaching is at times exhausting. Together, they sometimes seem impossible. I have a lot of moments of self-doubt. There are days where it is damn hard to keep going. It is during these times, when I’m struggling to push through the distractions, that I reflect on all of these personal moments. They remind me that I can keep going. That I’ve been successful. That I’ve been put in this place for a reason.  One of the freakiest reminders is the progression of area codes from institution to institution. I completed my BA and MLA in 785, my MA in 775, and am doing my doctoral work in 765. It’s silly, I know. It’s probably meaningless, but it sure feels like I sign. It helps me know that I am where I supposed to be and doing what I’m supposed to be doing. It hints that maybe this plan isn’t all mine. After all, I’m living a charmed life. I have already been given a lifetime of unreal opportunities. With a little more hard work, who knows what else will come my way.

Race & Protest: The Cultural Significance of Football at Oklahoma

This week I’ve been Tweeting and sharing stories and links about the events at the University of Oklahoma. The video showing racist behavior by Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity members is disturbing. I’ve tried to add some context by sharing my research into the history of Oklahoma and the university. During these discussions, I’ve payed particularly close attention to OU Football Coach Bob Stoops. He’s done a tremendous job of coming out against the actions and taking a firm stand against racism. President Boren has also done an admirable job providing quick, decisive leadership. The fraternity has already been shut down. Two of its member have also been expelled for their behavior.

Today news came out that Coach Bob Stoops, Athletic Director Joe Castiglione, and the University of Oklahoma football did not practice yesterday (which was supposed to be their first spring practice). Instead, they met at the football complex, prayed together, and then marched through campus arm-in-arm demonstrating against racism. The Oklahoma Football Twitter account Tweeted pictures using #notonOUrcampus and #Sooners Stand United.

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Also on Monday, top-recruit Jean Delance announced he would not attend OU and decommitted. These actions illustrate the importance of football as a symbol of the university. I’ve focused predominately on the actions of the football team at OU because it’s my area of research. My dissertation explores the OU football dynasty during the 1950s, and how it came to represent the state and create pride for its citizens. Football became a symbol of not just the university, but also the state. Bud Wilkinson, the football coach during that era, became one of the most important people in the state (this later led him to run for political office). The central role of football in the state is significant, and thus the leadership of its coach is crucial for gaining the attention of Sooners. After all, as my study shows, football played a key role in shaping the state’s culture. I believe Stoops and the OU football team continue to do so today.

Race and football has a long history together. The University of Oklahoma was the second to last football program to integrate its team in the old Big 8 (Missouri was the last). Though they were 14 years ahead of their biggest rival, the University of Texas, who integrated in 1970, it was a slow process. OU faced two Supreme Court cases during the late-1940s that would eventually force integration of the university. It took nearly four years from the first lawsuit until African-Americans were finally admitted. Once admitted, the University dragged its feet. Using railings and ropes, it tried to keep black students separate in classrooms. University President George Cross received hundreds of letters. Many of them from local residents deploring the idea, while out-of-state writers shamed Oklahoma for treating African-American students like animals, caging them off with ropes and railings. Soon, there were similar concerns about the integration of the student union and the football stadium. Could black students attend games? Would the intensity of sports cause problems? Administrators debated the pros and cons. Though George McLaurin and Ada Lois Sipuel sought educational equality, not athletic integration, they clearly got the ball rolling.

Indeed, in 1950 coach Bud Wilkinson announced that he would welcome any black player who was willing to try out for the team. A few tried out, but no one made the team until 1956. Prentice Gautt, a fullback from Oklahoma City became the first black player on the University of Oklahoma football team. He was a standout athlete at all-black Douglas High School. During his high school career, Gautt played in the first-ever integrated game in the state of Oklahoma. He was also the first African-American to play in the state all-star game, though he was a late addition and it required special permission.

Gautt’s success at OU was due, in part, to the support he received from the African-American community in Oklahoma City. According to Sooner Magazine, “A group of black doctors and pharmacists in Oklahoma City had funded a four-year scholarship for a scholar-athlete who could make the grade at OU.” This would save Wilkinson, and presumably other OU coaches, from having to use an athletic scholarship on a black player, which undoubtedly would have created a quite a controversy among fans and boosters. Because of Gautt’s athletic prowess, he easily could have chosen to attend another school who had offered him a real scholarship (a year later Gautt was given an athletic scholarship), but OU’s football clout meant more to him. They were the best team not just in Oklahoma, but the entire country. Playing at OU allowed him to fulfill one of his childhood dreams.

The Sooners were in the middle of a 47-consecutive game winning streak when Gautt joined the team. The 1956 team was named national champions for the second year in a row, but because of eligibility rules Gautt was relegated to the freshman team. Oddly, I’ve found relatively little coverage of Gautt and the integration of football at OU in the mainstream white press. Because of the earlier Supreme Court cases, the papers seemed to believe that Oklahoma was progressive and had moved beyond race. This, of course, was not true. The newspapers do reveal some of the difficulties Gautt faced. A few of his fellow freshman refused to play along side an African-American. Because of this, one of these teammates decided to leave OU. Most, however, supported him. When the freshman team was denied integrated dining following a game in Tulsa, they chose to walk out in solidarity.

According to Sooner Magazine, Gautt was sure to go out of his way to appease Southern customs, such as avoiding being seen with a female classmates. “When class was over, she would go back to the Quad, and I’d go the same way to practice,” he told the magazine. “I can remember slowly putting up my brushes one at a time, washing them and washing them and thinking `Holy cow, we have to do all of this…” Indeed, he struggled to have much of a social life in Norman and instead often drove to back home to Oklahoma City.

He earned a spot on the varsity team his sophomore year (just as the winning-streak ended). On the varsity team he continued to face racism. In Texas, state laws prohibited housing Gautt with the team in their Worth Hotel in Fort Worth before the big OU-Texas game at the Cotton Bowl, so other arrangements had to be made. Like earlier, the team showed solidarity and changed venues with him. Despite these set backs, Gautt stuck with it. During his junior year, he finally came into his own on the field. He was named MVP of the 1959 Orange Bowl. Success helped Gautt become more accepted on campus and in Oklahoma.

Following his playing day at OU, Gautt was drafted by the Cleveland Browns. He stayed in Cleveland for a year before being traded to the St. Louis Cardinals. After seven years with the Cardinals, Gautt retired and became an assistant for Dan Devine at Missouri in 1968. While coaching, he earned a Ph.D. in counseling psychology focusing on minority athletes. Eventually he joined the Big 8 (and later Big 12) as an assistant commissioner.

Gautt’s experience at Oklahoma shaped his later career and how he viewed race and athletics. In a TV interview during Bud Wilkinson’s 1964 U.S. Senate campaign, Gautt outlined some of his experience at OU and his views on Civil Rights and racial issues in sport.

Well you know this problem of integration, the Civil Rights bill, the Public Accommodations bill, they are, to me, when I hear people talk about it, it’s a big farce. Because it is easy for a person to get up and say I’m for civil rights, I’m for equal opportunity and I’m for this and I’m for that. But I believe until you make the first move in acting, or acting out what you’re saying, it’s no good.

Gautt believed in action, and he thought words were meaningless unless the were backed up. Bud Wilkinson backed up his word and Gautt supported him for Senate because “I have experienced it [Wilkinson’s actions].” During the interview, Gautt explained one example where Wilkinson stood up for Gautt and cut through racist views on the football team.

In 1959, uh we had a problem. We had, I was up for all-American, we had several fellas on the team that resented this. They didn’t think that I should have been up. They began to talk about me behind my back. We played Northwestern, we lost a very crucial game, our first game of the season. We came back we beat a team just barely, then we went to Texas, we played, we lost the game. We came back for practice that Tuesday. Tuesday we had a lousy practice. And he called us up in a huddle, and he said everybody in. We were really amazed because practice wasn’t over. He came into the dressing room we were in there milling around, talking with each other, and everybody sat down as he came in, and he said I want to talk to you for a moment. He said the fellow you’ve been talking about, he didn’t do, he didn’t ask for this all-American publicity. He didn’t ask for anything, the sportswriters selected him. He had the publicity from the paper. And I think it’s unjust that you talk about him behind his back. And until all of you decide that you want to play ball, you want to play together, that you’re men enough, and then stand up and tell him the things that you’ve said about him behind his back, I don’t want to have anything to do with you. And he walked out and slammed the door. Well, immediately fellas began to stand up and apologize to me for what they’d said. We band together, got together and we played wonderful football, at least up until the Nebraska game, which we lost. I think that was one of the first time Oklahoma had lost to the Big 8, one of the Big 8 foes, in pretty good a while.

(The quotes above are from this video interview).

Wilkinson was able to provide this leadership because, according to Gautt, he was “a secure person who felt pretty good about who and what he was.” He had the respect and the authority because of his success and his position within the state to say “You can he a part of my program. Regardless of what other people think or feel or do, I want you to be a part of my program.” This, in turn, put Gautt at ease and allowed him to trust his coach.

The response at OU follows this tradition. President Boren’s strong words have been followed by swift action and expulsions. Coach Stoops, like Wilkinson, has displayed remarkable leadership as well. Monday’s protest demonstrates to Oklahoma football players, and fans of the program, that its leader will not tolerate racism.

Gautt’s words, his example, and his determination still loom larger for the Sooners. The Prentice Gautt Academic Center connected to Memorial Stadium supports Oklahoma athletes academically. Likewise, until his death in 2005, Gautt frequently returned to OU to offer his wisdom. In 1987 he told Sooner Magazine, “Regardless of how far we’ve come, we still have a long way to go in terms of people relating to people. We’re not talking about just black to white and white to black: we’re talking about people relating, families, husbands and wives, kids and other kids. Underlying that is a message of love–what it really means to care for somebody.” As Oklahoma moves forward, I hope these words from one of the school’s most important racial pioneers guide it. It’s heartening to see Stoops and the football team lead the way. Like Wilkinson and Gautt breaking barriers in the 1950s, the cultural importance of football remains important and will go a long way in starting the healing process.