Written by Anthony Mahon
Those were the last two words that came out of my mother’s mouth over the phone when I told her about the increased white nationalist presence in Burlington.
When I tell other people where I go to school, a few things come to mind: Bernie Sanders, maple syrup, organic everything, cold, liberal, and progressive.
However, even in environments that are labeled as liberal and progressive, racism exists. It exists in classrooms, on social media, and on basketball courts. Even in liberal, progressive Burlington. The latter was clear as day before a friendly University of Vermont vs. Saint Mike’s basketball game on November 4, 2017.
Many of St. Michael’s basketball players chose to kneel during the national anthem, a common practice among athletes—namely Colin Kaepernick—protesting racial injustice in America. Head Coach Josh Meyer—motivated by his wife and daughters’ experiences as people of color—and Assistant Coach Mike Larkin decided to kneel in solidarity with their players.
According to Meyer, it was a decision that had been discussed in detail among the team and supported by the coaches as something that could begin a dialogue. Meyer recounted the madness that followed as, “Hateful, angry, racist remarks.” Yells of “Get up,” “Stand up,” and “Go back to Africa” being hurled at the team while his wife and daughters were present made the situation hit home for Meyer.
“It’s really messed up. I see it in my daughters’ experience as women of color and then my partner’s experience.”
In response to the despicable reactions from the crowd, Josh Meyer and the St. Mike’s basketball team released statements while declining multiple requests for further comment.
You can read the statement written by the student athletes here. Coach Meyer’s reflection on the incident for MLK week can be found here.
While Meyer and the team’s heartfelt statements clearly outlined where they stood in regards to the events of November 4, the institutional response wasn’t as clear.
“I think they were apologetic for what happened,” Meyer said. “I think they were also careful. They didn’t want to offend alumni or fans.”
Too often during times of racial tension, institutions choose to walk a middle ground. They’re afraid of endorsing racist behavior while simultaneously being afraid of reactions from people who pretend racism isn’t an issue worthy of public action. When people’s lives are being affected, walking a middle ground and being a passive bystander aren’t viable options.
At what point do we start prioritizing the size of our wallet over someone’s life? The former is replenishable. The latter isn’t.
A month ago, there were posters promoting white nationalist ideologies put up around Champlain, UVM, and St. Mike’s campuses. One read: “It’s ok to be white” while another featured Thomas Jefferson. Ironically, the latter poster condemned hatred and promoted the embrace of white culture and white heritage.
The presence of these posters, especially of Thomas Jefferson that openly contradicts the hatred it attempts to shun is blatantly visible evidence of an issue that people choose to ignore or downplay until—and even after—it’s right in their face.
The ignorance masks a few underlying problems. The first is the common perception that in order for racism to be considered racism, it has to be as blatant as someone saying: “I’m racist.” Racist intentions tend to be masked in coded language and policies based on the belief that what is being said and done isn’t immoral or harmful.
The second lies within education. “I just think that the education that people receive in this country is not addressing what’s truly going on,” said Meyer. “People are misled. People don’t understand that there is racism in what is taking place in this country.”
The likes of Thomas Jefferson are marketed to young children as historic American heroes while little to no mention is made of their appalling tactics. The idea that a slave-owner can share the same space on a poster as the phrase, “Don’t give into hate” is sickening.
The third issue is the silencing of those who speak out against racism. Lebron James—a role model who is well known for his extensive community work—is told to “shut up and dribble.” Colin Kaepernick trains for another shot in the NFL as statistically inferior quarterbacks secure contract after contract.
Athletes as a whole watch as people burn their already-paid-for jerseys and label them, the silent protesters as “anti-American” under the brainwashing “love it or leave it” ideology. All of this displays the asinine notion that racism isn’t a problem worthy of speaking publicly about and if you do, you’re not really an American.
Loving America is wanting to make it better. It’s what Josh Meyer, Mike Larkin, and the St. Michael’s basketball team had in mind on November 4. It’s what people who point out the injustices in our society want. It’s what anyone who has a platform to advocate for change should want.
“We have to put pressure on these institutions in these systems and have to do it as a collective,” Meyer says. “People can’t be silent and people who have the luxury of being able to be silent can’t be silent.”
A couple years ago, I wrote about my experience as a black man in Burlington, Vermont and compared it to my experience as a black man in Connecticut. At that point, I had not physically seen racism rear its ugly head in the vicinity of a college campus. Now that I’ve seen it, I’m using my platform to bring light to this issue.
Young children shouldn’t have to hear grown adults hurling hateful comments at silent protesters. Proud Americans shouldn’t have to be told they don’t belong here. The values of America are being violated by the same people who use patriotism as an excuse to engage in reprehensible behavior.
With all due respect to my worried, concerned, and loving mother—the time for being careful is over. The time for people and institutions to sit on the sidelines is over. Beyond the importance behind people of color speaking out, we need allies and advocates.
Most importantly, we need change.