Rutgers Hoops and Racism: A Familiar Refrain

This isn’t the first time Rutgers basketball has found itself at the center of a racially charged controversy. Just four months prior to C. Vivian Stringer’s arrival on the Piscataway campus in the summer of 1995, the school’s African-American student body was doing its best to rekindle the fire of the sixties generation. For weeks the campus became a hot-bed for political activity. Protests. Teach-ins. Fire alarms. Bogus bomb threats. A highway was taken over.

At the source of the angst were seven ill-conceived words by then President Francis L. Lawrence. In a meeting the previous fall Lawrence had said that disadvantaged students who might lack the “genetic hereditary background to have a higher average” on standardized tests should not be denied access to higher education. More than three months went by before the Home News Tribune reprinted the comments, on the eve of Black History month. It was later revealed that the remarks had been deliberately leaked by a union in negotiations with the Rutgers administration, but at the time no one was thinking about that. All that mattered was that the president of a state university had suggested that the school’s black students were genetically inferior to their white counterparts.

Two factors contributed heavily to the embittered student response to Lawrence’s remarks. First, the controversial book The Bell Curve had just been published and was receiving gobs of attention in the media. Three basic points in the book caused a maelstrom of backlash: 1) Intelligence is one, if not the most, important correlative factor in economic, social, and overall success in America, and is becoming more important. 2) 40% to 80% of intelligence is genetically heritable. 3) There are racial and ethnic differences in IQ that cannot be entirely explained by environmental factors such as nutrition, social policy, or racism.

The second factor can be summer up two letters: O.J. The Simpson trial had not just captured the attention of the nation at large; it had drawn sharp racial and gender divisions on campuses across the country.

The inflammatory pseudo-science in the pages of The Bell Curve didn’t “merely” suggest the intellectual inferiority of blacks but their criminal proclivity as well. It said, in effect, black people are prone to fail in society and to respond to their failures by committing crime— ergo a wildly obsessive O.J. killing his (white) wife and her lover. As the months passed, the trial began to engorge more of our collective lives, our conversations. It began to ignite our worst assumptions about one another.

And then Francis Lawrence went and stoked the fire with those seven words.

It took a month of campus protesting for the nation to catch wind of what was going down. And that’s where Rutgers basketball fits in. In basketball parlance, Rutgers is what you call a bottom-feeder. They haven’t made it to the NCAA tournament in sixteen years. In a good year, they make to the Big East tournament. But on an early March day back in 1995 they were beating the #2 ranked Marcus Camby led University of Massachusetts team at halftime of a nationally televised game. It was then that a student got out of the stands, walked down to the floor and sat at center court. When security guards attempted to remove her, hundreds of other students stood up and walked down to the floor. When the two teams emerged from the tunnel for the second half they discovered a court overrun by students. Officials called the game. Everyone was directed to leave the building.

Sharpton, who was just up the road, never made an appearance on campus. Legend has it that Jesse called the girl who initiated the sit-in, but no one knew for sure. What is known is that a few days later two of Rutgers’ star players, guard Damon Santiago and forward Jamal Phillips, appeared on ESPN. They didn’t have their coach’s approval, but they had their conscience. Did they agree with the protest? Yes and Yes. Were they upset that their game had been disrupted? No and No. Santiago and Phillips became cult-heros for their remarks on ESPN. At the risk of their careers, they’d stood with the students. Santiago was injured almost that whole season so there’s no way of knowing what price he paid. As for Phillips, he was benched for the remainder of his senior season.

After the UMass sit-in, a renewed spirit took over the campus. Students who weren’t “political” became more aware and involved. I know because I was one of them. I started attending the teach-ins and the protests, started thinking beyond what Lawrence had said and into the deeper implications of bias, the intersections of economics, culture and society. I was, in short, going through a political awakening.

When 2,000 students took over Rt. 18 in New Brunswick, New Jersey I was among them. We marched to President Lawrence’s house and waged a vigil outside while helicopters from every major network swarmed overhead. After the vigil, a group of students made a human chain and blocked the highway. They were pepper-sprayed and thrown into paddy-wagons.

Three weeks later I arrived from a class in time to find a man standing in front of my door room. He handed me an envelope and walked away. Out of the 2,000 protestors, three people had been charged with reckless endangerment and disorderly conduct. I was one of them. Me. A guy who just a few weeks earlier had been as politically ambivalent as they come.

I remember standing in the courtroom all alone, wondering where all of the students who’d been around me at the rallies had gone. That was part two of my political awakening: if you’re going to stand for something, you better prepared to stand alone. I wound up with a bunch of community service hours. Francis Lawrence went on to raise the school’s endowment four-fold in his tenure.

When I learned that Don Imus has been canned by NBC I paused long enough to recount this decade old story. In less than a week Imus was tried and hanged in the court of public opinion. Everyone from Barack Obama to Al Roker called for his job. Even those who apologized for the sometimey shock-jock, couldn’t defend him with any legitimacy. Back in 1995 no one stood with us, by us, for us. We lacked the power to impose our will or effectively spread our message. There was no Internet community, no blogosphere. Aware that without the force of a national movement we had no real power, the Rutgers administration chose to silence our dissent by making examples of a handful of students rather than deal with our grievance: Our school president sincerely believed that African-American students were genetically inferior.

At a time when even presidential campaigns are being orchestrated via the Internet, Imus didn’t stand a chance. The blogosphere unleashed too many articulate voices, too many persuasive opinions and too much passion for this to go quietly into the night. This is the new American – no, world – paradigm, and it’s almost tragically fitting that a relic from yesteryear became one of its earliest sacrifices.

Still, if there is a downside to all of this it is that it happened all too quickly for us to even realize that it was the power of everyday people on the Internet who helped make this happen. In a week Imus went from to fading talk show host to Public Enemy #1 because of people blogging and posting and sending information to one another. Now that the bomb has been diffused the story will begin its slow descent into the double-digit pages of our Google search engines. At year’s end, when the networks are revisiting 2007′s top stories this episode will surely be mentioned. But I can almost hear myself saying, “That was this year?”

Real change occurs through struggle. It happens over a period historical time not just real time. It requires sacrifice and commitment. Organization and cooperation. Getting rid of Don Imus required none of the above. Hoping to avoid a PR nightmare (because corporations don’t have souls or consciences, lest we forget), NBC quashed that possibility and in turn our (meaning the online community) opportunity to wage a sustained campaign for change on the airwaves that it could’ve evolved into.

We should not mistake this easy outcome for a victory. Don Imus is only the symptom of the problem. He is the sneeze of a sick society that continues to be afflicted with the disease of racism. Imus is a sacrifice, a forfeiture. Meanwhile, the apparatus that suckled him well into his sixties will keep moving forward unscathed. In a strange way, NBC even comes off looking humane. But any cancer patient can tell you that merely excising a malignant tumor is not enough to rid the body of the disease. The body still needs to undergo treatment or else the tumor will simply return with more force, more fury.

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3 Responses to “Rutgers Hoops and Racism: A Familiar Refrain”

  1. HNIC – thanks. I’d never heard of that protest at all, so that’s interesting and adds a whole new context to it. Interesting how Lawrence got a pass, when a few years later, Harvard’s Lawrence Summers essentially wound up being ousted for saying similar things about women in the sciences.

  2. Interesting that it was another Lawrence who got roasted a few years later at Harvard. I really didn’t think about that. Thanks for giving me the heads up

  3. Great website!! I will definitely come back soon…

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