June 03, 2020
Tobias Harris has been one of Philadelphia's most prominent athletes during the COVID-19 pandemic, lending his voice and his wallet to a number of important causes while waiting for the return of basketball. That trend continued on Wednesday, with Harris writing an article for The Players' Tribune on the importance of tackling racism head-on in the wake of George Floyd's murder.
Harris, who joined Saturday's wave of protests in Philadelphia by marching through the city starting from the Philadelphia Art Museum, spoke at length about the role race has played in his life. The Sixers' forward explained that growing up in the suburbs as the star athlete, his recognition locally allowed him to avoid some of the issues that other black Americans deal with around the country.
That's an important example of the basic concept of "privilege," a word that often generates harsh backlash when applied to various groups. Growing up in a neighborhood where everyone knew who he was, Harris believes he was fortunate to avoid issues that he has since thought long and hard about as the years have gone by.
But Harris did not mince words regarding Floyd's death and the problem we face in America, stating plainly that addressing race issues without hesitation is the first step toward healing.
But if we gon’ talk about what happened to George Floyd, there needs to be a baseline acknowledgment of the reality: A white police officer killed an unarmed black man, and he was able to do it in broad daylight, with three other cops watching, because of the color of his skin.
And don’t reply to me with, “Oh, but this person did this.” Don’t try and make excuses, or say this isn’t about race. In a lot of my conversations with white people lately, I’m getting that statement over and over again: “Let’s stop making this about race.”
That’s easy to say when your brother or your father is not that person on the ground with someone’s knee on his neck. Your brother, son, father is not that person running away, getting shot at, in broad daylight.
I really just want to tell those people, Shut the hell up — because this IS about race. It’s always been about race. [The Players' Tribune]
This is something that a lot of replies have missed on over the last week, and certainly historically as these issues have bubbled to the surface. There's always a white guy saying something like, "I don't see color" or cherry-picking a quote from a notable African American figure that gives them a shield to hide behind. It's that approach that leaves us unequipped to handle these conversations, whether they're with our friends, family, or total strangers.
Harris, it's worth noting, has been actively trying to solve these problems even before the recent wave of protests. Known as an avid reader, Harris has made literacy one of the causes he champions away from the court, visiting with kids in schools and providing funding to help get children the resources they need. In mid-May, Harris provided funds that helped 5,000 children get books for at-home libraries to continue learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Part of the fight there, Harris says, stems from his recognition of the way education has failed to center prominent African Americans as part of our re-telling of history.
It took me a long time — maybe too long — to realize that things are different. Some people might want to think, Fame can’t change me. The NBA won’t change me. But if they’re being honest with themselves, they’ll acknowledge that being at that level puts a protective bubble around you. You have to ACTIVELY be going outside of that, actively be seeking knowledge and educating yourself, to be fully hip to everything going on in the world.We as celebrities and athletes have to do our part, too, to hold ourselves accountable. Period.
The schools don’t tell you the whole story. This is why I’m so big on educating and mentoring the youth. When I was coming up, in our school we basically only learned about three African-American heroes. We learned about Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X. And when did we learn about them? During Black History Month. For 28 days. I know y’all can relate.
I knew about Christopher Columbus, about George Washington, all the presidents, but only a handful of black leaders. That’s what I was taught. [The Players' Tribune]
That point spins off to black tragedy, too. No example is better than an event that recently "celebrated" its 99-year anniversary: the Black Wall Street Massacre of 1921 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This ugly, days-long riot that destroyed black businesses left more than 800 residents hospitalized, and recently came back to prominence as a result of its depiction in HBO's reboot of the graphic novel Watchmen.
But even saying it "came back" to prominence overstates how well-known it was before — nearly 63,000 respondents participated in a recent poll about the incident, with 94.9 percent saying they hadn't learned about it as part of their high school curriculum in America (a 94.9 percent that includes this writer). For a more local example, ask your friends and family how much they know about the 1985 MOVE bombing in Philadelphia.
The article for The Players' Tribune was not the only example of Harris speaking out over the last few days. Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Gale came under fire for a statement released this week referring to Black Lives Matters as "a radical left-wing hate group" and dismissing the merit of recent protests. Harris fired back on Tuesday, and helped spread a petition looking to oust Gale from his position.
(Gale, it's worth noting, holds his position as a product of a state rule that mandates one seat of the three-member commission that must be reserved for someone from the minority party.)
In any case, Harris' full article is worth a read if you have the time on Wednesday, and understanding one another begins with knowledge and a willingness to listen. This is a good place to start.
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