Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Guest TigerBlog - Howard Levy On Race

With the events going on in this country right now, TigerBlog gives the floor to Howard Levy, Princeton Class of 1985 and an All-Ivy League center for the men's basketball team and the current head men's basketball coach at Mercer County Community College:

“Coach it’s crazy out here [Philly].  I never seen nothing like it.”

“It’s ok but I still watch my surroundings, never know what’s going to happen here [Trenton].  I just pray for better days for my city.”

“Dad why do people like us get killed by people that look like my friends?  Does that mean my friends will kill me when I get older?”

These are a couple of responses I received this weekend as I reached out to many of my African American friends, coaches, players and former players as the events in Minneapolis and elsewhere unfolded.  While I cannot experience what they experienced, I wanted to make sure they knew that I love them and support them.  I hate that there continues to be a huge divide in this country based on race. 

I remember reading Bill Bradley’s book "Life on the Run" while at Princeton as a student (1981-85), and I remember that he said that he understood race because he played basketball. At the time, I thought that was a cop out. While I still think that this comment is overly broad, since becoming the head coach at Mercer in 2009, I realized that my experiences in basketball have opened my eyes to the problems of race in America, and opened my heart to being in some small way a part of the solution.

I saw that all of my basketball experiences, including and especially summer weekends in high school and college spent playing ball in Harlem, the Bronx and Queens on various teams—some mostly white teams that came in from the suburbs, some mostly black teams that were based in the city, and countless hours playing pickup with friends and random guys – allowed me to easily identify with and maintain a natural and easy rapport with my mostly black inner city players.

I’m sure my upbringing has something to do with this as well. My dad (Syd Levy) played for City College of New York in the 1950s on teams of poor and working class black, Jewish, Irish and Italian kids, most of whom where the first in their family to attend college (which was free). I grew up seeing these guys from time to time at various events and they were just my dad’s buddies—we didn’t see race or ethnicity in that way. They were all comfortable enough to joke about those topics in a way that might cause a stir today as it would be certainly taken out of context but was actually their way of showing LOVE for each other. As an aside, I remember a CCNY Alumni game as a kid where the teams were coached by Hall of Famers Nat Holman and Red Holtzman.  Red Holtzman was the coach of the Knicks at the time and I sat next to him on the bench as the water boy!

Upon my dad’s death 13 years ago, we heard countless anecdotes from his African American friends, including his regular attendance at the Brooklyn USA dinner where he was one of the few white guys there, as well as his efforts to rehabilitate the players on the double championship CCNY team of 1950 and get them inducted into the CCNY Hall of Fame. So I had a great example and did not have to “learn” this.

Maybe being Jewish has given me some additional perspective. While the black and Jewish experiences are very different, Jews have been targeted and stereotyped for their religion.  Jews were rare on my high school team, and I was the only Jew on the team during my 4 years at Princeton, and while I didn’t think of it much at the time, I realize that I was likely one of the first Jews that my teammates and classmates had encountered.  In the context of the natural ball-busting that occurs amongst friends and teammates, the word “Jew” or Jewish stereotypes were often part of that.  Over time, however, I saw that prolonged contact and interaction often overcomes biases and stereotypes, as these are unfair caricatures that have gained credence over time. 

Too many people unfortunately see an African American and all of the historical stereotypes—developed over years of slavery and segregation —immediately bubble to the surface. I’ve heard and seen too many stories of people, and most notably law enforcement, jumping to conclusions based on the biases that they bring to any interaction. No white person can understand the fear that a black person feels in what “we” would consider an ordinary interaction with law enforcement. If you are black there are no ordinary interactions with law enforcement. I remember years ago former Yale star and successful businessman Butch Graves getting tackled and falsely arrested on his way to a train home at Grand Central Station after being wrongly profiled.

I wrote the word “we” above and it bothers me. Who is “we”—white people?  I don’t think that should be a team, and it’s certainly not one that I want to be on. In speaking to my Princeton teammate Isaac Carter, who does great work in the Chicago Public School system, he said “I am so disappointed in my people who are taking advantage of the situation.”  I responded that I hate that this becomes your people/my people. I don’t want to be on Team White or Team Black.  To quote Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream Speech (coincidentally given on the day of my birth, Aug. 28, 1963), I want to “live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”  That’s the team I want to be on.

Despite cultural, religious and other differences, my Mercer players are just like my kids, only too many of them lack the social and financial safety net that I have been fortunate enough to provide.  Simply put many of these kids have no margin for error.  I’ve seen too often how one setback—a fender bender, a sick relative, an outstanding balance at school—can have a devastating impact on one’s educational and life trajectory.  Things that I would simply handle for my own children without the blink of an eye.  Of course, there are some truly special kids that can make it through any obstacle, but most of us are products of our environment.  Since coaching at Mercer, I have become a big fan of the movie “Trading Places” where Eddie Murphy’s character, a stereotypical black drug dealer, trades roles with Dan Ackroyd’s character, a stereotypical wealthy white privileged snob, and Murphy’s character finds success while Ackroyd’s devolves.  This movie makes a great point in a light hearted manner, that personal character is what leads to success.  To me, this accentuates the need for social policy that creates better support systems, particularly in low income communities, to allow more people of character to thrive. 

I will stop here as I don’t want to get into politics.  Coaching at Mercer, where we need to build a new team every year, I tell my team in the first meeting that you’ve got to trust me—we’ve got a lot to do, and we don’t have time for you to slowly realize that I am right.  For those of you that in your lives have not come in contact with those that are considered different because of their race, religion, sexual orientation, or anything else, TRUST ME—we’re all just people.   You might not like someone once you get to know them, but I can assure you it won’t be because of some ridiculous stereotype that has been ingrained.  So act accordingly.

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