A friend sent me to a link to this story about diversity in cycling.
The title said it all, “US cycling powers are hoping to create change with a focus on diversity.”
The words were predictive of the story. “US cycling powers” immediately contrasts with something, of course, and that would be the “powerless.” Read a different way, white cyclists are going to fix things up for black ones. Black cyclists will be passive recipients of what white cyclists, who know better anyway, are going to do for them.
Blacks might be skeptical about what the “US cycling powers” have in store. I was skeptical and I’m not even black. One thing that immediately bothered was the word “hoping.” As a good friend who has tried more than 200 cases, most to victory, told me: “Hope is a weak word.”
It’s certainly not a plan, or a mission statement, or anything that Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Maya Angelou, Earvin Johnson, Henry Aaron, Marcus Garvey, Booker T. Washington, Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X, Barbara Jordan, or John Lewis ever built a plan around.
They built plans around goals and commitment to success. They might have had hope, indeed, they were incredible purveyors of it, but it’s not what got shit done. Hope is what you build your spirit around. It’s not what drives execution.
But rather than dash hastily out to get myself a conclusion at Target or TJ Maxx, I did what probably seems weird to a lot of people. I asked an actual black cyclist what he thought about this “initiative” before making up my mind on an issue that affects, you know, black cyclists.
Ken Vinson has had his pulse on racism and cycling for a while, and has been instrumental in putting together Methods to Winning, an amateur bike racing team that is anchored around marquis black riders but that is also diverse in its inclusion of others as well. He understands better than any white person out there what the difficulties are in recruiting black riders, in bringing bike racing out of the purview of “white sport” and into the domain of “diverse sport.”
And truth be told, he is far from the only one. Marty Blount, Travis Wilkerson, and so many more … Los Angeles has numerous men and women who have mentored young black riders; Major Motion and the clubs that have grown of it–Major Taylor Cycling, Cali Riders– have a storied history of finding, funding, developing, and building cycling in the black community. Blacks have been racing and winning at bike racing since the sport was invented; no one has ever come close to surpassing the exploits of Marshal “Major” Taylor. Local cyclists have worked for decades to expand cycling in black communities; the only people who have recently “discovered the need” for “outreach” and “diversity” are … of course … whites. And predictably, they’ve selected white people to go lecture blacks about diversity.
So I reached out to Ken, and here’s what he had to say:
As for the this article, frankly, the telling of our stories, the build out or development and reaching of students and potential athletes, especially at HBCU’s being done by non athletes of color or representatives doesn’t even qualify as window dressing.
I can’t even imagine why a Justin, Rahsaan, Cory or Charon are not contacted in these situations. I can tell you this without doubt–we could rise the excitement and interest quicker than anyone from USAC or EF.
USAC & EF fail to understand the power of representation and there is NO excuse for that especially NOW.Email exchange, 2020
This response hit me hard because I realized how completely I had failed to understand the real racism of the situation. My first reaction had simply been one of skepticism, doubting that USAC and EF were sincere. After all, both organizations have a long history of completely ignoring diversity, and with USAC, of overt racism.
But Ken’s response made me think a lot more deeply. This really was a matter, again, of white voices silencing black voices, of white “powerful” people telling the story of blacks to blacks and replacing the words of those who have long been stripped of their ability to speak.
And I thought, “Ken’s words are powerful. I have a blog. Set those black words down here and let people read the real voice of a black cyclist rather than imagining, perverting, supplanting, or twisting those voices.”
Then I thought about arrogance.
How arrogant would you have to be to think that you, a white bike racer, could talk more about the challenges of bike racing than a black racer could, especially when the audience is … blacks? Put another way, how would a Jewish kid feel about having a bible-thumping Baptist come to his synagogue and talk to him about the historic challenges Jews have faced trying to overcome global anti-semitism?
Or how would an all-white high school in a small Texas town in the Panhandle feel about having a black professor from an urban university in New York come and talk about the challenges that small rural high school graduates face in big-city colleges … especially when that high school had numerous graduates from their school doing exactly that?
Think of how little credibility those people would have in front of their audiences.
And then think of how fired up the students at a black college would be at listening to the stories of Rahsaan Bahati, Justin and Corey Williams, or Charon Smith as they, black athletes in a white sport, talked about how much success blacks can have and have had as bike racers. Isn’t the point to inspire black athletes to race bikes? To give them real examples of world-beaters, people who took on all comers and won? Then why wouldn’t you choose a black ambassador, especially when fantastic ones are RIGHT THERE?
I went to a talk one evening at Rapha in Santa Monica at the unveiling of the new Nelson Vails kit, and got to listen to Rahsaan and Justin talk about the days of Rock Racing.
It was exciting, riveting, amazing stuff.
But you know what was mind-blowing? Listening to Nelson Vails. That guy has done things that are simply overwhelming. Only black cyclist to ever win an Olympic medal. Only black cyclist to race professionally in keirin in Japan. Only black cyclist to win the professional US track title five times. Oh, and he is a great speaker. Oh, and he was born and raised in the housing projects in Harlem.
What about him? Has USAC forgotten about the only black amateur, and one of the few Americans in history, that USAC ever brought home from the Olympics with a medal?
Then of course it gets you to thinking. Because USAC hasn’t “forgotten” about Vails, and they haven’t “forgotten” about national champions Bahati and Williams. They are explicitly cutting them out, taking away their voice, replacing it with the voice of “the powerful.”
It is not an accident and it is not benign. It is not an oversight. It is part of an entrenched system, a system of racism, that quickly and efficiently adapts to whatever changes blacks demand through activism, law, or struggle.
If USAC and Education Last want to inspire, impress, attract, and motivate black students to get interested in bike racing, they need to reach out and utilize black ambassadors for the job.
Vails, Bahati, the Williams brothers, Smith? They’re only a phone call away. But I’d advise those guys not to clear out their travel schedule just yet.