Whites know best

November 13, 2020 § 8 Comments

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.

END

Honor, family, and the will to win

February 11, 2014 § 16 Comments

Some people climb the top step and the first thing they do is forget the people who helped them get there. For others, a sense of thanks is the thing they carry on their shoulders as long as they live.

When Rahsaan Bahati toed the line this Sunday at the Roger Millikan crit in Brea, he was looking forward to the throwdown. He was looking forward to it because Roger Millikan, an icon in SoCal cycling who affected the careers of countless cyclists before his early death due to cancer, was one of the first people at the velodrome who encouraged Rahsaan, a kid from the ‘hood who was destined to be one of the fastest racers in the American history of the sport.

Roger took Rahsaan under his wing even though his own son Chad was the best junior around, and even though everyone knew that if you wanted to win a junior race you had to beat Chad. Roger didn’t care that Rahsaan was gunning for his son, to the contrary, he accepted and embraced it as the apotheosis of sport. Rahsaan thought about all those things as he lined up with ninety other racers on a .6-mile course that would test the nerves, legs, and agility of every single racer who survived, from the fastest to the guy who crossed the line last.

As the pack rolled out, Rahsaan kept reminding himself not to miss the winning move, even though he doubted that anyone would be able to pull away from such a large, strong field on such a short, relatively unchallenging course.  Staying attentive and watching the legs of his opponents was key, and he stayed in the front the first 15-20 minutes to see who was on fire and who riding with sand in their legs.

By the first ten laps it was clear. They were flying at 29 mph and A-Ray, David Santos, Michael Johnson, Tyler Locke, and a handful of others were clearly on form. They attacked, followed moves, responded to counterattacks, and showed that all pistons were firing. Still, the safe money said that the course would work to bring back even the strongest riders if they made a solo effort.

There were a couple of times when Rahsaan found himself far out of position, forty guys back and coming out of Turn 4 when a good move looked like it was coalescing all the way up in Turn 1, but nothing stuck. The pain and the speed and the jockeying for position were relentless. At times like this Rahsaan’s teammates in the race,  Steven Salazar, Justin Savord, Christian Cognini, Bret Hoffer, and Arturo Anyna made their presence known by surveying the front, following moves, and motivating the field to follow.

In addition to a race victory that would pay homage to his mentor and friend Roger Millikan, Rahsaan’s family had packed the edges of the racecourse. With his wife, kids, nieces, and nephews all standing by and cheering him on, the pressure was high, especially since he’d placed fifth in two consecutive races and knew that his form was good enough to win.

Rahsaan also knew that the finish would be a battle of speed between him, Justin Williams, and Corey Williams. Between them these three rockets were marked in every single speed contest, and on a day like today when the course was tight, hectic, physical, and sure to end in a full-bore blast for the line, Rahsaan had no doubt that these two were his nemeses. As far as strategy went, it was simple: When the KHS p/b Maxxis guys went, Rahsaan had to be in their leadout train because they were the ones who would ramp it up to warp speed and set up the finishing explosion to the line.

The speeds were so high, though, that when the KHS team went to the front they would then sit up, which caused chaos as the charging field swarmed the slowing riders on the point. Rahsaan’s strategy got more complicated, because in order to avoid being swarmed he had to stay in the wind.

How did it feel?

“It hurt. It hurt bad.”

But he stayed with his nose in the wind and out of harm’s way, because it was the deceleration into the swarm that caused crashes, and suddenly it was five laps to go and all bets were off. SoCal Cycling threw its heavy artillery to the front and drilled like a sailor on shore leave for two full laps. With  three to go, they swung off and the KHS team blew through. This was the moment.

Rahsaan jumped onto A-Ray’s wheel, the powerful rider on Hincapie Development. Now it was two laps to go, tucked behind the churning legs of A-Ray, and on the bell lap all hell broke loose.  The KHS blue train hit the front with the force of a hurricane, and Rahsaan slipped into seventh wheel. At Turn 2 the blistering pace shed two KHS guys out of their own train, moving Rahsaan up to 5th wheel. This was perfect positioning because on the backside of the course, as the blue train notched it up another mph, another teammate exploded, leaving Rahsaan in 4th wheel and Corey Williams in 3rd.

Just before Turn 3, the cagey veteran Aaron Wimberley, riding for SPY-Giant-RIDE, threw his bike off the front, and the gap he opened up caught the KHS blue train completely off guard. Aaron was a closer and everyone knew it. By the time KHS closed the gap, they had sacrificed more riders, putting Rahsaan in 3rd position and Corey in 2nd. In the last turn Rahsaan gave Corey room and took a run, a hard one, with every muscle in his legs about to rip away from the bone.

Fearing a last minute move to the left that would box him in and give Corey the win, Rahsaan slung himself into the wall of onrushing wind and took the hard, stiff, unrelenting, in-your-face headwind approach around Corey’s right. The gamble paid as he shot to the line clearing Corey by a bike length. Justin, who had been slotted in behind Rahsaan, got boxed in as Corey shut down the left-handed alley approach.

This win wasn’t just for Rahsaan and his family. It was also for Roger.

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