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Dying Young and Black

by the stormy present Fri Nov 30th, 2007 at 05:01:06 AM EST

A sports star is dead.  You Europeans may never have heard of him before.  Hell, even though he played for the football team in my hometown, the team my father rooted for till his dying day, I'd never heard of him before either.  Not much of a sports fan.

But the death of Sean Taylor points to some ugly truths that have little to do with his talents on the field.  And they are relevant to us all, because it's about the world we live in, and the poverty and inequality and violence that plague it.

From the diaries - afew

I was going to put this in the Salon, but it got a little long, so here it is.

An American football player for the Washington Redskins was murdered early yesterday morning.  Sean Taylor was 24 years old, shot in his upper thigh by an intruder at his home in Miami; his fiancee and their 18-month-old daughter were home but unharmed.  The bullet pierced Taylor's femoral artery and he lost a massive amount of blood, but survived the initial surgery.  But he didn't make it.

By all accounts, Taylor had run with a rough crowd in his past; the son of a Florida police chief, he had had more than one run-in with the law, and he pleaded guilty to armed assault and battery in June of last year.  But his coaches and friends say since the birth of his daughter, he had really turned his life around.

Washington Post sports columnist Michael Wilbon has some sobering thoughts on the crime:

Dying Young, Black

If you're hoping to read about the on-field exploits of Sean Taylor, or a retrospective of his time with the Washington Redskins, it would probably be better if you cast your eyes to a piece elsewhere in this newspaper.

Seriously, you should stop right here.

Because we're going to have a different conversation in this space -- about the violent and senseless nature of the act that took his life, about trying to change course when those around you might not embrace such a change, about dying young and black in America, about getting the hell out of Dodge if at all possible.

There are a lot of things we don't know about what happened to Sean Taylor, starting with who killed him and why.  He was shot in the groin.  That's probably personal.  Maybe it was a burglary gone bad, but maybe not.  But it doesn't really matter, does it?  He's still dead.


You see, just because Taylor was changing his life, don't assume the people who pumped 15 bullets into his SUV a couple of years ago were in the process of changing theirs. Maybe it was them, maybe not. Maybe it was somebody else who had a beef with Taylor a year earlier, maybe not. Maybe it was retribution or envy or some volatile combination.

Here's something we know: People close to Taylor, people he trusted to advise him, told him he'd be better off if he left South Florida, that anybody looking for him could find him in the suburbs of Miami just as easily as they could have found him at the U a few years ago. I'm told that Taylor was told to go north, to forget about Miami. I can understand why he would want to have a spot in or near his home town, but I sure wish he hadn't.

The issue of separating yourself from a harmful environment is a recurring theme in the life of black men. It has nothing to do with football, or Sean Taylor or even sports. To frame it as a sports issue is as insulting as it is naive. Most of us, perhaps even the great majority of us who grew up in big urban communities, have to make a decision at some point to hang out or get out.

The kid who becomes a pharmaceutical rep has the same call to make as the lawyer or delivery guy or accountant or sportswriter or football player: Cut off anybody who might do harm, even those who have been friends from the sandbox, or go along to get along.

Mainstream folks -- and, yes, this is a code word for white folks -- see high-profile athletes dealing with this dilemma and think it's specific to them, while black folks know it's everyday stuff for everybody, for kids with aspirations of all kinds -- even for a middle-class kid with a police-chief father, such as Taylor -- from South Central to Southeast to the South Side. Some do, some don't. Some will, some won't. Some can, some cannot. Often it's gut-wrenching. Usually, it's necessary. For some, it takes a little bit too long.

Anyway, this is where the rest of the world comes in, because the stuff Wilbon is talking about here, that's not unique to anywhere.  It's not about Miami or DC or even the USA.  Yes, there are more guns in the States, but poverty and violence and class and race and all the baggage that accompany them are global phenomena.

And I'm thinking about the rioting in the Paris suburbs.  And I'm thinking about the movie City of God, which I watched again the other night -- set in a gang-ridden favela of Rio de Janeiro, it could easily be the Cape Flats townships outside Cape Town.  Honestly, everything was the same -- the gangs, the drugs, the violence.  It even looks the same.  People were speaking Portuguese instead of Afrikaans, but the story is the same.  You can try hard to be good and strong, you can try to stay out of the life, but sometimes the life just swallows you.

And this is the thing about poverty and violence, or even (for Sean Taylor) non-poverty and a culture of violence, is that it's a vortex, or a rip tide.  It'll pull you under, and it may not matter how well you swim.

This might qualify as a LQD, I guess.
by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Wed Nov 28th, 2007 at 03:59:01 AM EST
New and improved!  With sentence fragments fixed!
by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Wed Nov 28th, 2007 at 04:05:02 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I think people tend to associate it with sports because of the fact that we see it so often in sports.  If anything, Taylor may have had it tougher than most kids, being the son of a police chief in one of the most unequal, segregated cities in America -- and one that continues to be plagued by drug wars, private and governmental, that most cities are at least able to pretend they've disposed of.

But you can see this everywhere.  I've seen it in Miami and throughout South Florida.  Your hometown (and my current home) still suffers from it.  And, although it's been turning itself around since the height of the crack wars, you can still see the obvious scars it Atlanta.

Britain is no exception.

But we don't tend to deal with crime and poverty.  Not anymore.  We talk a good game, but nowadays we just gentrify areas and push the "undesirables" out from our cities.  Where once SE in Washington was among the most dangerous areas in America, it's now increasingly Prince George's County, Maryland, that must cope.  South Atlanta's crime has been pushed out to College Park and along the western end of the I-20 corridor.

We don't care anymore.  We don't care about education or job training.  We don't care about policing.  Our attitude has become:  Let some other city or county deal with it.

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.

by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Wed Nov 28th, 2007 at 05:10:51 AM EST
No, you're right, we wall off the crime and poverty and violence into ghettos and townships and suburbs and favelas and "certain neighborhoods" and try to pretend it's not there.  And if that doesn't work, we wall off ourselves into our own little gated communities, which as someone here pointed out not too long ago are usually more gated than community.

It's not that athletes are so much more prone to any of this, it's that they're the ones "we" see.  What Wilbon is trying to say, I think, is that it's a much wider issue.  If you've got all the fame and money in the world and still can't escape with your life, who can?

Surreal moment of the day:  As I am typing this, CNN International is broadcasting a story about the auction of a very expensive Fabergé egg.  Well then.  Priorities.

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Wed Nov 28th, 2007 at 06:55:27 AM EST
[ Parent ]
To a large degree, at least in the states, I think it has to do with certain economic and demographic trends as well as the fact that crime plunged over the last few decades, so people began coming back, and continue to come back, to the cities.  We could've expected it, and the pushing-out of poor people is, to a large degree, simply a result of money pouring back in, jacking up property values in once-depressed neighborhoods, which, in turn, jacks up property taxes and so on.

That's likely to accelerate as the Boomers downsize and ditch Suburbia, which is what I mean on the demographic bit.  Twenty years ago, you'd have been nuts to go walking through the downtown area of my hometown.  It was a war zone.  Today it's loaded up with high-rise condos and shopping.

It's not so much the gated communities these days, although those are, of course, still around.  But I think a huge portion of it is a walling-off of entire cities, leaving poorer suburbs to crumble.

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.

by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Wed Nov 28th, 2007 at 08:06:29 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I think there's another aspect of this, which runs counter to this American narrative of rugged individualism.... We're supposed to be able to rise above our "humble origins," right, if we've got enough of the right stuff?  It's a meritocracy, right?  And sports stars are supposed to be the prime example of that.  But when the system is skewed so that whole communities are depressed and walled off, then to "get out" and "succeed" a person must battle not just prejudices of those outside that community but the prejudices and quicksand-like inertia of those within that community.  And so then you get this absurd narrative about whether Barack Obama is "black enough" and whether someone who escapes from the vicious cycle is "selling out."   And disproportionately it is people of color who get find themselves either having to cut themselves off from their past and their own communities, or get dragged under by them.  And that shouldn't need to be a requirement for success and safety.

We pay attention to the young sports stars who die in ugly ways, there's a big outpouring of grief and anger, but there are a lot of young black men in America (and elsewhere) who die in ugly ways, and the world never notices.  And there needs to be grief and anger about that, not just in the communities where those men live and die, but among all of us.  We should notice, and we don't.  We close our eyes and avoid driving through the "bad" neighborhoods and pretend it's not happening, until it happens again to somebody we can't ignore.

I don't really know the right way to talk about these things.

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Wed Nov 28th, 2007 at 09:36:43 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I think most of us were offended at the question of whether Obama was black enough, but we all knew what it meant.  He grew up abroad and in Kansas.

I guarantee you most people thought of that and said to themselves, "I didn't know there were any black people in Kansas."

He went to Harvard and became the editor of the Law Review.  What not being "black enough" meant was that he didn't fit the stereotype of blacks:  Ebonics, inner-city, etc -- as though CNN expected him to go tromping into the YouTube debate with Flava Flav's clock around his neck and respond to all of Hillary's answers with "Dat is wack!"

Gee, I like his stance on the issues, but can he dunk?

You're absolutely right about kids from these communities being dragged down by others both inside and outside of the community.  A great friend of mine was ridiculed constantly when we were kids for "acting white," just as he was occasionally taunted by white kids when he happened to be the only black guy in our classes.  It's disgusting, and public figures are all too gutless to talk about it.  We dig these kids a hole requiring nearly superhuman strength to get out of, and we harass those who try their damnedest to get out of it, all the way up.

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.

by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Wed Nov 28th, 2007 at 12:36:49 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Aren't there parallels to that within any minority group community though?  It's too easy to assume that people who fit into one category or another, although they may be different to 'us' they are all the same as each other. Nice homogenous groups.  Far from it.

My personal experience of that is of not being 'Deaf' enough to be accepted as part of the Deaf community, simply because I did not grow up using sign language as my first language - no fault of my own.  In their eyes, I am not as oppressed or marginalised as they are because I'm somehow slightly more mainstream than them.

I'm still not accepted because I refuse to enter the community on their terms which would involve isolating myself somewhat from the mainstream and that is not something I can or want to do.  And there you see how hostility and resistance arises within communities who really ought to be standing in solidarity with one another.  Many additional complexities within black communities too.

by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Wed Nov 28th, 2007 at 01:33:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Wed Nov 28th, 2007 at 09:40:08 AM EST
In a sports journalism world dominated by blowhards, Wilbon is one of the few writers I consider to be an intellectual.

you are the media you consume.

by MillMan (millguy at gmail) on Wed Nov 28th, 2007 at 01:32:25 PM EST
Often takes superstars to draw attention to grim realities.

Truth unfolds in time through a communal process.
by marco on Wed Nov 28th, 2007 at 06:10:54 PM EST
Sadly, yes... but also sadly, that attention soon fades, and the grim realities go on.
by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Thu Nov 29th, 2007 at 04:37:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Before getting onto the main subject, I want to strongly recommend the film City of God.  It is on my list of best 10 movie.  I have watched it several times.  Every time it brings tears to my eyes, perhaps because I grew up in a bad neighborhood (Nowhere as bad as the one in the movie ) and had a 'here but for the grace of God go I' reaction.

Jason Whitlock has a very strong commentary on the murder epidemic in black communities.  He is quite provocative, but rings a bell with me -- perhaps because as a child I watched a lot of self-destructive behavior.

by interguru (jhd -at- interguru -dot- com) on Fri Nov 30th, 2007 at 02:12:22 PM EST
Welcome to ET, interguru!

Our knowledge has surpassed our wisdom. -Charu Saxena.
by metavision on Fri Nov 30th, 2007 at 05:48:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
S/he posted before.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Fri Nov 30th, 2007 at 06:00:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Not sure Taylor's death had anything to do with his being black or his past relationships. Not to say that the thrust of your diary doesn't have merit.

In light of most recent news, this homicide was akin to what happened to a friend of mine. He stopped at a rest stop along I-95 to use the loo.  As he started to leave the building, a man stopped him at the door and demanded money.  My friend, who is a little deaf, didn't understand at first until the assailant tried to stab him with a screwdriver and bash his head with a hammer.  They struggled for some time and finally my friend got into a position where he could toss his wallet on to the floor.  Thankfully, the assailant picked up the wallet and left.  When arrested, the assailant had several guns in his auto and was on drugs. My firend was extremely lucky, Sean Taylor wasn't.

I can swear there ain't no heaven but I pray there ain't no hell. _ Blood Sweat & Tears

by Gringo (stargazing camel at aoldotcom) on Sat Dec 1st, 2007 at 11:04:44 PM EST

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