“I’ve said this since day one: I’m an African-American quarterback that may scare a lot of people because they haven’t seen nothing that they can compare me to.” — Cam Newton
I can bore you for hours with my theory about why I think criticism of Cam Newton is not (necessarily) racist, but that doesn’t prove I am not a racist.
For example, I can explain that my own discomfort with the Carolina Panthers quarterback’s over-the-top victory celebrations has nothing to do with the fact that I am white and he’s African-American, but everything to do with my own views on good sportsmanship. “Let not the mighty man boast in his might,” from Jeremiah, sums it up for me. I would hope I would say the same thing about a white quarterback who breaks into a dance after every scoring play.
On the other hand, I wonder how my attitudes about “appropriate” quarterback behavior have been shaped by four decades of watching a monochromatic lineup of stars. From Johnny Unitas to Joe Montana to Peyton Manning, I expect my quarterbacks to be stoic field generals. To what extent does Newton — with the speed of a pass receiver, the bulk of a lineman, and the exuberance of a cheerleader — represent something new and even threatening to the game as I know it?
Does it matter that Newton is black? I ask that not as a way of surrendering to the “check your privilege” cliche of white guilt, but to surface — and thereby confront — my own latent or unconscious prejudices. I think I am defending a traditional football “aesthetic.” But to what degree was that aesthetic shaped by coaches and owners who slotted players according to race?
Which brings me to Ted Cruz. I gave a speech on Sunday, and a gentleman in the audience asked if Cruz was being anti-Semitic when he referred to Donald Trump’s “New York values.”
Giving the candidate the benefit of the doubt, let’s say he was merely being descriptive. New York City anchors a blue state, where voters tend to favor gun control and a woman’s right to choose. Most are live-and-let-live when it comes to social issues, and largely resist the Republicans’ small-government views. All of these positions are directly opposite those of the Evangelicals and the Tea Party, who form Cruz’s base.
So is “New York values” necessarily anti-Semitic? Not unless you think only Jews vote this way.
On the other hand, non-Orthodox Jews do tend to vote this way and are over-represented as thought leaders who promote such “values.” NY Sen. Chuck Schumer, the GOP’s symbol of all that is wrong with the Democratic Party and by extension the United States, is a walking, talking, legislating embodiment of a Jewish New Yorker — or a New York Jew. Poll after poll suggests that Jews, more than any other ethnic or religious group, embrace secularism and reject religiosity.
So perhaps “New York values” was a dog whistle, and if Cruz wasn’t necessarily talking about Jews, he might not have been upset if his conservative supporters didn’t make the distinction.
And yet, Jews tend to be proud of their politics. “New York values”? Hell, yeah! While they don’t want to be singled out from other Americans who share their views, they don’t want to have to disavow them either. (Or as a colleague said to me, “Trump could use a few more New York values.”)
Cruz, Trump, and other Republican candidates often warn of the dangers of “political correctness,” as if our country has become too polite and too mindful of the feelings of others. And certainly, many campus activists and minority rights groups go too far when they try to shut down free speech in the name of “safety” or “intersectionality.”
But political correctness is at heart, a call for civility. It’s a reaction to those who are not content to disagree with one another on the basis of attitudes or opinions, but on the basis of skin color, religion, or gender. Civility means we can have an honest discussion of abortion or guns, but that we keep bigotry out of the equation. Cruz doesn’t like liberalism? Fine, that’s his right. But in assigning the long and proud history of American progressivism to one particular city — and ignoring the ugly ways others have used “New York” as code for “Jews” — he risked turning a political debate into a bigoted one.
As for Cam Newton, I think he is right that some sports fans can’t look past his race when assessing his skills or style. We’ve all inherited attitudes about one another, and we’re far from being a colorblind society. Civility means that we examine these attitudes and control for bias.
My version of civility goes like this: Criticize my politics, but don’t reduce me to my religion or ethnic group. Roll your eyes when Cam Newton hot dogs it, but make sure you’d judge him and a white player by the same standards. Treat people as individuals, political foes as fellow Americans, and America’s diversity as a blessing, not a curse.