- - Monday, February 19, 2018


Did you hear about the latest incident of racist expression wrapped in innocuous words?

It happened Saturday night in Chicago, where four fans thought they were clever in showering Washington forward Devante Smith-Pelly with an otherwise non-offensive chant.

“Basketball, basketball, basketball!”

That would be strange even if Smith-Pelly played for the Wizards instead of the Capitals. But aimed at a black hockey player, the taunt reeked of bigotry and prejudice, which seem to be making a comeback in public expressions at every level.

Last month during basketball games at North Arkansas College, fans reportedly made monkey noises while members of the visiting men’s and women’s teams — made up of predominantly black players — were on the free throw line. One member of the crowd mimicked crow caws, likely a reference to the South’s Jim Crow laws and definitely a derogatory phrase mentioned in the classic novel “Moby Dick.”

Earlier this month during a high school basketball game in Cincinnati, students chanted racial terms at an African-American player and a multiracial player. The former, headed to an Ivy League college in the fall, endured chants like “He can’t read!”; “He smokes crack!”; and “He’s on welfare!” The latter, whose mother is Asian, was subjected to shouts of “P.F. Chang!”; “Open your eyes!”; “A-sian!”; and “USA!”

I suppose some folks find it funny.

But there’s no humor in hate, which should be choked to death in embryonic form before it grows bigger and stronger. We’ve seen how full-grown intolerance can become a menace to society, when feelings and attitudes morph into customs and laws.

“It’s sad that in 2018 we’re still talking about the same thing over and over,” Smith-Pelly told reporters Sunday. “It’s sad that athletes like myself 30, 40 years ago were standing in the same spot saying the same thing. You’d think there’d be some sort of change or progression, but we’re still working toward it, I guess.

“And we’re going to keep working toward it.”

The four fans were ejected, and the NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the incident “was isolated in nature.” We certainly don’t want to paint a crowd of 22,000 people with the brush of four idiots. But lots of people on Twitter didn’t consider “basketball” chants to be expressions of racism.

That’s just willful ignorance.

Less than four percent of NHL players are black, meaning they stand out like pucks on ice. They’re easy targets for seemingly benign acts like, say, throwing something that happens to be a banana. That was the object of choice thrown at former NHL goalie Kevin Weekes in 2002 and current Flyers’ wing Wayne Simmonds in 2011, who — surprise, surprise — happen to be black.

Smith-Pelly said “it’s pretty obvious” what fans mean when they chant “basketball” at him. “It’s not really a secret,” he said. “I got the idea.”

It means you don’t belong. This is the wrong sport for you. You’re not welcome here.

Clearly blacks are more prevalent in basketball, where they comprise roughly 75 percent of the NBA. But as the aforementioned incidents in Arkansas and Ohio demonstrate, bigots can always resort to skin color when the sport isn’t an option for taunts.

Monkey noises and racial stereotypes are fail-safe weapons in a racist’s arsenal. Hearing them ring in a college or high school gym is particularly depressing, given the educational setting.

“We have seen an uptick in the number of racially and culturally insensitive comments in our schools and our community,” Mason (Ohio) Schools spokeswoman Tracey Carson wrote in a letter to parents. “As a district, we want to be very clear. We are not OK normalizing racial slurs. Anyone who does so faces disciplinary action.”

Students need to face more when they engage in such behavior.

They need to see adults around them become outraged, not merely sitting there silently in tacit approval. They need to hear a chorus of boos drowning them out as soon as their racially-charged taunts begin. They need to undergo training on respect, tolerance and sensitivity and stay in classes until the lessons are absorbed.

Otherwise, those students might grow into adults who chant at black NHL players.

“We’re at a time now where we can’t brush it under the rug,” Smith-Pelly said. “You’ve got to start calling people out and making sure people see other people’s true colors. That’s why I’m trying to get the conversation started and show, whoever these people were, their true colors.”

Sadly, even the decency to conceal those colors is too much to ask for some folks.

Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.

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