There is a way out of this mess- or at least a way THROUGH it. The “it” is our national struggle with race relations and the rising tide of tribalism-amplified by the 2016 election cycle. What is really cool for those of us who came of age in the 80’s is that the way through it was dramatized to great affect in the pop-culture cinema classic Rocky III. I encourage you not to take pop culture too lightly as a political bell-weather or playbook. So much of who we decide to be as a society is birthed, reflected and amplified by our popular cultural representations. Quite often our arts and entertainment reflects our highest aspirations. It is the reason why no astute observer of American culture can deny that Jackie Robinson and Sidney Poitier were the necessary preamble to the breakthrough activism led by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights leaders of that era. The imagery of our art carries powerfully emotional messages to our subconscious and it comes through in our politics- both in our personal and public lives.
So to all of my scholarly visitors, please rest assured that I get it. Race is a social construct- one that it is no less real just because it has been misrepresented as science-based for centuries. And that social construct is both durable and powerful- a hard reality that we have to live with.
America’s original sin is slavery so we can be excused if we struggle dealing with racial issues. Racial stratification and racial subjugation depresses our national psyche and distracts us from meeting big challenges. And contrary to the title of this piece, I do not believe we can actually “escape race.” What I do believe firmly is that the earnest effort to do so is critical to our climb up the mountain that is the promise of America. Trying to function as an egalitarian democratic republic and a free market economy is HARD WORK. And we all have to pull our weight. Fortunately, we can do it- and in this piece I give my vision of how we can and I draw inspiration from an unlikely source. My man below is proof that we can when we are focused on our highest aspirations rather than our lowest fears.
We have always had some very lofty goals in this country. Listen to the EXTREME challenges we put to ourselves at the end of our national pledge of allegiance. We are pledging to be “One Nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Every single phrase of that closing is an enormous challenge in and of itself that has proven nearly impossible to achieve and sustain. Yet, we maintain those great expectations of ourselves and strive to meet them. At least we claim to.
To put this in context, our loved ones who are practitioners of Christianity are well aware that they can never meet the standard of perfection set by Christ himself, but the effort to reach that standard defines their walk. And so it is regarding how we deal with the tar pit and quicksand quagmire that is race relations in America. So how does all of this lead us to Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed? There are probably only one or two people in the world that haven’t seen this movie a dozen times, but in case you are one of them I’ll give you the Cliff Notes 30 second edition:
After two epic battles in Rocky and Rocky II, former rivals Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed join forces in the effort to help Rocky regain his title after a demoralizing defeat at the hands of his ferocious and merciless tormentor, Clubber Lang. The partnership is a success and an enduring friendship is born. Terrific narrative arc and exciting execution. Big 80’s, baby- which means big hair and even bigger emotions; loads of testosterone, suntan lotion and stay-soft-fro flying all over the place.
That captures it all. And even though this movie was a huge success and was responsible for enduring pop culture memes that EVERYBODY knows to this day even if they weren’t alive when this movie hit theaters in 1982 (“Eye of the Tiger,” “Go For It,” “I pity the fool,” Mr. T and Hulk Hogan all made their debut in this movie) the social significance was easy to overlook. Behind the booming soundtrack, bulging muscles, and epic beat-downs was a map for successful race relations. Here are the main stops on that map:
Shared Values Once you find that you share values with another person, there is instant common ground. That common ground is a baseline for a respectful and constructive relationship. At the very least, you have the predisposition to view that other person with empathy and sympathy where it is appropriate. Rocky and Apollo clearly valued the same things: championship fighters value championships. And they also have powerful feelings about who should be a champion and they were united in their belief that Clubber Lang was NOT the kind of man that either could tolerate as the champion. Race was a non-factor in the scenario as it often should not be in life.
Shared Vision When you find that you share a common vision with another person, there is an instant connection. Look no further than your nearest church on a Sunday morning: the entire enterprise of organized religion and worship service is driven by the power of shared vision. The people that buy into the same vision are connected with each other. Apollo sold Rocky on the vision of how he could recover his lost championship and Rocky bought into that vision. It would require some serious mental gymnastics that even Simone Biles couldn’t pull off to look at a person who shares your vision of the world as an enemy.
Common Mission If two people are united in a fight against a common foe or are joined together on a journey reflecting both their shared values and vision, it is natural that they will bond. And that kind of bond breeds mutual respect that is fundamentally incompatible with racial animus. There was a baseline respect between Rocky and Apollo after finding out everything they could want to know about each other after 30 brutal rounds of battle. But when they got on a path together, they saw each other as someone to whom their own interest was tied. And a lifelong friendship was born.
Self-Esteem Base Camp Both of these characters were champions in their own lives. Through ups and downs, wins and losses, these men knew who they were and loved themselves. The bottom line is that the better you feel about yourself the easier it is to feel good about somebody else. When a man loves who he is, he is a lot less likely to have a problem with who you are. Meaning Apollo and Rocky both knew the other man was formidable and impressive, but they had no problem appreciating it because of how they felt about themselves. Have you ever noticed how much more overtly racist poor white folks are than anybody else in the country? This dynamic provides all the explanation you will ever need to understand that. They hate themselves and as long as they do, they can never truly be cool with anybody else.
We will never look at another person and NOT see their race, and we should not have to. It is unnatural for human beings to suspend their perceptive capabilities- and it is not necessary in order to facilitate constructive race relations in our personal and professional lives. And as simple as it may seem, what is laid out above actually works just as effectively on a political level. And it all starts with you- the individual- the man in the mirror. If you work yourself into a position where you are an impressive individual in your own right you already have the baseline for being able to deal with people constructively- regardless of who they are. And as you engage others from different backgrounds, where you find shared values and vision you will also find someone worthy of the respect and regard you would want for yourself. And if you are especially fortunate to live a life with great challenges to overcome and missions to accomplish, you will find kinship with anyone who takes up those challenges or missions with you.
So like everything else, it comes down to you. The way THROUGH the problems of race in our country is all about what you do as an individual. If you engage other people with these guideposts in mind, you will find that you have become too big a person to deal with the small and inconsequential issues of what color somebody is or where their grandfather was born. You won’t care because it will have nothing to do with beating the hell out of Clubber Lang who you know is sitting on ready to beat the hell out of you.