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In Taggart case, racism is finally called out for what it is

Ugly Facebook post recalls Florida’s history of lynching and other racial violence

The vile Facebook post targeting first-year Florida State football coach Willie Taggart was not just “racially charged,” “racially insensitive” or “hateful.” It was straight-up racist, and, for once, it seems you didn’t have to be black to understand that.

The image, posted Nov. 24 after Florida State’s 41-14 drubbing at the hands of archrival Florida, depicted Taggart’s head superimposed on the body of a black lynching victim. The image was accompanied by the phrase “Believe in Something Even If It Means Sacrificing Your Rep.”

Taggart is the first African-American head football coach in Florida State’s history, and the racist post put an ugly punctuation mark on a disappointing season. The Seminoles finished the season 5-7 and are ineligible for a bowl game for the first time since 1981, leaving the team’s passionate fans angry and in disbelief.

The Seminoles have suffered through some uncharacteristically down years after winning their third national championship in the 2013 season. A preseason No. 3 team in 2017, the squad lost its season opener to Alabama and finished the year 7-6. Longtime coach Jimbo Fisher then left for Texas A&M, opening the way for Taggart’s hiring.

Clearly, Florida State is not just any old school when it comes to football. And Florida is not just any old place when it comes to lynching. The Sunshine State conducted 311 lynchings between 1877 and 1950, according to the Equal Justice Initiative. That was the second-highest rate in the country relative to its population.

That doesn’t count the bombings like the one that took the life of NAACP leader Harry Moore and his wife, Harriette, in 1951. It does not count the 1923 massacre of blacks in the town of Rosewood, or the Election Day 1920 attack on African-Americans in Ocoee that left more than 50 people dead and terrorized hundreds of others into leaving town. Nor does it include the numerous shootings, unfair prosecutions and other racial crimes that sully the state’s history.

Smaller indignities also reigned in Florida for decades. With hotels and restaurants segregated, black major league baseball players were forced to stay in boardinghouses and eat in restaurants in black neighborhoods during spring training, a practice that did not end until the early 1960s.

That long history of racism and racial terrorism hangs over the state even now, when a black coach like Taggart can have a six-year, $30 million contract. That fact was not lost on FSU president John Thrasher. He knows that overzealous fans of big-time football schools like Florida State have been known to harangue struggling coaches on talk radio, troll them on social media or even hang them in effigy. But he also knows that the racist post aimed at Taggart had crossed a line, and he did not mince words.

Thrasher released a statement Sunday condemning the post for what it was. “A recent racist social media post aimed at our football coach is ignorant and despicable,” the statement said. “I speak for the entire FSU community in expressing our disgust and extreme disappointment, and I am glad the state attorney is investigating. Coach Taggart has our full support and as true Seminoles know he is a respected member of the FSU family.”

Many media outlets picked up Thrasher’s uncompromising language and described the incident as racist. But a few chose to edit out the word “racist” and go with euphemisms, as if the word is somehow more inflammatory than the action it describes. We see it all the time.

The recent governor’s race in Florida got off to an ignominious start when the eventual winner, Republican Ron DeSantis, urged voters not to “monkey this up” by voting for his black opponent, Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum. Things got worse when it was revealed that DeSantis had accepted, and refused to return, a contribution from someone who had called former President Barack Obama a “Muslim n—–.” He also had spoken at a conference hosted by someone with white nationalist views.

Were DeSantis’s words and deeds racist dog whistles or “racially insensitive” mistakes?

Gillum himself did not say. But he said this: “Now, I’m not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist. I’m simply saying the racists believe he’s a racist.”

In a country that was born with the stain of slavery and grew up with Jim Crow, it is easy to disregard racism that is not self-proclaimed or attached to the imminent threat of terror. Some argue that to even raise the question is to open old wounds and live in the past.

But words matter, and calling something racist alerts all of us to the seriousness of a situation.

In the case of Florida State, action was swift after the university president called the Facebook post what it was. The local sheriff, university police and a prosecutor are investigating. And the “fan” who posted the racist image on Facebook was fired from his job.

It was a small bit of justice, and perhaps a small step forward in a state that has come far and still has so far to go.

Michael A. Fletcher is a senior writer at The Undefeated. He is a native New Yorker and longtime Baltimorean who enjoys live music and theater.