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The solution to America’s race problem isn’t written in black and white

Ben Watson: Moving past our biases is the only way to effect real change

Longtime NFL tight end Benjamin Watson is among many athletes who took to social media to express grief over last week’s national tragedies: the deaths of Alton Sterling, 37, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile, 32, of Falcon Heights, Minnesota, at the hands of police, and the five police officers killed and seven wounded in Dallas by a sniper. A thoughtful, frequent commentator on social issues, Watson is horrified by the loss of life and the nation’s deep racial divide, but remains hopeful that unity still can be achieved through dialogue.

Weren’t we all just enjoying the Fourth of July? It seems like it was so long ago now. I was at a family reunion in Washington, D.C., celebrating what we love about this country. Then, fast-forward a week later, we’re back here again trying to make sense of everything after all these killings. The past week has been tough for all of us, horrible for all of us, because we’ve been here way too many times.

It just shows the turmoil that this country is in. Our everyday life has changed over the last few years. So many events – Eric Garner [a New York resident who died at the hands of police], the unrest in Ferguson [Missouri], Tamir Rice [a 12-year-old Cleveland boy shot and killed by police] – have us now feeling like this is expected. The sad thing is that many of us expect this to be the norm.

Whether it’s an international or domestic terrorist-involved event, problems between police officers and citizens or, now, police officers being massacred, it’s all really sad to watch, and my heart goes out to the families. And it’s also painful to see what it means for our country as we try to figure everything out and move forward. We have some serious problems in this country. We’ve had serious problems for a long time, and everything is coming to a head now.

When you talk about racism, when you talk about black and white and how we see things totally differently, it’s bad. That’s obvious. We view the world through our own lens and our own biases. How many of us don’t even want to put our feet in someone else’s shoes because we’re so ingrained in what we think? That’s a problem.

It’s most evident when you have a situation like we had in Baton Rouge or Minnesota. … I hate to even use the terms “they” or “white America” or “black America,” but for the sake of conversation I will. What we’re seeing on social media and what we’re seeing with what I posted [on Facebook] is that the Black Lives Matter [movement] is offensive to some white people.

Protestors march through the streets of St. Paul, Minnesota after the death of Philando Castile on July 7, 2016. Castile was shot and killed by a police officer during a traffic stop on July 6, 2016 in Falcon Heights, MN.

Protesters march through the streets of St. Paul, Minnesota, after the death of Philando Castile on July 7. Castile was shot and killed by a police officer during a traffic stop on July 6 in Falcon Heights, Minnesota.

Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Their response, they’re saying ‘All Lives Matter’ is only said when people say that black lives matter. It’s like they’re saying, ‘You black people don’t care about everyone else, so since you only care about your own, we’re gonna care about our own.’ They use that response in what seems to be a sarcastic and condescending way, to kind of dismiss the very real hurt and pain that black people have felt for generations in response to things that have happened in this country with some law enforcement officers. This isn’t just about right now. We’re talking about years and years. We’re talking about ongoing problems throughout the country’s history.

But to say that black lives matter doesn’t mean that other lives don’t matter. No one means that your life doesn’t matter. This isn’t the best [analogy], but it’s like when groups try to save the whales. Their motto isn’t ‘We only care about whales and no other animals.’ All they’re saying is that because of things that have happened, because of problems that have occurred over a long, long time, that this group, the whales, needs some more attention right now. They’re saying that some things have to be done differently because they should be done differently. It’s the right thing to do.

What we’re saying is that there has been a pattern of things happening that makes black people feel like their lives don’t matter because they’re not treated the way other people are. There’s definitely a disconnect there. And I try to put myself in the shoes of someone who’s white who hears that.

Hopefully, when I do, and other black people do, there’s a humility there, and it comes across, that drops their guard a little bit to then hear what I’m saying and other black people are saying. And if that happens then maybe, just maybe, we can understand each other, if even just for a second, and that can lead to more discussion.

The chance to get people talking is a big reason why I wrote the book (Under Our Skin, Getting Real About Race – And Getting Free From The Fears And Frustrations That Divide Us). And after writing the book, I’ve had great discussions with some white people.

With brothers in my church, my white brothers in my church, it has been a lot better, in terms of getting talking and understanding each other. But it’s not going to be perfect. Obviously, I’m not white. I can’t totally understand their feelings because I’m not white. They can’t totally understand mine because they’re not black. But if we can start talking and keep talking, we can start to understand each other better, which is the key to coming together.

Unfortunately, too often, when athletes get involved in these important issues, when we engage in things other than our sport, there’s this idea that we shouldn’t. There’s this feeling that it’s not our place. What you hear is, ‘These guys are here to entertain us, so they should just stick to that.’ I’ve gotten that a lot. People say I need to just mind my business and stick to playing football. Just shut up and focus on scoring touchdowns.

But if athletes share their views, and if they match up with what people who usually tell them to be quiet are saying, then they’ll put those athletes on a pedestal. They’ll hold them up as an example to their kids because they feel they have things in common. It’s like they’re saying, ‘You see the world the same way I do, so you’re OK.’ As soon as you don’t, though, shut up again.

There’s a lot that’s wrong about that thinking. Athletes are citizens of this country. We have children. We pay taxes. We vote. We do all the things that everyone else does. Our job is to play a sport. I play football. That’s my job – but that’s not who I am.

Police and protesters demonstrate in a residential neighborhood in Baton Rouge, La. on Sunday, July 10, 2016. After an organized protest in downtown Baton Rouge protesters wondered into residential neighborhoods and toward a major highway that caused the police to respond by arresting protesters that refused to disperse.

Police and protesters demonstrate in a residential neighborhood in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on July 10. After an organized protest in downtown Baton Rouge, protesters wandered into residential neighborhoods and toward a major highway, which caused the police to respond by arresting protesters who refused to disperse.

AP Photo/Max Becherer

We have the same interest in what’s going on in this country. We have the same hopes and dreams for our families and our children. We’re Americans. We love this country. We want the best for it. We want to engage in a way that’s positive and move America forward just like anyone else would.

After saying all of that, though, the problems can get better. I believe that. Yes, there is a discrepancy with arrest rates. Not everyone has the same opportunities available to them. Racism is bigger than one person. It’s about a system. And that’s something that’s very complex.

But we do live in a place where there is great opportunity. And it’s incumbent upon all of us to take advantage of the opportunities that we have, whatever they are. Even if the opportunity you have may be less than what somebody else has, you have to make the most of it.

Ultimately, though, it comes down to a change of heart. One day, maybe we could be in a place where everything is equal. But even if we have equal opportunity – black kids and white kids all go to the same school, everything is equal with jobs, the criminal justice system, etc. – we could still not like each other and hear each other. Although we could be in the same space all the time, we would still have biases unless we repent of the sin that is racism.

Watson just signed a deal in March with the Baltimore Ravens. In 2004, he was drafted in the first round, out of Georgia, by the New England Patriots. That year, he won the Super Bowl. Watson studied finance and is tied for the third-highest score on the Wonderlic test.

After six seasons with New England, he reunited with coach Eric Mangini in Cleveland. He signed with the New Orleans Saints after three seasons in Cleveland. Watson has amassed 434 receptions, 4,963 yards and 38 touchdowns in his career. His best two seasons were 2010 and 2015, when he caught 68 passes for 763 yards and three scores, and 74 receptions for 825 yards and six touchdowns, respectively. Besides being one of three finalists for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, Watson was also a Pro Bowl alternate last season.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at Andscape. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.