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Race issue can’t, and shouldn’t, be avoided

‘Mr. Streeter, you are a vile demagogue and a self-pitying bigot.”

It was one of the tamer notes to grace my inbox. Anonymous, of course, it arrived after I wrote two weeks ago that Karl Dorrell should keep his job. I added that, for some, race plays a part in their angry criticism of the UCLA football coach.

Using rhetoric often too ugly to print, scores said that I coddled Dorrell and that I “played the race card” because he is black -- and so am I. Scores more said that I should be embarrassed, ashamed, silenced or fired for having the nerve to mention race.

Dorrell is one of only six African Americans among the 119 head coaches in major college football.

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Since Nov. 18, when my column was published, the hyperventilating has not stopped, mostly because of six paragraphs I wrote about race at the end of my column. Here is the conclusion I draw: Too many of us are far too scared of the very mention of race. It jangles the nerves and destroys common sense.

For too many, discussion of racial issues has become like the electrified third rail in the Metro subway: Don’t go near it, don’t even come close.

I’m worried about this. We all should be. Until we learn to calm down and have an ongoing, realistic dialogue about race -- even while we discuss sports -- we’re not going to solve a problem that has plagued us for far too long.

Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, is one of the wisest voices about race in this country. “We’ll never really heal the racial divide in America until we can honestly and openly discuss America’s racial issues,” he e-mailed me this week.

“We need to listen to each other far more closely and not simply shut down the conversation” with cliches like “playing the race card.”

In addition to my column, I started a blog: dontdumpdorrell.blogspot.com.

There too, I cataloged why Dorrell should stay: his character, the way he has changed the culture of a troubled team, the fact that the injuries he has had to overcome this year should not be held against him. I noted that UCLA is not a football powerhouse and never has been. Victories are important, but not at all costs.

Over several seasons, Dorrell has won about six out of 10 games. So did his predecessors. He’s doing what football coaches do at UCLA.

I’ve long been skeptical about the heated, heavy anger directed at Karl Dorrell. I’ve wondered: Where does it come from?

It cropped up during his first year at UCLA. In one e-mail, a critic told me that he became convinced Dorrell would be terrible after the first play of the first Bruins game he coached. Such closed-minded convictions grew into anger, even as his team won 10 games and lost only two. You heard it all over town: It was nothing but luck.

This year, as the Bruins struggled, I heard critics repeat a tired, unfounded refrain: Dorrell was hired because he is black. How else, this line went, could a guy be hired who had never been a head coach before?

Strange, I thought, that I don’t hear the same complaint about whites who are hired to lead college and professional football teams without head-coaching experience.

I’m realistic about our city and its history.

Los Angeles is a place where minorities can now share in the American dream. But it is still heavily segregated, still plagued by hate crimes, still a city that has suffered through two of the worst urban race riots in our nation’s history, the last one only 15 years ago.

Just because UCLA graduated Arthur Ashe and Jackie Robinson does not mean that it has no problems.

In 2006, UCLA welcomed roughly 4,500 freshmen to campus. Only about 100 were black.

All of this was on my mind as I reached the end of my Nov. 18 column and wrote the following: “I’m convinced race plays a role in what some of you critics are saying. To think otherwise would be plain foolish. Some of you just don’t know what to make of a coach who does not fit into your convenient stereotypes.”

I’m glad to report that the column received a good deal of support.

I’m glad too that many readers laid out superb, rational arguments for getting another coach. Although I don’t agree, I can see their side.

Perhaps more important, the column brought some thoughtful criticism of my discussion of race -- why some felt I was wrong. It’s not about race, they said. It’s about wins, losses -- performance.

Still, way too many e-mails, to say nothing of chatter on the Internet, talk radio and TV shows, went off the deep end.

A typical response in one printable e-mail said: “I’m sick and tired of African Americans [being] so quick to play the race card on whatever the issue is -- here we go again with the victim mentality. . . . Race should not even be an issue that is raised, shame on you.”

Even Dorrell lost his footing. He was heavily criticized for agreeing with my opinion and for what I quoted him saying when I raised the question of race:

“In every opportunity that I’ve had in my coaching career, it was never in my mind that I was dealing with a level playing field. I’ve had to do more to accomplish what I’ve accomplished. It’s getting better. But still, that’s just the way it is.”

Later, in what he called a clarification, Dorrell backtracked with statements about how he has never had any problems at UCLA.

He knows what is at stake. Black head coaches who get fired hardly ever get a second chance. It’s a statistical fact.

He’d heard people call him out for “playing the race card,” when I was the one who raised the issue. He grew a bit cautious. That will happen when you are as isolated as he is, when you are one of 5%.

The warped reactions, the back-stepping, even my own defensiveness as I weathered personal attacks, go directly to what I’m saying: Race has always had us in a hot-blooded frenzy -- and still does.

We need to calm down, get a grip and hash out these matters in a civil way. Talking about these issues in the sports world -- a window into the way we live and think -- just might be our best approach, because so many of us care about sports so deeply.

That’s not playing the race card.

That’s just smart.

Kurt Streeter can be reached at kurt.streeter@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Streeter, go to latimes.com/streeter.


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