Ruben proves valuable point for social issues

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 28, 2003

In some ways, I hate to admit this. For the past couple of months, I’ve watched one of the most popular TV shows in history: "American Idol."

When the show began last year, I didn’t bother to stop the remote on Fox. First, I didn’t like the name of the show; didn’t like the fact that Hollywood promoters wanted to add another "idol" to the list of bad influences on young people today.

This year, things were a little different, and anyone who watched the show or has read a newspaper in the last month knows why.

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Ruben Studdard, this year’s "Idol" winner, is an Alabama boy. He lives in Birmingham &045;&045; for the time being &045;&045; and he represents this state in a good light. During Ruben’s every appearance on national TV, he had a smile on his face. When people told him they loved him, Ruben smiled, bowed his head, and diverted the attention elsewhere. When he spoke, his humility overwhelmed those listening.

Those are the reasons I grew to enjoy watching the massive young man perform on the latest version of reality TV.

This past Wednesday evening, I joined a group of people in Demopolis watching the finals of a show that drew more than 24 million viewers. When "American Idol" host Ryan Seacrest announced Ruben as the winner, the entire room exploded into a rambunctious cheer. People gave each other high-fives. I’ll even admit that I felt a little pride for a guy I’ve never seen in person, not to mention someone I know absolutely nothing about except for what I’ve seen on TV.

As someone who likes to observe other people, I stood back in this cheering room and looked around. The people in the room, for the most part, were white. Ruben, with his 205 jersey and sweaty brow, is a black guy.

Don’t ask me why, but every now and again, I think about some of the greater issues facing our society, and watching this room applaud Ruben got me to thinking about an issue we rarely talk about in this community.

During my years as a reporter in Selma, I learned that carrying on a conversation about racism usually leads to nowhere &045;&045; really fast. First of all, the opinions on racism span as wide as this nation, and it’s hard to figure out which arguments make sense and which ones reek of incoherency. It’s also my humble opinion that both sides of the race issue rarely make an attempt to understand the other side. To some, there is only one side to the issue.

Any way you cut it, the national discussion &045;&045; and even the local discussion &045;&045; on racism is a hard debate to grasp. And for that, I don’t care to begin a forum on who should do what in order to ease some of the racial tensions still existent in our region.

Instead, I want to talk about Ruben and the millions of citizens all over this country who supported him for who he was. I want to talk about that mostly white group of people who had chill bumps when Ruben lifted his arms in victory. And as I’m prone to do, it all goes back to my days as a child.

In my hometown of Tuscaloosa, I was involved in every sport a child could find. During the summer, I wore a baseball cap and my glove everywhere. During the winter, I dribbled a basketball to church. In between, I tried to kick a soccer ball, but kicked that sport to the curb when I discovered running around a field for 60 minutes just for the heck of it didn’t make much sense.

During those athletic seasons as a child, I never considered who my teammates were. Never really cared if Chip was black or white. Didn’t give a flip if Chip’s dad &045;&045; our coach &045;&045; didn’t have the same skin color that I have.

Instead, Chip and I wanted to win the league championship. Chip’s dad, Bill, wanted to win it worse than me and Chip combined. A couple of years later, I and a guy named Tim won two state basketball championships back-to-back. We sat next to each other when we had team meals. We hugged when we won the championships. We gave each other mean scowls when the other missed a wide-open shot or let a ball roll through our legs.

Chip and Tim are just two of the friends I remember from my days growing up on basketball courts and baseball diamonds. They also happened to be black friends of mine, and I never once recall worrying about what color they were. Instead, we cared about winning and growing up together.

Watching Ruben win "American Idol" earlier this week made me think about that. It made me recall the words I so often heard in Selma: it’s not about the "color of your skin," it’s about the "content of your character."

As I grew out of my adolescent athletic days, I can honestly say that only then did I learn about the meaning of racism. I learned only because adults told me about racism.

I can guarantee that in the room of cheering Demopolis citizens earlier this week, not a single person cared whether or not Ruben was black or white. Racism, I can assure you, was the last thing to cross any person’s mind. Instead, we were a group of people &045;&045; like millions of others &045;&045; who grew to love Ruben because of his demeanor, his smile and his ability to sing a song.

Make of that what you will.