How fitting that the Rev. Jesse Jackson has subjected NASCAR to his unique brand of activism. Like so much of Jackson’s world, car racing involves noise, smoke, and spinning in circles while ultimately going nowhere. Meanwhile, poor blacks in the bleachers wonder how this helps them.
“The fact of the matter is there is frustration because of exclusion,” Jackson told a 1999 conference attended by NASCAR chairman, Bill France Jr. “We must now turn that pain to power. We were qualified to play baseball before 1947. We are qualified to race cars now.”
NASCAR responded by paying $150,000 to sponsor Jackson’s Rainbow-PUSH/Citizenship Education Fund conference in 2001 plus another $100,000 last year. NASCAR anted up even though it cannot sponsor teams. Companies do that. Moreover, Jackson has not demonstrated NASCAR’s alleged racism.
A key Jackson aide agrees.
“No one has physically come up and said, ‘You’re black. You cannot race,’” Charles S. Farrell, director of Jackson’s Manhattan-based Rainbow Sports, concedes by phone. “But the lack of sponsorship is tantamount to saying, ‘No, you cannot race in NASCAR.’”
Fascinating. If corporate non-sponsorship equals “exclusion,” at least 99 percent of Americans suffer discrimination.
In fact, there have been black-owned NASCAR teams. In 1998, Dr. Pepper sponsored a team organized by basketball veteran Julius Erving. It soon ran out of gas. So did BH Motorsports, a team owned by Sam Belnavis and Tinsley Hughes, both black. It was scheduled to race this year, but stalled first. Bill Lester is now NASCAR’s only black national competitor, driving in its pickup truck division.
So is this all an elaborate, anti-black conspiracy hatched by whitey?
What NASCAR should explain and Jackson will not admit is that some avocations skew black while others lean white. Gospel choirs rarely feature white singers. In turn, symphony orchestras do not exactly overflow with black cellists. If an overwhelmingly white fan base signifies bigotry, the (integrated) Allman Brothers owe blacks an apology. Conversely, the entire rap industry (except for Academy Award winner Eminem) should beg whites’ forgiveness. More than anything else, these racial imbalances reflect diverse cultural tastes rather than prejudice.
Besides, why is Jackson so worried about the racial make-up of auto racing? If tomorrow 13 percent of NASCAR’s drivers woke up black (proportionate to America’s black population), how would that help students at Washington, D.C.’s Anacostia High School, where 71 percent scored below basic in reading last year, and 92 percent similarly botched math? How would a corporate NASCAR sponsorship help rural blacks improve dreadful health conditions? How would a black Winston Cup victory help black entrepreneurs launch businesses in big cities where entrenched bureaucrats expect to be cut in on the action before granting permits and greenlighting proposals?
NASCAR should ignore Jackson’s pay-me-or-I’ll-scream-racism racket. If its executives still believe they owe blacks something, they should underwrite groups that actually improve the lives of underprivileged black folks. Among them:
Through mentoring, tutoring and scholarships, the privately funded Harlem Educational Activities Fund helps low-income pupils succeed in government secondary schools then prosper at and graduate from Bryn Mawr, Columbia, and Yale, among other elite universities.
Washington, D.C.’s National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise introduces local entrepreneurs to experts who can hone their skills and heighten their success. On March 12, NCNE launched an initiative in Lowndes County, Alabama to help poor, rural black families in 80 shacks and trailers replace open-pit sewers with septic tanks.
In NASCAR’s home state of Florida, Dorothy Perry’s Youths Progressing, Inc. has given ethical guidance, practical financial skills and community-service opportunities to some 2,000 children living in Miami’s 754-unit James E. Scott public-housing project. This program survives on volunteer labor and Perry’s own Supplemental Security Income payments.
NASCAR, like too many other businesses, whipped out its check book once Jesse Jackson said, “Boo!” Too bad. Paying off this race hustler may purchase his silence but buys poor blacks less than a high-speed tire change.
— Mr. Murdock is a columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service.