Friday, December 29, 2023

Our Better Selves

As published in The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

The local Doppler radar looked benign last Saturday morning.  Light rain bands passed through D.C. and others loomed across the northern neck of Virginia, but Southern Maryland was precipitation free.  This was a surprise, given the warnings and promised weather calamity from tropical storm Ophelia.  But the visual was deceptive. 

A wider perspective revealed a massive system spreading rain from South Carolina to western Pennsylvania.  When set in motion, the image suggested this day would be best spent on the couch watching college football. 

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke those words a long time ago.  It came to mind when considering the stark difference between Ophelia’s narrow and expanded radar imagery.  It’s fascinating how seemingly unrelated things connect. 

Very different conclusions can be drawn from a simplified, micro or immediate consideration – a singular experience, a day or even a year - of an issue as opposed to broad, long-term analysis.  As a stock investor will tell you, growth isn’t linear; markets rise over time, but they do occasionally fall. 

The arc of social progress has encountered recent headwinds.  The FBI reported a 35% increase in hate crimes in 2021.  African Americans were the most likely to suffer from race-based crime; incidents against Asian Americans were also disproportionately high.  Sikhism and Judaism were the most victimized religions.  Hate crimes based on sexual orientation increased sharply, and gay and transgender victims were the most likely to be murdered.

A reflective pause to consider that last paragraph is appropriate.  Sobering.  Disturbing.  Infuriating.  Words that come to mind.  One that didn’t: surprise.  These statistics offered no revelation.  For a window into society’s pre-existing fear and consequential anger, see Bud Light. 

There is, as always, hope.  Sports are, despite obvious flaws, fabulously integrated (at least on the field); performance - not appearance, race, national origin or belief system - remains the ultimate determinant of advancement.  The best player in baseball is Japanese (Shohei Ohtani).  A Serbian (Novak Djokovic) is the greatest men’s tennis player of all time and the reigning NBA Finals MVP (Nikola Jokic).  The face of the NFL is biracial (Patrick Mahomes).  Women’s sports have never been better or more popular.  The WNBA is having a moment and its best player just happens to be lesbian (New York Liberty star Brianna Stewart).  While typing this piece (a tip of the cap from the universe?), news broke that Haley Van Voorhis, a safety for Shenandoah University, had just become the first female non-kicker to appear in a college football game.

Despite the hate crime statistics and palatable sense of national tension, these examples indicate a progressive, increasingly tolerant world.  Another recent sports event offered additional, macro-level evidence – a widened Doppler view, if you will – of social progress and Dr. King’s moral arc.  After Coco Gauff won the U.S. Open a few weeks ago, Billie Jean King was among the on-court luminaries.  King, after winning the 1972 U.S. Open, demanded equal pay for the women’s champion.  A year later, the same year King beat Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match, and 50 years before Gauff’s championship, the women’s and men’s champions received the same prize money. 

More time travel: Gauff’s victory occurred over 20 years after Serena and Venus Williams took over women’s tennis.  At the time, the Williams’s were more prepared to dominate the sport than the sport was ready for two dynamic, proud and unique African American talents from Compton, California to dominate it.  Thanks to the Williams’s, Gauff’s victory occurred in a very different world; her U.S. Open title was less a celebration of race and more about her being proof of the Williams’s legacy and the opportunity Gauff now has to influence young girls around the globe.   

This is all evidence of progress.  Slow.  Inconsistent.  But undoubtedly measurable progress.  That it comes from sports should not surprise; our games, while imperfect, have consistently been a leader on inclusion and acceptance, an example of our better selves and proof, even in the most challenging moments, that Dr. King’s quote is undeniable fact. 

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