White sorority wins “black” step show. That’s racial progress

WASHINGTON — Having done my share of sneering at the younger generation over their rap music (I despise the violence and misogyny), their sartorial style  (”Pants on the ground!”)  and their seeming sense of entitlement (40K a year isn’t enough for that first job?), I should acknowledge their continuing contributions to a culture that celebrates diversity and equality. Without the open-mindedness of the nation’s young adults, it’s unlikely that President Obama would have been elected or that the Pentagon would be considering allowing gays to serve openly.

Still, every now and then, even the young folks stumble and become entangled in the old prejudices, rigid racial boundaries and cultural cliches. That seems to be the case with the controversy that erupted after a group of fancy-stepping white sorority sisters from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville — members of Zeta Tau Alpha — won an Atlanta dance competition sponsored by Sprite, the soft drink label, last month.

The members of Zeta Tau Alpha were the only white competitors to make the national round of the step contest — “stepping” is a style created and dominated by black fraternities and sororities —  and their victory hasn’t been universally celebrated. A bitter, racially-tinged debate broke out over urban radio and in the blogosphere, with some black critics charging that a black sorority was cheated out of a rightful first-place finish.

Anthony Antoine, an AIDS-prevention coordinator, inadvertently helped to spark the controversy when he posted a video of ZTA’s performance online. He had judged them winners, and he wanted to share the show with his girlfriend, who didn’t attend. He never expected a full-fledged racial fracas.

The vituperation has been “disheartening,” Antoine, who is black, said. “If your reason for saying they shouldn’t have won is because they’re white, what does that say about where we are?” he asked, adding,  “I shouldn’t be surprised by people acting out of long-standing pain and a sense of disenfranchisement, but I simply didn’t think a step video on YouTube would be a catalyst to expose that.”

After a few days of carping and condemnation, contest organizers suddenly discovered a “scoring discrepancy” and awarded a second first-place title to a black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, from Indiana University. Each team will receive $100,000 in scholarships.

Well, OK. I’m in favor of more college scholarships, so that’s hardly the worst outcome. And Sprite, which was hoping for favorable attention to its label, can hardly be blamed for trying to douse the flames of a brush fire fueled by race.

Yet, the “scoring discrepancy” — which Coca-Cola, Sprite’s parent company, has refused to explain — seems a bit odd. After the performances ended, the judges deliberated for nearly an hour,  Antoine said. “I was there when they noted the scoring had already been verified,” he said.

Besides, the competition could have been one of those eloquent “teaching moments” that combined several lessons for young adults. They might have been reminded, first off, that in the real world, you don’t always get a trophy.  Second, those who accused ZTA of “stealing” from black performers might have learned that cultural assimilation has always been a fact of life in this diverse country. (See Elvis Presley.) Indeed, some dance historians believe that tap dance grew out of 19th –century neighborhoods where free blacks and Irish immigrants lived in close proximity and combined native dance traditions.

But the most important lesson for the young folks is this: Dump your stereotypes. Racial prejudices are a symptom of a narrow mind, no more just or righteous when exhibited by blacks than when held by whites. You think white sorority members can’t dance? Isn’t that similar to suggesting that a black man can’t be a competent president?

This is a great country, and it has given birth to an awe-inspiring, only-in-America culture. White evangelicals can raise the rafters with their preaching; Shani Davis can win Olyimpic Gold in speedskating; and I can criticize Marshall Mathers (Eminem) for the content of his lyrics, not the color of his skin.

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