As is customary, one or two Super Bowl stars from the winning team were invited to Disneyland Sunday night, where they received a royal welcome Monday. The guests, tough-as-nails wide receiver Julian Edelman, who is white, and game-saving cornerback Malcolm Butler, who is black, come from very different backgrounds. But their convergent paths to fame and fortune ultimately demonstrate how misguided liberals are to embrace identity group politics and divisive terms like “white privilege” to explain what’s wrong with America today.
Edelman was born in Redwood City, California, where his father owns a business. He starred at and graduated from tony Woodside High School but due to his small size was not recruited by any four-year universities After a year at community college, he transferred to Kent State University, a second-tier Division I school, where he was a standout quarterback.
Despite his college success, Edelman was not invited to the NFL combine after his final year at Kent State. At 5′ 10″, he was considered too small to lead a pro-style offense and not quite fast enough to star as a receiver or a punt returner. Nevertheless, the Patriots drafted him in the seventh and final round. New England coach Bill Belichick saw talent and a strong work ethic where others saw limits.
Ultimately, by dint of a singular focus on learning the complexities of the Patriot offense and the normal attrition that led to receiver after receiver ahead of him on the depth chart being traded or released, Edelman became a full-time starter in 2013 and has led the team in receptions in each of the past two years.
The 24-year old Butler’s path to Disneyland is even more tortured than Edelman’s. At 20 years old, he was a star employee at the Vicksburg, MS, Popeye’s. Although he was considered a college football prospect, poor grades at Vicksburg High rendered him ineligible to receive a Division 1 college scholarship when he graduated in 2009. Ultimately, like Edelman, Butler enrolled at a local school. He played well during his freshman year at Hinds Community College but after five games was arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia and suspended.
During his off-year, he returned to his on-again off-again high school job at Popeye’s. His mother, Butler has explained, had to work two jobs when he was growing up to make ends meet. Like her, Butler always assumed he would be working for wages. A supervisor describes him as a model employee – he arrived for work early, never complained, was unfailingly polite to customers, and worked extremely hard.
In 2011, Hinds reinstated Butler and after a successful season there, he enrolled in Division II West Alabama where he played in 2012 and 2013. Again, mediocre grades foreclosed acceptance at an SEC school. At West Alabama, he was a jack of all trades, returning kicks, playing defensive back, and doing everything the coach asked.
A Patriots scout saw him and reported back to Belichick, who declined to draft him but signed him at the beginning of the just-concluded season. Butler impressed his NFL coaches just as he had everybody else with whom he worked and was rewarded with more and more playing time. His Super Bowl pick was the ultimate reward for him and his team.
At first blush, Edelman, the white kid from the affluent high school whose father owned a business, and Butler, whose mom raised him in poverty, exemplify the advantages that whites have over blacks. But that is hardly how Edelman sees it. Here’s what he had to say, in a choked voice, in the aftermath of Sunday’s win over the Seahawks:
My dad, he’s had my back since day one,” said Edelman. “He’s pushed me to heights that I thought I never could get to. My dad was just a little trailer trash white dude that worked his tail off, didn’t have a dad. He started at working at 14, didn’t get to play sports. He dedicated his life to his kids to let us live our dreams. I love my dad.
Edelman would likely scoff at the notion that his good fortune was due to pale skin. I owe my advantages, Edelman would say, to my dad Frank who built himself up from nothing and to my own incredibly hard work when nobody but my dad believed that I could make it to the NFL. Moreover, Edelman and the many white Americans whose childhood experience mirrors his father’s are certain to react angrily and resentfully towards those who explain their success to European ancestors or who dismiss their struggles because of that self-same background.
This is not to say that whites, and white men, don’t have advantages but rather that those who are most victimized by the forces of wealth and power are least likely to respond favorably to the claim that they are privileged by virtue of race of sex. Yet they are the ones with whom we on the left must work if we are to bring about true economic as well as racial and gender justice.
So what arguments can work with white working Americans as opposed to demanding that they “check their privilege” and, as they see it, defer to minorities. First, we need to recognize that there are millions of white Americans who are struggling mightily to hold onto the vestiges of a middle-class lifestyle. Second, we should appeal in solidarity with them by analogizing their struggles with the comparable ones of Malcolm Butler, his mother, and the millions of hard-working African-Americans. Third, we need to focus constantly on the issues that divide the poor, working, and barely middle-class from the rich: the paucity of decent-paying jobs, unaffordable higher education, still (for many) unaffordable healthcare and how best to improve Obamacare.
Will these appeals to solidarity work? Not with everybody. Tragically, there’s an awful lot of racism lurking in the hearts of struggling white Americans that hustlers like Rush Limbaugh will continue to try to exploit at every opportunity. Likewise, suspicion and prejudice are rampant on both sides of the racial divide. But for those who want all Americans to live free of poverty, talking about our common interests seems like a strategy with far more upside than more reminders of the obvious but only skin-deep differences between us.