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The Value of Character: In Black and White


What are you doing personally to bring blacks and whites together?

People pray a rally in front of City Hall in Baltimore, Maryland, on May 3, 2015 calling for peace following widespread riots. The riots stemmed from protests over the death of Freddie Gray, 25, who suffered a serious spinal injury while in the back of a police van on April 12. (AFP Photo/Nicholas Kamm)

Writer's note: The following is a recent letter I wrote to one of the young men who is part of my life. He lives in one America's most dangerous cities and he is a talented high school wrestler. His name isn't Willy, but that's what I'll call him. I recently sent him a video featuring his hero Jordan Burroughs, America's reigning Olympic champion. Willy told me he was inspired by the video, and I wanted him to consider a deeper part of Burroughs' message. I hope my experience will help Willy and readers, too. I have made a few revisions in an attempt to clarify the message for everyone, and to protect the privacy of people I mention. RM is the city some people call Murder Mount. LT, JB, and LA are the initials of kids and what they sometimes go by. CHS is a high school in a posh community about an hour away.

Hey Willy, yea, Jordan Burroughs is an awesome person. I thought the video was inspiring too.

One of the things that stood out to me is what Burroughs said about his neighborhood -- “a lot of people try to bring everybody else down.” It struck me hard because of what I have experienced in RM.

I thought about you and all the kids who are part of my life. For kids who grow up in safer neighborhoods, it is not quite the same. And I asked myself why. Bad kids can get you in to trouble anywhere and lead you in the wrong direction.

I believe I told you that day at lunch that people here can't afford to make mistakes -- physically or financially. If I didn't, we should talk about it.

I’m just going to say it like I've experienced it -- people here are really mean to each other. Think about your classrooms. If you went to CHS, classes are quiet, orderly, and kids are generally more respectful of teachers and other students. There can be rowdy classes, but it isn't normal.

I could not believe how kids here think they can behave, and what they say and do to other kids and teachers.

With wrestling, we didn't have that problem because the kids wanted to be there. If they act like jerks, their teammates beat them up, they got physically punished, they quit, or I kicked them off the team.

There are no meaningful consequences for the jerks in your classes. None. They have to be there, and they don't want to be. So the jerks keep being jerks and ruining the education of their classmates. They bring everyone else down like Burroughs said.

Yes, middle class and rich kids can do the exact same stuff, but the ones who do are the outcasts -- that is a real consequence. Most people don't like them and don’t want to be around them.

Here, however, those kids are cool, respected, and pretty much accepted by everyone.

Kids everywhere experience bullying for all sorts of reasons. But I really understand what Burroughs was saying in the video. It concerns me because I don't want the kids I love to be pulled down.

You're a cool kid, Willy, but you're also dopey. All kids are -- in my opinion. When you turn 30, you'll know what I mean. I promise. I was an idiot until I was about 29 or 30. I try to get less idiotic every day.

You have so much potential, and the more you do things the RIGHT WAY, the better you are going to do in life. That is what Burroughs is sharing. He is trying to do more things right than his competition. And life is competition. It makes us better trying to be better than the guy next to us -- but we have to do it the right way.

Watch the video again. Burroughs focuses on the little things that others don’t have the self-discipline or dedication to do.

You are going to make mistakes, Willy. You're human. But I'm telling you because of where you live, you cannot afford to make many of them. Not financially or any other way. You need to think about the stuff you do.

Kids in safer neighborhoods don't worry about getting killed when they go outside. If they sell weed, they don't get robbed and shot, like LT. Cops and other good people, both white and black, saved LT’s life that night. It was guys with his skin color who tried to murder him.

When kids in safer neighborhoods skip school, they don't get slaughtered like LA.

Thank God LT survived his stupid decision. I believe it was only by God’s grace that LT is still alive. He didn't deserve to be shot, but that is the reality of life in the hood when you do dumb things.

I told you about teenage girls getting pregnant. They are probably sentencing their children and themselves to a hard life. You have to get out of here and be able to take care of yourself before you have a child of your own. You have to have the discipline to do the right things. Wrestling helps instill that discipline.

If you fail, look in the mirror. There is the guy who kept you down. If you think I'm square, listen to Burroughs.

You are doing much better than I did at this stage. Still, I stayed out of trouble. Got to wrestle at Virginia Tech and by God's grace none of the dumb stuff I did landed me in jail or in the morgue.

My dad told me that "cops may not always be right, but they are always the boss. You will never win an argument or a fight with a cop. Don't get your behind kicked and don't get killed. Swallow your pride and be humble and very respectful. You're not going to talk your way out of being arrested if a cop decides to arrest you. Just surrender and start planning how you will defend yourself in court."

I'm serious. That is the message my father gave me.

White people who mess with the law end up dead and broken, too. More whites than blacks are killed by police, and they usually bring it on themselves. Don't mess with the police. They have a tough job, and they deal with losers every day. It is the losers that match our description that make our lives harder than they have to be -- not the cops.

Think about this: I got pulled over near Clark Street for driving while white late at night. I had just dropped off JB. White dudes in that neighborhood are usually up to no good. It's not fair the cop thought I was a criminal, but life's not fair. I was humble and respectful and he let me go after he realized I coached at Central.

Philando Castile, the black guy killed in Minnesota last week, is dead in large part because he matched the description of an armed robber. It's horrible. It’s tragic. He did not deserve what happened to him.

However, is anyone mad at the guy who committed the robbery and who put Philando in that deadly situation? Do you think the criminal cares that Philando is dead? Do you think he is going to turn himself in?

How do you think that cop feels knowing he killed an innocent man? The whole thing sucks, but who's really responsible?

Have you ever tried to investigate a guy you thought was an armed criminal? Really think about this, Willy. That cop was trying to protect Philando and the rest of us from the guy who committed armed robbery. Now, an innocent man is dead and everyone is pissed at cops. No one cares or even talks about the actual criminal who is still free and at large.

Know who your real enemies are, Willy. And know who your real friends are. Who is trying to pull you down, and who is sincerely trying to lift you up? It has nothing to do with skin color. It has everything to do with character.

Look in the mirror. What does your character look like?

Love you, man. Be good. And keep working to be great.


Lee Culpepper has served the United States as a Marine officer and less formerly as a non-liberal high school English teacher and a substitute dad. Follow Lee on Twitter @drcoolpepper or email him at drcoolpepper@gmail.com.

Feature Image: (AFP Photo/Nicholas Kamm)

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