George Pyle: Here’s what you missed while the Utah Legislature was embarrassing us

Congress tries to face up to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and the Utah Jazz step up with scholarships for underrepresented groups.

In this 1921 image provided by the Library of Congress, smoke billows over Tulsa, Okla. For decades, when it was discussed at all, the killing of hundreds of people in a prosperous black business district in 1921 was referred to as the Tulsa race riot. Under new standards developed by teachers for approaching the topic, students are encouraged to consider the differences between labeling it a “massacre” instead of a “riot,” as it is still commemorated in state laws. (Alvin C. Krupnick Co./Library of Congress via AP)

If you were hiding under the blankets to avoid seeing what the Utah Legislature was doing Wednesday — all that bother about critical race theory and Utah becoming a Second Amendment Sanctuary state — you missed some interesting stuff.

Not just interesting, but stuff that will make you tear up a little. Out of pain or out of joy.

The joy first.

Ryan Smith, the new owner of the Utah Jazz, pledged to offer full-ride college scholarships to Utah students from groups that are underrepresented in our institutions of higher education, one scholarship for every game the team won this season.

So, decent and competitive human beings that they are, the players accepted the challenge and racked up the best record in the league. They went 52-20 in this pandemic-shortened season and earned the top seed in the playoffs.

If that’s more scholarships than Smith had planned on bankrolling, well, he’s good for it.

Wednesday, the team’s PR folks released a video with scenes of various Jazz players chatting with some of the first 30 people to receive those scholarships. The good feelings on both ends of the calls were inspiring. The students were overjoyed and the players got a well-earned opportunity to share in the joy they dunked and dribbled to create.

Everyone associated with the team has a right to be proud of the way they turned all this high-priced fun and games into something that benefits folks who have talents other than of an athletic nature. It even got a shoutout from ESPN commentator Jeff Van Gundy as he was holding forth on Wednesday’s marquee Los Angeles Lakers-Golden State Warriors broadcast.

“It’s a home run that the whole league should adopt,” Van Gundy said.

Indeed it should.

It would be less efficient than just taxing billionaires what they ought to be paying and making college free for a lot more people. But it’s more fun.

The whole scheme has special resonance for me because of the lore in my family. My father was sitting on the front porch of his hard-scrabble family farm near Sabetha, Kansas, wondering what he was going to do with his life now that he had graduated from high school, when a one-armed man drove up to hand him the paperwork for a scholarship reserved for handicapped students.

The childhood polio that left him partly crippled meant my father was unlikely to be able to make a living as a farmer, and neither he nor his family would ever have been able to pay for college without the gift from the state. It absolutely changed everything.

Not as cool, perhaps, as a phone call from Donovan Mitchell. But still pretty cool. And a new line of family lore for all these people.

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., a more depressing event.

Some of the few remaining survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 described for a House committee the events that left hundreds dead, thousands homeless and a thriving 35-block business district in ashes at the hands of a rampaging mob of white people. A mob armed and deputized by local law enforcement and that used airplanes to attack the neighborhood.

“I will never forget the violence of the white mob when we left our house,” Viola Fletcher, a 107-year-old survivor of the massacre, told the committee. “I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street. I still smell smoke and see fire. I still see Black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams. I have lived through the massacre every day.”

Most people, white and Black, had not heard of that atrocity until a few years ago, when local and state officials started to allow the truth to be told and to make some small official recognition of it all. In 2007, Congress briefly considered a measure that would allow survivors and descendants to sue for damages. Nothing came of it.

The fact that what happened in Tulsa was hidden for so long, and remains an open wound, is exactly the kind of thing that some people think of when they press our whole culture, especially politicians and educators, to face the truth of the racist parts of our history.

The pushback they face is from people who, in objecting to the perceived implication that everything about America is racist, make an utterly absurd case that nothing about America is racist.

Racist isn’t all we are, any more than your race or educational level or marital status or profession or favorite sport, favorite pet or favorite kind of pizza is all you are. But it’s some of what you are, and it does no one any good to deny it.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) George Pyle.

George Pyle, opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, benefits greatly from white, middle-class, college-educated, work-from-home privilege. He still wishes he had more cookies.


Twitter, @debatestate