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HETRICK: There she is, Miss America, an ideal answer to racism

September 21, 2013

A new Miss America was crowned last week. The 24-year-old Miss New York, Nina Davuluri, is a beauty. Smart, too. The would-be cardiologist was born in Syracuse and raised in New York, Oklahoma and Michigan. Her dad’s a gynecologist. Her mom’s a software engineer.

At the University of Michigan, where Davuluri earned her bachelor’s degree in brain behavior and cognitive science, she made the dean’s list and won academic awards.

But for a few ugly Americans emboldened by social media, it was an opportunity to judge Miss Davuluri not by “the content of her character,” but “by the color of her skin” (phrasing complements of Martin Luther King, Jr.).

CNN, NBC’s “Today,” the New York Post and others reported that Miss America’s crowning triggered offensive, racist tweeting.

Among the digs reported by the New York Post:

“Well they just picked a Muslim for Miss America. That must’ve made Obama happy. Maybe he had a vote,” tweeted Elizabeth@EJR Buckeye.

(Davuluri is Hindu.)

“This is Miss America…Not Miss Foreign Country,” tweeted Meredith Talley (@meredithRoanell).

“She’s like not even american and she won miss america,” tweeted Kat@kathrynRyan50.

Among those tweets reported by NBC’s “Today”:

“Congratulations Al-Qaeda. Our Miss America is one of you,” tweeted “De La Rutherford,” or @Blayne_MkltRain.

“9/11 was 4 days ago and she gets Miss America?” tweeted @LukeBrasili.

Nick Pizzo (@pizzo_nick) posted, “So miss america is a terrorist.”

“Today” noted that, “Many individuals who ranted over the Miss America decision pulled down their Twitter pages after media sites posted their comments.”

That’s like the Ku Klux Klan donning masks after burning a cross on the lawn.

Davuluri, who competed on the theme of “Celebrating Diversity through Cultural Competency,” took the comments in stride.

“I have to rise above that,” said Davuluri. “I always viewed myself as first and foremost American.”

The tweets were similar to those greeting 11-year-old Sebastien De La Cruz after he donned his mariachi suit and sang the National Anthem at a June NBA finals game between the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs.

Among those reported by CNN:

“Why they got a Mexican kid singing the national anthem … ,” from Daniel Gilmore.

“Why is a foreigner singing the national anthem. I realize that’s San Antonio but that still ain’t Mexico,” from Lewie Groh.

“Who let this illegal alien sing our national anthem?” from Matt Cyrus.

De La Cruz, once a contestant on “America’s Got Talent,” was born and raised in San Antonio, the son of a U.S. Navy veteran.

Like Davuluri, he reacted with more class than his accusers.

“Please do not pay attention to the negative people,” De La Cruz tweeted. “I am an American living the American Dream. This is part of the American life.”

So it is. Dreams and racism alike.

But here’s the rub. The 11-year-old Sebastiens, the 24-year-old Ninas, the graduate and undergraduate students in my classrooms, the young people known as the Millennials, the young people ready and willing to assume our community and workplace roles—they want, more than any generation before them, to move beyond racism, sexism, homophobia, silos, stereotypes and discrimination.

As we mark this year and those that follow the 50th anniversaries of the March on Washington, the Birmingham church bombing, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and so many other momentous events in the desegregation of America—and as we fight today over equal rights for gay and lesbian Americans—we’ll see not only how far we’ve come and how far we have to go, but also how broad the generation gap dividing these debates.

This was evidenced in recent weeks at the University of Alabama. The school newspaper, the Crimson White, reported on segregation in campus sororities.

In the 50 years since Alabama Gov. George Wallace stood on the Tuscaloosa campus steps and attempted to block admission of minority students, only one African-American woman has ever been admitted to a historically white University of Alabama sorority.

The Crimson White story focused on a highly qualified African-American student, one who’s the step-granddaughter of a university trustee, who failed to get a bid this year from any of the sororities she visited during recruitment.

Here’s the kicker: Sources told the newspaper it wasn’t collegians who rejected the young woman. It was alumni advisors. A generation gap at work.

On NPR, Lane McClelland, director of the Crossroads Community Center on campus, said, “I can’t go five steps without hearing another student talk about how important this is to them.”

Therein lies the hope: that with a new generation leading, the media spotlight shining, the racists shamed, the sororities at last looking more like the nation, and Miss Americas of every color crowned time and again, then the content of our nation’s character may at last deliver liberty and justice for all.•

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Hetrick is an Indianapolis-based writer, speaker and public relations consultant. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.

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