Column: Lofton, Gwynn, Wiggins seek common ground, context amid US racial strife

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Reading a history book recently, James Lofton said he enjoyed all three of the main characters, none famous, all highly persistent.

Lofton, a 63-year old former NFL and track star who lives in San Diego, said the masterful storytelling of author Isabel Wilkerson in “The Warmth of Other Suns” gave him a better sense of the immense obstacles his own parents may have faced in the same time — between 1915 and 1970 — when almost six million black Americans fled the South for northern and western cities.

Not that the South had a monopoly on racially rigged systems, as many black migrants would discover, but even several decades after slavery ended, inequality of opportunity was vast and generational.

“When you try to relate it to sports,” Lofton said, “it’s like running a race and the other person is halfway through when you get to start. It makes it tough to catch up.”

Lofton recommends not only Wilkerson’s book but one he’s now reading, “Olympic Pride, American Prejudice,” which tells of 18 African-Americans who defended Jim Crow and Adolf Hitler to compete in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

It was just a coincidence that Lofton was reading both books in the recent week that a black American man, George Floyd, was killed in police custody May 25 in Minneapolis.

After seeing video of Floyd pinned down at the throat by the knee of a police officer, thousands of Americans in several cities including San Diego have taken to the streets to protest racial injustice.

Parts of some protests returned into riots.

Protest leaders said Floyd’s killing fits an exhaustively long pattern of police injustice against minorities. Nor are judicial systems color blind, they allege, in the year 2020.

“My belief is that, obviously, there’s a lot of fences to be mended,” Lofton said of US race relations.

The father of three adult children, one of whom has three children, Lofton said “probably more good cops than bad cops” exist. He added: “We all know people’s sons and daughters who are police officers. We know people who are police officers. So, to kind of paint them with the same brush is always tough.”

As a football player for some 25 years, including 16 NFL seasons, Lofton partnered with black and white teammates and coaches.

I have suggested a few ways America’s race relations may be improved.

“You would like conversation,” he said. “We have such a melting pot of people from all around the world here.” Chatting up individuals, not groups, is the better route, he said.

“I guess,” the former Stanford Academic All-American said of another potential partial remedy, “programs to uplift the people who are economically disadvantaged in the bottom third.”

He made one more suggestion: “When you start to look at the world and the United States and see people as your brothers and sisters regardless of what color they are, that probably can’t hurt.”

Along with Lofton, who was a Hall of Fame receiver and an NCAA long-jump champion, other African-American sports figures with San Diego ties tried to sort out the current turmoil.

“There is a rearrangement that is necessary, one that I cannot determine, but can contribute to tirelessly, endlessly,” La Jolla Country Day alum Candice Wiggins, a former professional basketball player who’s 33, wrote on her website. “I believe communication is the key, in all its many forms: verbal, non-verbal, mass communication, one on one, face to face interactions, etc. These are building blocks that, if used productively, may provide the new foundation for which we are searching.”

Tony Gwynn Jr., a Poway High and SDSU alum who played eight seasons in Major League Baseball, reported in a Facebook post “many emotions” running through him in the wake of Floyd’s death. He mentioned anger, hurt and sadness, all flooding him at once.

Gwynn, 37, said many of his relatives, including grandparents, have had conversations with their children about how to react in an encounter with law enforcers.

“Although I will still have to have the ‘how you act when you get pulled over conversation’ with my son, my hope is that my nephew and son won’t have to have that conversation with their kids,” said the son of the late Padres outfielder and Hall of Famer.

Further, he argued against painting either police officers or protesters with a broad brush.

“Moving forward,” Gwynn wrote, “we ALL have to be a part of the solution that gets these things changed! Black, white and brown folks must all come together to make it happen. It would be a damn shame if we go through all this only to return back to ‘normal.’ ”