In the final days of Black History Month, in the city that gave us Martin Luther King Jr., we, African-Americans, surrendered yet another acre of the moral high ground as it pertains to racial equality.
Channeling our inner Glenn Beck, we bitched and moaned last week so loudly about the results of a national step-show competition won by an all-white sorority that we provoked Coca-Cola/Sprite to retroactively name a black co-winner.
I’m not joking. On Feb. 20, the ladies of Arkansas’ Zeta Tau Alpha shocked their black competitors, winning Sprite’s made-for-TV, Ludacris-hosted “Step Off” and $100,000 in scholarship money.
Stepping is a form of competitive, stomp-and-clap dancing done by traditionally black college fraternities and sororities.
Zeta Tau Alpha’s victory is the equivalent of 21-year-old Tiger Woods winning the Masters in 1997.
Imagine the reaction had former Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson and the PGA Tour announced five days after Tiger’s historic victory that an unexplained “scoring discrepancy” meant Tiger had to share his green jacket with Phil Mickelson.
Yep, the Masters would now be called the Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton Invitational.
Here’s what to call the Sprite Step Off: Tea for the Party.
The troubling element of the tea party movement that is fueled by racial animosity has a story to share at the next gathering. The moral of the story will be that black people have no issue with being just as discriminatory as the white power structure they rail against.
There’s no other way to interpret what happened in Atlanta, the birthplace of King.
Four black judges and an Albanian — Chilli of the group TLC, R&B singer Monica and choreographers Devyne Stephens, Zack Lee and Aris Golemi — awarded the crown to ZTA, the lone white participant.
“Let me reiterate, this is from the judges’ scores,” Ludacris told the nearly all-black crowd inside Atlanta’s Civic Center. “They tallied the judges’ scores up. They double-checked the judges’ scores. So you need to understand that the first-place winner is … Zetas.”
The crowd booed lustily and disgustingly.
Members of Delta Sigma Theta walked off the stage.
In the aftermath, bigots put on the KKK hoods of the new millennium — Internet anonymity — and flooded message boards and YouTube with ridiculous postings about “cultural robbery,” the inferiority of ZTA’s performance and conspiratorial rants.
Last Thursday, Coca-Cola/Sprite buckled — and/or enhanced MTV2’s “Sprite Step Off” TV show — elevating the second-place finisher, Indiana University’s Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, to co-champion.
“Due to the extremely narrow margin between the first- and second-place winning sororities, we conducted a further post-competition review and discovered a scoring discrepancy,” Coca-Cola said in a statement. “There is no conclusive interpretation, nor definitive resolution for the discrepancy.”
On Tuesday, I contacted Coca-Cola looking for additional comment. Lori George Billingsley, Coca-Cola’s director of community and multicultural communication, said the company had no further comment beyond the statement.
She confirmed that there were five judges, but she said Coca-Cola wouldn’t release their names or identify their race, which I hunted down.
I did talk to AKA national spokeswoman Melody McDowell. She was pleasant but reluctant to address the critical issues.
I asked her about the obvious double standard illustrated in this incident and whether she was concerned about sending a dangerous message.
“We haven’t been focused on any controversy,” McDowell said. “Our girls just came to step and win a scholarship. Whatever happened, there were two winners. I think everyone walked away happy.”
Yes, white bigots were happy because they walked away with a new justification for their bigotry. And black bigots were happy because they could take pride in shaking down Sprite for $100K in scholarship money for the AKAs.
Everyone’s a winner!
Except for those of us interested in fairness. Except for those of us wise enough to realize the foolishness of black folks throwing away the moral high ground on race in such a reckless manner.
Almost two decades ago, as a way to promote unity on the Arkansas campus, the AKAs invited all the white fraternities and sororities to participate in an annual step competition. Zeta Tau Alpha has been the most diligent and passionate white Greek organization in the step show. The Arkansas AKAs taught the Zetas how to step.
ZTA’s victory in the “Sprite Step Off” should have been a wonderful national story about inclusiveness and embracing activities outside your culture.
The crowd at the Civic Center cheered wildly during the Zetas’ “Matrix”-inspired performance. It wasn’t until the results were revealed that the audience turned on the white sorority and rained boo-birds.
“We just tried to ignore it,” ZTA dancer Alexandra Kosmitis told me Tuesday. “We really didn’t know what to do. It was the first time we’ve stepped where there wasn’t 100 percent acceptance and support. But before this, we’d only competed locally.”
Reminds me of Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion. For years he was denied an opportunity to fight for the title. White critics blasted him for a deliberate and intelligent fight style, the same strategy that made “Gentleman Jim” Corbett a beloved champion before Johnson.
When Johnson finally won the title, white people begged for a “Great White Hope” to beat Johnson.
In our continued fight for equality, why have we strayed so far from the moral high ground Martin Luther King placed us on? Are we in need of a “Great Black Hope”?