Earlier this year, in August, three young American citizens ― Alex Skarlatos, Spencer Stone and Anthony Sadler ― were three of six men who sprung into action and took down heavily armed terrorist Ayoub El-Khazzani, successfully preventing a terror plot. The trio was awarded with the Legion d’honneur, the most prestigious award given by the nation of France. Last September, all three men were honored with medals by U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter at the White House and had a private meeting with President Obama.
U.S. Airman Stone, National Guardsman Skarlatos and college student Sadler also were the recipients of hometown parades, talk show and radio interviews, and became the darlings of both national and international media across the political spectrum. Skarlatos gained further celebrity as he and his dance partner Lindsay Arnold managed to place third this season on ABC’s Dancing With The Stars.
While the public became privy to many details of the lives and backgrounds of these young men, one factor that was not been largely discussed was the fact that these three guys are part of an interracial friendship. While this does not make them a novelty, it is in fact somewhat noteworthy. There are those who argue that cross-racial friendships are not that unusual, given the fact that these men are millennials (Generation Y). For the better part of a decade we have been led to believe that this group of young men and women are supposed to be the most racially and socially progressive group in American history, though current studies and a plethora of recent incidents on a number of college campuses have refuted this largely held belief.
Despite recent incidents, it is probably safe to say that, on average, millennials (those born between 1980 and 1998), are likely to be more open-minded and accepting of certain mores, customs ― for example, same-sex marriage, interracial marriage, open drug use ― that have been less well received by previous generations. That being said, being more tolerant does not necessarily translate into full embracement. Tolerance and acceptance are two different things.
The fact that these men were/are part of an interracial buddy friendship is of interest given the fact that, while we have seen many cases on the silver screen and in entertainment where White men and non-Black men, particularly with Black men, have formed close bonds with one another. From escape convicts Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier in the 1958 Oscar-nominated movie The Defiant Ones to Bill Cosby and Robert Culp in the 1960s NBC detective series I Spy (1965-’68) to Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta in the 1994 Oscar-nominated film Pulp Fiction to Scott Bakula, Ray Romano and Andre Braugher in the woefully underrated and ridiculously unappreciated TNT series Men of a Certain Age (2009-’11), the entertainment industry does a great job of providing fictional versions of non-White/White, particularly Black-White fellowship that is often at odds with reality.
To be sure, there are interracial relationships between White and non-White men in real life, especially among athletes, but the question is, how commonplace and frequent are they? Yes, it is true, that many men have problems making friends with anyone, their male neighbor, co-worker(s), let alone a man of a different racial background. The fact is that relationships between White men and Black men have often been fragile. This is due to a number of historical, economic and psychological reasons.
Fear of supposed unrestrained sexual prowess and Black male violence was often promoted as a factor that created a divide between men of both groups. Throughout most of the 20th century, lower-income men of both groups (particularly Irish and Italian White men) were often competing for Black men for low-wage jobs. Other factors were at play as well. Even among more supposedly liberal White men this divide had been commonplace.
A particularly disgraceful example of the often unspoken tension and divisions between Black and White men was earlier this year. This past March, many Americans witnessed the scene of a group of University of Oklahoma Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity brothers chanting racist slurs that seemingly shocked many people. University President David Boren was so disgusted that he ordered the group to leave campus immediately.
To be honest, as someone who attended college in the mid- to late 1980 and graduated in 1990, I cannot say that I was all that surprised. Fraternities, particularly predominantly White fraternities, were often seen as dens of racism, sexism and elitism. The fact is that many, (not all) of them, often lived up to this less-than-flattering perception. In regard to the infamous video, does the image of a bunch of ignorant, bigoted, obviously socially limited frat boys engaging in an act of pathetic racial venom represent the attitudes of all White men? Of course not, but it probably safe to say that it represents a sizeable segment of many, including older White men and non-Greeks. To be sure there are non-White men who harbor racial prejudice and dangerously misguided views about others with different skin pigmentation and should be justly condemned and challenged for their attitudes.
The fact is that there are many men across racial lines who do not use racial slurs or have hatred toward others who are physically and culturally different from themselves. Nonetheless, they are often either far too indifferent, unwilling or disinterested in taking the step of crossing that racial divide and befriending or learning more about their brothers of another color or culture. These are the men (most often White self-identified liberal men) who like the idea of racial diversity (as well as cultural pluralism in general) in theory, from a nonthreatening safe distance. As the old saying goes, “talking the talk, not walking the walk.”
Does not having any friends of other races make you a bad or racist person? Of course not. Does it make you a socially limited person? To a large degree, yes it does. For those men such as Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler, myself and others who do have male friendships across the racial divide, we can safely say that these relationships have been very valuable and rewarding for a plethora of reasons and we are likely to be more healthy in a variety of ways because of this fact.
Dr. Elwood Watson is a professor of history, African-American studies and gender studies at East Tennessee State University.