Ethics Train Wreck: Step-Dancing, Racism, and Coke

I missed this story last week. I am almost sorry it came to my attention.

February 20 witnessed the national finals of the Sprite Step Off competition in Atlanta, billed as “the largest Greek stepping competition ever.” I never heard of “step-dancing,” but that is apparently because I’m not black. It is a lively type of dancing favored by black fraternities and sororities. Although the performance by the all-white Zeta Tau Alpha team from the University of Arkansas—the only white team in the competition—received uproarious applause, mixed with amazement on the part of the almost all-black crowd that a white team could master the art, the cheers turned to jeers when they were announced as the winners.  Although few disputed that the Zeta team had been one of the very best, angry e-mails and on-line protests from African Americans began building into a tidal wave. There were accusations of “cultural theft,” and the general message was that a white team should not have been declared the winner in a step-dancing competition. That was a black tradition, and only bias could explain the white team’s success. Most of the protests came from people who had not seen the performances.

This was a teachable moment if there ever was one, a time for black leaders to step to the microphone, to talk about how racial acceptance, tolerance and justice had to be a two-way street. It was a perfect opportunity to focus attention on the origins of racist impulses, and the responsibility of everyone to resist them. The NAACP ought to have, for once, made a statement against reverse racism. But no. Everyone decided to wait for craven corporate self-interest to take over, and they were not disappointed.

Coca-Cola officials (Sprite is a Coke product) announced that they had discovered a “scoring discrepancy,” and declared a tie. A $100,000 scholarship prize was given to the Zeta team as well as to its closest black competitor, the Alpha Kappa Alpha team from Indiana University.  Nobody believes Coke’s story, and nobody should. the “scoring discrepancy” was a fabrication to mask the real motive for the company’s actions: it was inconvenient and bad for business for there not to be a black winning team in this competition. It was worth an extra $100,000 grand for Coke to avoid seeing its promotional effort turn into an ugly race dispute.

Too late for that. A demonstration of naked reverse-racism had successfully taken away the distinction of the Zeta team’s win, and the actions of Coca-Cola validated a protest that would have constituted a national disgrace if the races had been reversed. The lesson of the nauseating incident now stands at this: Blacks may break white-erected racial barriers, but black-erected racial barriers should be respected and enforced. Black leadership and the contest organizers could have prevented that impression with the application of courage and appropriate willingness to take a stand for fairness, justice, and integrity. They didn’t. Maybe the final outcome forestalled a long and bitter controversy, but an outright, honest national dialogue about race issues is essential. Ducking them only lets serious problems fester, and the tolerance for black racism is a serious problem.

When Barack Obama won a traditionally white competition— a U.S. Presidential election—it was hailed as proof of our society’s great progress on race relations. There was very little booing heard, and the Supreme Court didn’t declare that there had been a scoring discrepancy and declare John McCain and Obama co-presidents. But the ethics of a society are illuminated by the little things as much as the big ones, perhaps more brightly. Based on the results of  the  Sprite Step Off, we have a long way to go.

One thought on “Ethics Train Wreck: Step-Dancing, Racism, and Coke

  1. EXACTLY. I read about this on Saturday and was horrified. The best team should win, no matter what their ethnic background! AND imagine the nationwide screams of racism if this situation had been reversed! This story deserved much, much more play and true discussion than it has gotten.

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