A United States That’s Not United

Bill Huber

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Racism can take varying forms. It can be overt and ugly. And it can be subtle and equally damning.

“I didn’t grow up with white people calling me the N-word out on the street. I was dealing with systemic racism,” Green Bay Packers offensive tackle Yosh Nijman said in a lengthy interview about race in the United States and the conversations in the team’s online meetings. “Me being born in an urban community where it was mostly African-American, there was gang violence, there was these different types of elements in how I would live my life and how I viewed the police at that time.

“That’s what I was dealing with on the East Coast. Billy (Turner) elaborated on what he dealt with when he was in the Twin Cities between his father, his brother and himself dealing with racial slurs. And Elgton (Jenkins) can talk about his experiences in the South. I know people don’t realize it but racism is all over America, and it’s in different ways, shapes and forms. It’s not, ‘He called me the N-word’ or, ‘He didn’t let me in his store.’ But you have communities where they live on one side of the train tracks and the other people live on the other side of the train tracks.”

In Nijman’s opinion, it’s a series of “small things” – from educational opportunities to the lack of communication – that add up to what happened in Minneapolis on May 25, when a police officer knelt on the neck of George Floyd for 9 minutes and killed him – all because he allegedly used a counterfeit $20. Here is a transcript of the conversation.

Corey Linsley mentioned you for having a powerful message but he didn’t say what you said. What was your message to your teammates?

My message was really a testimony in the sense of what I dealt with, what I realized as an adult and being a young black boy growing up in different communities. I touched on the systemic racism within the community that I went to high school in New Jersey and the term, ‘They live on the other side of the train tracks.’ It was the sense that the blacks live over here and the whites live over there. That’s an actual thing. It’s not the metaphor. The blacks live over here and the whites live over there. In high school or even going through grade school, you can clearly see what’s being done. In middle school and high school, there were levels – second level, third level, fourth level, fifth level – in the sense that they were saying, ‘OK, this is how this child learns, this is how this child learns. This is a more advanced way of teaching. This is college-prep kind of classes.’ What happened to me is I was in those lower-level classes due to whatever they thought my learning capacity was at that age. A lot of those kids that were in the lower levels were black kids. I wouldn’t say that these kids didn’t want to learn. They were talkative but were viewed as, ‘These kids didn’t want to learn so we’re going to put them in a lower level because their minds can’t focus on what’s really important.’ That’s racist, that you wouldn’t believe that black kids didn’t have capacity to think like white kids in those upper levels. You didn’t give them the proper opportunities. You were thinking, ‘Unless this kid gets a certain grade in this class, then he can’t move up, he can’t succeed, he can’t excel.’ This is what was going on in middle school and high school when I was growing up. I wouldn’t say I was completely ignorant to it but it was just the way life was. …

A black kid and a white kid can have the same GPA, the same credentials, the same everything, and the colleges were picking kids that had a whiter name than, say, a Jamal. They weren’t picking these kids because their names didn’t sound white enough and, in that sense, they don’t fit their criteria, but he has all the credentials as the other kid. That’s racist. That’s outright racism right there. When an African-American family wants to buy a house, they’re denied from a loan because of the way they look. In that case, they’re not able to build generational wealth. They can’t fund their kids to go to college. There’s not enough money being put into these African-American neighborhoods where they can have better textbooks and not outdated textbooks. 

Better yet, in the textbooks, talk about how even during slavery how Americans overcame it. They don’t talk about that stuff. They talk about slavery and they just shove it in their face. As a kid, seeing another person that looks like you in a boat strapped in chains, what do you think he’s going to think? Even if your parents don’t tell you, ‘Don’t like this kid because he looks that way,’ the textbooks say enough. This is supposed to be our educational system. All of these things – small, little things – add up to this whole, huge thing that’s going on right now as police brutality, if you ask me, and you can take someone’s life for any reason without repercussions. If someone didn’t see something or record what happened to George Floyd, it would have been just another case of police killing a black man. What we see is what we caught, but all the other stuff goes undetected because it wasn’t recorded. How many lives were really taken?

You mentioned a lot of things. So, where do we start?

Where do we start? From what’s going on and when it comes to donations and it comes to putting money back into things that you want to support in the sense of what’s going on, take your money from people who support the other things and put your money to where you believe your money should go. That could be a start. Protesting, social media – peacefully protesting. A lot of what’s going on now is people are outraged, yes, and I understand that. They’re lashing out because of the years of having to deal with this stuff and not having a voice to talk about it, but I do feel like with the looting and whatnot, it’s taking away from the problem or even adding to the problem. Local businesses are being destroyed for what reason? If you want to get angry, I’m not saying do this but go at what you think the problem is.

I would say, from what I believe – I’m a devout Christian – there needs to be conversations between people that want to know and try to understand what the problem is and what’s going on. Go to places and see these people and talk to these people and try to understand their lifestyle and see what makes them sad, what makes them angry, what makes them oppressed. Why do they feel this way? Why do they have to live this way compared to how you live? There’s a discord and there’s a disconnect in America. You can have this white kid in the suburbs have both his parents, have a dog, have sisters. Life is good. His parents make enough money to support all of them and food is the last thing he has to worry about. His mom or his dad being in jail, his dad being a crack addict, that’s the last thing he has to worry about. Or being at a lower-level course and not being able to have tutor to bring him up because his parents don’t have the right amount of money to do that, that’s the last thing he needs to worry about. And then you have another, a kid in Chicago, for example, has to take a different route every day because there’s shooting going on. His mom is working four jobs because his dad’s not there. He has to babysit his little sister but they’re both underage because his mom can’t afford a babysitter. These are two different lives within America but their lives never cross because there’s systemic racism. Jamal lives over here and Mike lives over there. Everyone in America is caught up in what they’re doing and there’s not enough time to sit down and talk about these conversations or learn about what’s going on or fighting for what is right.

How did you overcome it? I’m assuming being an athlete helped but I’m guessing there’s more to it.

I’m still overcoming. But how did I overcome? I had two of the best parents you could have. My parents came from South America [Suriname] in the ’80s. All they’ve been trying to do is make a better life for my sisters and I. I know God gave me a great ability to do shotput, play football, play basketball and use that to get a college education. Even for me, I wasn’t so fixed on the actual school aspect. It didn’t hit me until in high school. I had a coach named Kevin Greene that instilled into me that, ‘Listen, you can be a really good football player. You can play in college and you can even go to the NFL if you want to put yourself in that situation and if it’s real to you.’ Once I heard those words and I saw the look in his eye, I started taking things more seriously. I had a grasp of my life. Everything in my life was tangible.

Ever since then, me going to Fork Union Military Academy, me going to Virginia Tech, me coming here, I kept the same mentality. If I want to achieve something, I’ve got to work hard for it. I’ve got to work extremely hard for it. Nothing outside – no female problems, no getting in trouble with the cops. I had to have a clean slate to get to where I wanted to get as an African-American kid. In other cases, for someone that’s white, it’s different. You can both work hard but his parents can afford college but I’m going to have to take out loans if I couldn’t get a scholarship. The scholarship was pretty much the only thing that I was holding onto coming out of high school. There’s no other way I’m going to college. I had to use what God has given me to get to where I needed to go and I had to hold onto it and I had to fight like hell to keep it.

While society has failed, can sports be part of the solution? You look at Jackie Robinson in the 1940s. Even Lambeau Field, there are 80,000 people there on Sundays and I’m guessing race isn’t on the mind of the fans.

Even though it might seem like it in sports, people have different points of views. Although sports can definitely bring light to it, the bigger issue is what I mentioned before. There’s not enough interaction, there’s not enough time to get cultured from different types of people – from Asians, Mexicans or whoever. You go through Green Bay, it’s predominately white. I know there’s minorities but I don’t feel like they talk enough to understand the issues of what everyone’s dealing with. The media portrays an African-American person as aggressive, violent, he has a gun. People are scared to even go up and speak to someone because of these ideologies and stereotypes. That’s the picture that social media has painted for a bunch of years. Even during the Jim Crow laws, a black man can look at a white woman and he gets lynched. ‘We don’t want to associate with you. We want to live here and you can live over there. We want all the opportunities; we’re not going to give you opportunities.’ It’s like, why? Why is that? Why is it that this African-American person doesn’t have the same opportunities as, say, a Chinese immigrant coming to America or someone that’s Hispanic? He’s not getting called the N-word. He’s not getting gunned down by the police. It’s like, where does this stuff come from? ‘Look at this African-American guy. He’s a thug. He’s a gangster. He can’t be anything else.’ What are people going to think? He can be anything else. You see tattoos on my body, a do-rag, a wife-beater and I’m a thug. What is that?

Did you notice this as a kid?

Even being a kid, I had adults in my life that enlightened me on these topics like gang violence and the people that really wanted these things to stop within the black community or to help with education in the sense that, ‘Hey, you can’t wear this. You can’t do this around the police. You can’t act like this because you’ll be viewed like someone that they think. For me growing up, even going to college, ‘I’m not going to get any tattoos, I’m not going to wear a do-rag, I’m not going to wear a wife-beater, because I’m going to be under that label of being what they wanted me to be or what they think I’m going to be, so I’m going to try to be different.’ In America, where there’s freedom of speech, freedom to do whatever you want, you have this stuff embedded in you. Subconsciously, every time you consciously think about doing something, you have to pull yourself back. ‘You can’t do these things because you have to separate yourself from what they think you are.’ That is like the mind-state of slavery because you can’t do anything you want because you have to think a certain way to not even get conflicted with the cops or whatever. In this country where there’s freedom of doing what you want, you’re a slave in that sense because you’re restricted from what you really want to do and what you can do. Growing up, I had to deal with those things. I had to pull my pants up, I had to lace my shoes up, I had to comb my hair, I had to make sure that I was able to speak properly. That’s all a product of prejudice. The people that are protesting everything, people are looking at them like, ‘Look at them. They’re living in the ghetto.’ No, that’s their culture. These are the black people’s culture. This is what they know. The oppression, they owned it. They made it their own. What were they supposed to do? They weren’t given the opportunities of everyone else.

Maybe it’s just the people I talk to, but people are universally pissed off about what happened to George Floyd. It is universal condemnation. So, is there a silver lining that this could be the kick in the ass that we need as a country?

I definitely think it’s a kick in the ass. What brought a lot of light to it was because we were in quarantine for so long. People weren’t doing their regular day-to-day of going to work or whatever, so it was more amplified than it would normally be. Knowing that all this stuff that’s going on right now, OK, our justice system needs help. Our economy when it comes to race needs help. Things need to be funded, things need to be addressed, things need to change. I think it’s brought a lot of light to it. People are making changes. People are being enlightened. People are saying their stories. People are communicating. I don’t think people should see it as, ‘Oh, let it die down.’ It should never die down. It should evolve into something else to where people are more informed, people are more together as Americans.

What did you think of the team video?

I think it was a great video. I’m glad to see Aaron [Rodgers] on there and everyone else – white and black – together. We come from different backgrounds but what brings us together is football. We play that well together as brothers. I think it was a great thing.

Billy Turner talked to Matt Schneidman from the Athletic. One thing that struck me was when Billy said he was “numb” to the violence. Are you numb, too?

For me, I’ve been suppressing that feeling of sadness, anger and hate. I know for me, I try to pray every day for God to give peace in my heart. I’m not trying to take any light away from it but this is just the human race and what we do to the animals and the trees. We’re destroying everything, let alone each other. I know Billy has also pushed for peace and positivity. He’s all about it, and I’m 100 percent for it. There isn’t enough peace, there isn’t enough joy or happiness in the world, you know? Once we teach our kids in grade school to share with one another and to love one another and to put them in positions where they have to rely on one another, it’ll be a different society. The mentality of helping someone or being there for somebody or sharing your belongings, there’s not enough of that. When you see cops killing – or you see killing in general – when you actually see it, you become numb in that sense because you see it so often. You want to make an immediate change but you’re so busy in what you’re doing, it’s like, ‘Where do I start? And who else feels the way I do?’ It’s time for conversation and healing.

You mentioned kids. My second-grader was reading about Rosa Parks the other day and the look on his face, if he could have sworn, it would have been, “What the [fudge]?” So, I’m hopeful. Are you hopeful?

Yeah, I’m very hopeful. I think things will actually change with my generation. I see the generation from 18 to 29, they are thinking. They do feel the aftermath and effects of our ancestors. They’re not scared, they’re not backing down. They’re standing up. I love seeing that. With even the older generation, yeah, they might be pessimistic but, for us, we’re optimistic. We’re the future. We can make that change. We can stop what you guys let go on for so long. So, I’m optimistic from that sense.

The last word is yours.

I would just add that if anyone has a neighbor or a friend or an enemy, you should pray for them and you should find ways to love them because love is stronger than hate. That’s what I would say. Those would be my last words.

Register today or log in to access this premium article.