The Man Who Refused to be a Victim

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In the fall of 1959, Warren Sutton did something that got him in a lot of trouble. A star collegiate athlete entering his junior year, he began dating the 18-year old daughter of an official of the university he attended. Her age wasn’t the thing that got him in a lot of trouble. The fact her father was bursar wasn’t the thing that got him in a lot of trouble. No. the trouble came about for the most superficial of reasons. You might even call them “skin-deep.” Specifically, his was black and hers was white.

While not prohibited in New York State, interracial marriages were not granted constitutional protection until 1967 when the Supreme Court struck down a Virginia statute banning such arrangements. Warren Sutton merely dated a white woman. He didn’t marry her. Still, he was hounded out of Alfred University that year, eventually finishing his stellar college basketball career at Acadia University in Canada. How good was he? He was good enough to be drafted by the NBA St. Louis Hawks. He opted for a more promising career in business rather than the risky world of (back then) low paying professional sports.

Although not officially complicit in his ouster, in subsequent years Alfred University nonetheless sought to right the wrong done to Warren Sutton. In 1986 the former Division III All-American was inducted into the Alfred University Hall of Fame. In May of 2017, he was presented an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree. As this coincided with my daughter Catarina’s graduation ceremony, I was fortunate enough to be present when Sutton made his brilliant speech.

Ironically, Warren Sutton was not the official commencement speaker (or, in this case, “speakers”). That honor fell upon the husband and wife team of Victoria and Richard MacKenzie-Childs. If, like me, you don’t recognize this couple, they are the creators of the MacKenzie-Childs line of ceramics and hand painted imported furniture. Of course, a financial squeeze forced them to sell the firm to American Girl Founder Pleasant Rowland. This was not revealed to the audience and I only discovered this fact thanks to the curiosity inspired sleuthing by my sister-in-law Cheri, retired research librarian.

For many of those in attendance that Saturday morning, Victoria’s and Richard’s commencement “speech” was, well, let’s just say the use of performance art in lieu of words may have been the thing that inspired my sister-in-law. How perplexing was this presentation? After a lengthy period of odd activity sans explanation, Alfred President Mark Zupan cut it short due to “technical difficulties.” And the crowd roared.

Still, I can’t complain. The Mackenzie-Childs anomaly certainly made the event unforgettable. More important, the duos verbal void left the memory of Warren Sutton’s short speech on our minds. Sutton encapsulated his theme with the blunt statement “I never saw myself as a victim.”

If ever a man had a justifiable reason to paint himself as a victim, Warren Sutton has it. When given the opportunity and the stage to declare his victimhood, Sutton instead chose to emphasize “I never saw myself as a victim.” What does this say about him, his character, and the proper way to confront bullies?

For the last couple generations, society instilled within our youth and the population in general the priority of victimhood. It places the blame for the inherent ills of human behavior on others, not on ourselves, as if we have nothing to do with human behavior. This external direction removes any responsibility for fixing a personal problem from ourselves as victims and implies the primary if not sole responsibility lies with the victimizer (i.e., the oppressor, or “bully,” to use the preferred jargon of today).

How do we see this occur? We see it in all walks of life, from the young to the old. We tell elementary school children to avoid resolving playground antics themselves and, instead, contact the nearest available adult. In the past, what happened on the playground was resolved on the playground. Kids who tried to bring in adults were rightfully called “little babies” (implying they were not mature enough to deal with conflict), “tattle-tales” (implying they couldn’t be trusted to keep personal matters personal), or, finally, “cowards” (implying they didn’t have the courage to take these matters into their own hands).

Oddly, nowadays we glorify the self-proclaimed “victim” is if to reward them as we would a whistleblower working in a corrupt administration. We victimize criminals who meet their just desserts via the hands of the authorities by claiming a point of view that states police “overstep” their authority (as if, our careful armchair analysis can accurately duplicate the instantaneous decision-making required in the heat of the chase). We victimize the careless product user who suffers injury when using the product in a manner it wasn’t intended for by blaming the product’s manufacturer (and its otherwise innocent workers) for failing to properly anticipate and disclose all the limitations of that product. We blame doctors for the deaths of people “too young” to die, despite actuarial tables that say, yes, people that young do die.

In short, we have been trained to blame just about everybody else for our problems except for the one person who is in the best position to solve those problems: you.

What do you expect when teachers, community youth organizers, and, yes, even some parents, tell children never to confront a bully but to “always call on an adult authority.” What happens to self-reliance, self-independence, and self-defense when we train kids to first depend on others instead of themselves? This has become an inbred condition as these children age into adulthood. The next thing they’ll expect is for some higher authority to pay for their own college education. Then they’ll expect some higher authority to pay them when they can’t work because they decided to have children of their own. Then they’ll expect some higher authority to pay for their health care, their retirement, and, ultimately, their funeral expenses.

The Founding Fathers created America with the idea that each individual could and would forge their own destiny. Sure there were a limited few things we’d need to address as a collective (such as insuring a proper defense), but beyond those few things, we were free to determine our own path. If that path led to success, it was because of our own doing. If that path led to failure, it was also because of our own doing. No one else was responsible for our fate. No one could claim they were a victim.

Warren Sutton is a man who refused to be a victim. For that reason, he stands as a role model for us all, a model of the American Spirit, an example we would all like to see our children become.

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