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Leistikow: Words on race we all need to process, from Iowa football's Kelvin Bell

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Kelvin Bell can readily recite victims of racially motivated violence.

Breonna Taylor, an EMT worker with no criminal history shot eight times by plainclothes officers executing a "no-knock" search warrant in her Louisville, Kentucky, apartment.

Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed jogger murdered in broad daylight by two white men in Brunswick, Georgia.

And now George Floyd, chillingly killed by a Minneapolis police officer over suspicion that he passed a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli.

These killings, all in the past 3½ months, are fresh in our minds as Americans take to the streets in protests. Yet racial injustices have surrounded Bell from birth. Iowa football's defensive line coach grew up in Mississippi, a state with a long history of racism and violations of civil rights.

“I was taught by Mom at an early age … how to maneuver and how to conduct myself, especially in situations that I’m the minority,” Bell said during his appearance on our ‘Hawk Central’ radio show Wednesday night on KXnO in Des Moines. “Strictly for survival.”

Bell spoke for nearly 20 minutes on race, offering powerful words that many of us in a state that’s 91% white and 4% black need to hear.

He shared how, as a large black man, he purposely wears a smile on his face, even if he’s having a bad day. He is careful not to make direct eye contact with others in public. He keeps his hands at 10-and-2 on the steering wheel when police may be around.

“One thing that I carry around with me when I walk around Iowa City or any other part of Iowa — and I’m sure you don’t have to worry about this — I don’t want to scare people,” Bell said. “I am very, very aware. Not only being a large black man. But just being black.

“When I wake up in the morning, that’s the armor I have to put on. Because I know that if I’m perceived as a threat, it’s not going to be good for me. And you not having to have that? That’s privilege. That’s an extra weight you don’t have to carry.”

Bell’s perspective reflects a wide outcry in recent days from black athletes in the Iowa football family who have their own stories of institutional racism.

Just the other day, a black friend of former running back Toren Young was handcuffed and had police in Monona, Wisconsin, draw their guns on him at a house the two were living in temporarily. All because a suspicious neighbor saw the friend, Keonte Furdge, sitting outside the home.

Former defensive back Jovon Johnson, in a great column from the Cedar Rapids Gazette’s Mike Hlas, shared several harrowing experiences with law enforcement, dating from the age of 12, that happened because of the color of his skin.

“One of the things that burns me to the core is when someone (white) says they’re color blind,” Bell said. “That they don’t see color. Well, if you’re colorblind and you don’t see color, then you don’t see me. Because that’s what I am.

“And for you to say that you don’t see color, you have no empathy for what I’m going through. You don’t try to understand what I’m going through. And our walks are very, very different. You need to see color. And more than just see it, you need to understand it.”

How can this relate to football?

Completely. Especially at Iowa, where of 85 scholarship players on the 2020 roster, 39 (or 46%) are black.

A great opportunity is in front of the program right now to demonstrate how people can come together and demonstrate real change.

Kelvin Bell (right, shown during an April 2019 practice) is a former Hawkeye player and is entering his fifth full-time season as an Iowa assistant coach. Bell was raised in Olive Branch, Mississippi.

Three seasons ago, head coach Kirk Ferentz opposed his players taking a knee during the national anthem as a protest against racial injustices. In a Zoom interview Wednesday, he seemed more open to the idea. White people with power and influence, such as Ferentz, can make the biggest differences in addressing inequalities.

James Daniels, a former Iowa center now with the Chicago Bears, tweeted Wednesday night: “If the team collectively decides to kneel, this will bring about a cultural change for both Iowa football and the state of Iowa which I believe is long overdue!!!”

Longtime NFL defensive tackle Mike Daniels responded to James (no relation) by saying, "You know they don't want to have that convo."

So what do you say, Iowa?

Ready to listen to the young men you've cheered and make some change?

USA TODAY recently posted a list of “100 ways you can take action against racism right now.” These are starting points, but some examples: Contact your state and local leaders; contribute to organizations dedicated to racial justice (USA TODAY lists 22); donate to local homeless shelters; read to your children about race; support black-owned businesses; take the time to learn about white privilege.

It's easy to tweet and say the right things.

It's hard to do the right things.

On that note, Bell closed our interview with maybe his most powerful words of the night.

“I’ll say this to the postings on social media. ‘Well done’ is better than ‘well said.’ It takes action,” Bell said. “You can’t put your post out there with no action behind it. Because when that happens, that’s how you end up with what’s going on right now.

“A lot of Twitter fingers are burning through the characters. But there’s little to no action behind it. And if there’s no action behind it, (history) is going to repeat itself again.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.