That’s a good start, but I wish I could be more hopeful.
I was involved in scouting from the beginning of my son’s decade-long journey to Eagle Scout, serving as an adult leader when he began in Cub Scouts in 2006, moving with him when he “bridged,” as they say in scouting, to Boy Scouts. Like lots of other fathers who didn’t go far in scouting when they were young, I took vicarious pleasure in my son’s activities at pack meetings, troop meetings and campouts.
It has been four years since he made Eagle, but I still have good memories of making Soap Box Derby racers, campouts in the rain where I slept better than I did at home, and fireside bull sessions at summer camp with other grownups after the boys were in their sleeping bags.
But I also remember the boys who, during summer camp, decided it would be fun to use a racial slur — yes, that one — against my biracial son. We ended up having a discussion about why such slurs are wrong. It wasn’t entirely satisfactory: The other adult leaders (all of them white) were more concerned with having a safe space for boys to make mistakes than with the hurt the words had caused.
When I told the scoutmaster the troop handbook needed a section on bullying and racism, he said he didn’t think so. I talked to some of the parents. One father, who was of Indian descent, sat down with his son and with me to talk about it. Others, all white, denied that their children would even think of using the word. I wrote to BSA officials describing what had happened. I suggested that they needed programs like the ones they’re implementing now.
I’m still waiting to hear back.
To my son’s credit, he didn’t give up on becoming an Eagle. When I asked if he wanted to look for another troop, he shrugged and said no. “I’m just not sure it’d be any different anywhere else,” he said.
It’s worth noting that before the June 15 statement, “BSA’s Commitment to Act Against Racial Injustice,” the organization on June 3 had issued a tepid 125-word message titled “Becoming the Best Version of Ourselves.” Though protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody were sweeping the country, the statement didn’t mention race or racism. Phrases such as “stand up to injustice” and “refuse to accept violence or injustice” were as close as it came. The message ended with this self-congratulatory nostrum: “Scouting teaches young people to come together to find peaceful solutions, to work to become the best versions of themselves, and to create a better world.”
On June 11, Dwayne Fontenette Jr., a black Eagle Scout and now an adult volunteer, posted a letter online criticizing the organization’s lackluster response to the protests. Hundreds signed the letter, which seems to have been what prodded the BSA toward the admission that all is not well in scouting because all’s not well in America.
And, of course, that’s the source of the problem. I have thought for some time now that the roots of racism in our country lie in the fundamental inability of white people to see black people as human in the same way they see themselves. Little I’ve heard talking with white scout leaders around the campfire or in one-on-one conversations makes me want to revise that opinion. Too many involved in the BSA are Trump supporters, bullish on his foreign and economic policies, silent when it comes to his stoking of racial divisions.
Racism seems to be at the heart of scout leadership because racism is at the heart of America. I’m encouraged by the BSA’s change of direction. Still, I can’t help thinking that if scouting really were about “character and leadership,” as the BSA said in its earlier, inadequate statement, the organization would have done something about the racism within its ranks a long, long time ago.