Bissinger details Odessa's relationship with race in this chapter. In Odessa, the word "nigger" is used liberally, to disparage not just blacks but also women and other racial minorities. In fact, twenty-four years after the Civil Rights Act was passed, most whites in the town do not see the word as derogatory. Instead, they recognize two categories of black people: those they see as hard working and ‘white’, and those they see as lazy, thieving, and welfare-dependent.
There are, of course, some who do not reflect this limited viewpoint. One example is Lanita Akins, a white woman who finds the term offensive in any context. Though a Permian football fan, Akins is also a humanist who understands how Odessa operates its own version of the Berlin Wall, one in the form of railroad tracks separating two sides of town. Bissinger quotes Lanita at length, especially her opinions on Mexican-Americans. Akins has a particular sympathy for these immigrants, who perform jobs that others would never do.
One positive effect of the immigrant influx is that it has hastened desegregation, which should have happened in Odessa decades earlier. At the time desegregation was legally mandated, Odessa had three high schools: Ector (90% minorities), Odessa High (93% white), and Permian (99% white). Ironically, desegregation started to occur not because of goodwill but because of football. Over time, everyone in the white area of town accepted that their schools needed black athletes in order to compete. School boundaries were eventually redrawn to allow poor black athletes to attend Permian.
Interestingly, many minority citizens opposed desegregation as vehemently as whites did, for a related reason: they did not want to lose their star players and possibly see their community schools close as a result.
Although the racial profile at Permian has barely changed since desegregation, the Wall of Fame in the field house has become a testament to Permian’s new racial dynamic. While blacks and whites would never mix in public, they can at least celebrate together at football games.
Much of this chapter is devoted to the peculiar boy named Ivory Christian. Ivory’s relationship with football constitutes a paradox - he loves it and he hates it. Unlike many of his fellow players, Ivory neither expects nor seeks a future in football, even as his coaches extol his virtues and colleges pursue him. This ambivalence raises several questions about Ivory: how can a poor black boy in Odessa not care about exploiting his ticket to adoration, status, and white acceptance?
Ivory's past helps to explain his apathy. Born in Odessa's south side (a mostly black area), Ivory first attended Eton High. Though he played football there, he was a rare gifted player in a school that mostly focused on basketball. On the south side, there was no equivalent to either Permian's ‘Mojo’ or its resources (like chartered planes for away games). Thus, Ivory never developed inflated expectations like those Boobie Miles harbors, for fancy cars or legions of devoted girls.
So while Ivory enjoys football, he does not identify himself by it. In fact, Ivory had recently dedicated himself to God, and was spending lots of time as a youth minister with his community church. This new devotion makes for a strange bedfellow with Ivory's other passion, for the rush and crush of the gridiron. Overall, Bissinger paints Ivory as a contradiction, a boy who seeks to dispel his demons both through spiritual meditation and through the physical aggression of the field.
Towards the end of the chapter, Bissinger’s narrative shifts back to the season’s second game against Midland, where we witness the enormity of pressures placed on these boys in the wake of such grandeur. Even Coach Gains loses perspective amidst the awesome force that the packed stadium unleashes. There are moments where the reader loses sight that these players are mere boys, playing a school game on an autumn night.
This section focuses on the racial divide that fractures Odessa. The lexicon of racial slurs has really not changed here since the Civil Rights movement or the Civil Rights Act. Many readers might be understandably troubled to see such a loose use of the word ‘nigger’, but Bissinger approaches the potential controversy with a journalistic eye, allowing the people of Odessa to speak about the language.
Interestingly, most of the whites that use the slur do not consider it derogatory. Instead, they see it as representative of Odessa's ethnic realities. The fact that they separate blacks into two groups - the hard workers and the ‘niggers’ - can be easily written off as ugly racism, but also offers a rare glimpse into the way otherwise good people justify their hatred.
Of course, as with everything in Friday Night Lights, the racism gets more complicated by football. While much of the country understands desegregation and Civil Rights as part of a difficult legacy, Odessa sees it through the lens of the sport. Permian could not compete at its level without African-American talent, so the school suddenly took an interest in desegregation, redrawing boundaries to ensure they got the talent they needed.
The great tragedy is that desegregation did not really change much in the Odessa school system. At the time it was finally implemented, there were three high schools in the town: Ector, with a population of 90% minority students; Odessa High, with a population of 93% white students; and Permian, with a population of 99% white students. Permian got enough minority students to keep its team competitive, but the greater racial and economic realities meant that the town stayed practically segregated regardless.
Bissinger introduces an interesting contradiction here: the way that sports offers black youths an opportunity to succeed, while simultaneously treating them as commodities. Lawrence Hurd explicitly makes this point in the book. A gifted and powerful black minister, Hurd insists that the African-American youths are being exploited and harmed, their heads being filled with dreams of greatness that would probably never come true.
Unfortunately, voices like Hurd's are often silenced by the difficult circumstances of poverty. When Hurd fell into his vices - becoming a bank robber, a gambler, and a failure - the white voices of town could too easily write him off as a ‘clever nigger’ who overstepped his place. The sad reality is that the conversation about race cannot be had in Odessa except through harsh, divisive language. The town is not able to ask the nuanced questions - about how sports offers black youths opportunities while also exploiting them - that Bissinger attempts to from his detached perspective.
In many ways, however, Ivory Christian embodies these contradictions. In the same way he is ambivalent about football, he offers a complicated example of a black youth in Odessa. Despite what affection he has for the game, he refuses to think of his future in terms of it. He takes advantage of what his talent offers, but will not play by Permian's rules. He will not become reliant on it, thereby granting it an implied superiority. In this way, Chapter 6 offers something of an answer to the conundrum implied in Chapter 5.