White Supremacy and Black Athletes’ Protests

With the proliferation of mass media, people increasingly look toward political leaders to make public statements when a tragedy occurs. Tensions often flare, and we look to such leaders to bring our communities together in times of crisis. We know a single statement can’t heal centuries of division, and that leaders are humans and so will always be imperfect. But a leader sets a high standard to which all can aspire—our “better angels,” as several great U.S. presidents have referenced (citing Charles Dickens). By now, unfortunately, hopefully only the most naïve and sheltered among us are still waiting for or expecting the current president Donald Trump to ever do such a thing. Although clearly trusted advisers have attempted to steer him in that direction at times, it was not long before, left to his own devices, his unscripted comments at the next public venue effectively cancelled out any inspiring statement he had previously attempted. This all happening while police officers killing unarmed black civilians are exonerated in courts, while hurricanes are decimating U.S. states and territories, and while white supremacists are marching openly and killing citizens to make political statements.

Is it any wonder that private citizens all over the country—-comedians, actors, athletes, anyone with a public forum with a chance of being heard widely—-are stepping in to fill that vacuum our white president has irresponsibly left open? There is a long tradition in this country of those who would be silenced (and their allies) proverbially “grabbing the mic” to raise the public’s awareness about injustices happening in their midst. They do this because often raising public outcry is the first step toward creating change. If U.S. news camera footage of dogs and water hoses aimed at their own citizens had not been viewed around the world—-just after the U.S. had intervened on the global stage to stop a white supremacist named Hitler, and thereby revealed to be human-rights-hypocrites in front of allies and foes alike—-the US state would likely never have made such bold moves to finally create the civil rights legal reforms of the 1960s. As the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) beautifully recreates with statues of Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising a Black Power fist at the 1968 Olympics black athletes and other public figures outside of politics have at crucial moments in our nation’s history been able to raise awareness and move our national conversations forward on racism issues in productive ways.

Critics dismiss certain athletes who speak out or take a stand as “attention-seeking” spectacles “distracting” from the game—athletes like Colin Kaepernick (NFL player who has been taking a knee during national anthem, along with many other allies, on his team and around the country, to protest continued injustice against African Americans) and Stephen Curry (NBA player who recently spoke about not wanting to visit the White House, prompting Trump to Tweet a “disinvite” in return). What has struck me since I worked on the White Men on Race book with Joe Feagin (based on over 100 interviews with elite white men) is that whites will often speak with decisive authority on people of color they know very little about. It took my 10-year-old son’s school project on Curry, reading biographies, for me to find out, for example, that when Curry beats on his chest after he scores on the basketball court, he’s actually pounding on his heart and then pointing up to the sky to represent his own personal relationship to Jesus. It is actually a humble, reverent gesture, rather than the arrogant strut it has been perceived as by some. As Joe Feagin and Kimberley Ducey point out, whites have routinely perceived identical behavior from whites and non-whites in strikingly different perspectives—-the “white as virtue” frame. As Ta-Nehisi Coates brilliantly reminds us, there would be no “race,” no “whites” to speak of without “blacks” to contrast them against, because race is a relational construct—-constructed solely to justify the colonization and exploitation of the latter. It did not take long for the public to take to social media to point out how President Trump seems to have this same kind of striking perception contrast between white supremacists (“very fine people”) and athletes kneeling during the national anthem (“sons of bitches”).

Many whites perceive the act of taking a knee during the national anthem as disrespectful. Yet when I see this photo, for example, of the Oakland A’s player Bruce Maxwell (the first in MLB) taking a knee during the national anthem I see anything but disrespect. I see Maxwell with his hat off, holding his hand over his heart, glancing longingly up to the flag. And what I hear through his body language is, “Great country that I call home, when will there truly be liberty and justice FOR ALL? When?!” I see embodied in his posture the words of Cornel West: “America. . .needs citizens who love it enough to re-imagine it and re-make it.” These words are etched into the walls of the Smithsonian’s NMAAHC—-and this location would certainly fit the criteria the Golden State Warriors are seeking during their upcoming DC visit:

In lieu of a visit to the White House, we have decided that we’ll constructively use our trip to the nation’s capital in February to celebrate equality, diversity and inclusion — the values that we embrace as an organization.

To voice their opposition to athletes kneeling during the National Anthem, many whites also cite their family members who have fought and even died in wars. Some even cite their Christian faith. They seem to forget that scores of African Americans are also veterans, are descendants of veterans, are currently serving in war zones or deployed, and have even lost their lives serving our country in the armed forces. And they certainly forget the centrality of Christianity in African Americans’ lives. The most beautiful patriotic statements I have seen lately come from veterans who disagree with kneeling during the anthem, but proudly state that this is precisely why they served and fought in our military—to defend all their fellow Americans (not just veterans) in their right to this very kind of freedom of speech and expression! I have seen several beautiful photos of football teams standing together during the National Anthem, right next to their teammates who are kneeling, with hands on their shoulders-—making a strong statement that they respect each other’s choices, whether to kneel or to stand, and that is what makes our country great, our diversity of thought, viewpoints, and experiences.

There are many ways to serve our country. There are many ways to make personal sacrifices and/or contributions in service of making our country better. Sometimes our racial segregation from each other keeps us from seeing the humanity of others, the sacrifices others have made. Although I personally have been celebrating Kaepernick’s public statement that Black Lives Matter, when my own 10-year old son came home with a plan to sit out the pledge of allegiance at his school, it gave me pause. After all, we’re talking about my baby. I see adults making choices, but when I Google what related actions have been taken by children under-18, I see that high school football players have received death threats for kneeling during the National Anthem and elementary school students have been assaulted by their own teachers for sitting out the Pledge of Allegiance. To his credit, it was actually my son’s own idea to call a meeting with the principal, because he expressed a strong desire to take action “without being rude.” He sat there in this big chair that he looked so tiny in, and spoke softly but clearly, “I don’t like the way police officers treat African Americans,” and I thought I could see water in his eyes, but he kept his composure. I am grateful that his principal and guidance counselor are both supporting him, and they will relay to his teacher that he has a right to sit down (according to the student handbook—and according to US law, actually, too). Although the adults around him have a primary concern for his safety, when a teacher suggested he be in a different room away from view (helping with the morning announcements in the technology room—which he loves to do!) he was actually disappointed that his action would potentially not matter. In his words, “but mom, I want to make a difference.” My awe at his bravery and sacrifice of his own personal safety in order to work toward making our country fairer for all stands beside my awe of my stepsister’s (and her husband’s) bravery and personal sacrifice while serving in the Army and being drafted to Iraq and Afghanistan (they are both veterans, as was my father—a Vietnam veteran in the Navy).

My concern is all the “colorblind” comments that divide our country up into “us” and “them”—-the patriotic white heroes who serve our country and stand for the National Anthem and never criticize the President become the “us” while the “ungrateful” people of color who take public actions to draw attention to the continuing injustices in the nation become the “disrespectful” outgroup, “them.” The tone of this (mostly white) public criticism of those who kneel during the National Anthem sounds to me like the critics think people of color should be grateful for, in Malcolm X’s words, the “crumbs from the table.” They should be happy to be playing a sport at all, to be having the right to kneel at all—-meanwhile elite white men (all NFL owners are elite white men, as are all NBA owners but Michael Jordan) are reaping exponential profits off their arduous labor. And selective memory is employed to erase just how hard their forefathers and foremothers fought just to get onto the same playing field at all, just to get the basic constitutional rights to even apply to them at all (to become more than the original Constitution’s “three-fifths of a person”!)

My son’s father is a Desert Storm veteran (Marine Corps), he is African American, and he supports his son’s right to sit out the pledge. He was born in 1966, just a couple days after Christmas in a snowstorm in Virginia, and because the hospital in town even at that late time still did not serve black people, they had to drive an hour in the snow to a bigger city (Richmond, VA) just so he could be born. So there were no family visits in the hospital, no big celebration. Just him and his mom on a quiet cold day. It was not until the year after he was born (1967, in Loving v. Virginia) that interracial marriage was even legally permitted by the US Supreme Court. And this is not a man who is in a rocking chair at a nursing home somewhere—this is a man who will be squeezing himself into a tiny desk chair to attend Back to School night at elementary school this week. When whites talk about the “sacrifices” that they and their families have made in this country, I wonder if they ever contemplate the tremendous sacrifices, and loss of life, loss of children way before their time, that African Americans face every day here– still waiting for “liberty and justice for all.” Parents send their children out into these streets never knowing if they will make it back home. And if they had to play the odds on whether a court would find a police officer guilty when s/he “accidentally” shoots their child because that officer says “I feared for my life,” unfortunately those odds would not be good. Why is it that so many of us whites cannot see another human being’s sacrifice and struggle as just as relevant as our own? That lack of seeing each other’s common humanity is the ultimate disrespect.

As long as there is a lack of moral leadership at the helm of our nation, and as long as there is great racial inequality, white Americans can expect to see people of color and their allies taking much protest action, as they always have. If US history is any indication, one day our grandchildren or great-grandchildren might be celebrating as heroes the very figures some whites vilify now. Elementary schools across the country now include Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in their patriotic programs as a hero, but when he was living and breathing, he was jailed like a common criminal, chastised for not being respectful enough and not knowing “his place,” and regularly targeted by many white supremacists with death threats. So, as for me, I am going to be celebrating tomorrow’s heroes now, while I have the chance. I believe this is the ultimate in real US patriotism and respect for liberty and justice.

 

~ Eileen O’Brien is Associate Professor of Sociology and the author of several books, including Whites Confront Racism

Black Athletes and Social Protest: A Long Tradition

Amid racial tensions on the campus of the University of Missouri, the student protest group, Concerned Student 1950, demanded the resignation of University President Tim Wolfe after mishandling several racialized incidents. At the center of the protests was graduate student and activist Jonathan Butler who began a hunger strike on November 2nd following Wolfe’s refusal to take action. At Butler’s behest, 32 black players on the Mizzou football team chose to take a stand in solidarity, protesting the systemic oppression felt by black students on the predominately white campus. Just as 1960s activist Dr. Harry Edwards (who was the architect behind the 1968 Olympic podium black power salute of track and field stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos) understood the power of the voice of the black student-athlete, Butler wisely struck an accord with the football players and inspired them to take up these disputes that similarly affect them and other marginalized students on campus.

Butler’s awareness undoubtedly led to the swift resignation of the beleaguered President Wolfe as well as the school’s chancellor. After months of ongoing protest, the president stepped down within two days of the athletes’ involvement. Ironically, this resembles a time when many schools in the West protested Missouri’s next opponent, the Mormon church-sponsored Brigham Young University, for their policies on blacks. Less than 50 years ago, fourteen black football players at the University of Wyoming sought to wear black armbands in their upcoming game against BYU in protest of its racist and objectionable teachings regarding people of African lineage.

The difference between then and now, however, was the disposition and sensitivity of the coach. The Black 14 (as they were called) went to Coach Lloyd Eaton in earnest to ask for support in bringing attention to what the players understood as a grave injustice. Instead, they were met with wrath and indignation, and they were unceremoniously kicked off the team effective immediately. In contrast, Missouri Football Coach Gary Pinkel showed unprecedented courage and leadership this past weekend as he gathered his team, ultimately encouraging all players to stand together with their brothers in battle, refusing to practice or compete until action was taken in favor of justice for stigmatized minorities.

It is a rare event when white Americans stand up for racial justice in defense of the oppressed, which is evident by the white outcry at his involvement in such a polemical issue. His players deserve much praise as well for putting their future on the line for a just cause. This is not the first time we have seen athletes speak truth to power, but it has been quite some time since we have witnessed an era of athletes standing in righteous defiance against social injustice.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a long-time athlete activist himself, recently lambasted Michael Jordon in an interview on NPR’s “All Things Considered” for choosing “commerce over conscience.” Abdul-Jabbar came of age in the 60s during the rise of the athlete-activist. Along with him, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Tommie Smith, Arthur Ashe, John Carlos and many others all stood up for racial injustice and used there prominence and visibility to draw attention to social issues that afflicted the African American community. These competitors would blaze a path for future black athletes to follow, leaving a legacy for the next round of freedom fighters. The black athletes that immediately followed, however, were focused more on their “brand” and the balance sheet, as they found a way to increase their presence in the burgeoning sports-industrial complex.

Michael Jordan undeniably changed the game, allowing players to realize the value of their labor power in negotiating contracts as well as lucrative celebrity endorsement deals. Even more so, pitching and developing products for mass consumption for the Nike Corporation, and ultimately branding his likeness with the Air Jordan sneaker craze, paved the way for today’s athletes to open up additional revenue streams. A player’s brand became the locus for the black professional athlete of the 1990s, as they labored to gain financial security for their families in a hostile environment.

But at what cost did this come to themselves and the black community? Jordan proved that the athlete had power to negotiate his or her own contracts and take a piece of the monetary share. But by failing to recognize that his power could be utilized to help alleviate human suffering, he in essence turned his back on black America, a people still in crisis. This was never more apparent than when “his Airness” famously stated, “Republicans buy shoes, too,” as he declined to politically endorse the black North Carolina incumbent for Senate against proud southern racist Jesse Helms.

Blacks have been largely left out from the developmental and business aspect of sport (coaching, operations, etc). They were hired to be the workhouse, the beasts of burden, with no stake in the game. The new millennium has seen a resurgence in athlete activism.

LeBron James is arguably the most formidable among his peers; his voice is often heard loud and clear. He recognizes the enormous sway that he holds in a sport-frenzied and capital-driven society. Feeling an obligation to use that platform in the cause of social justice, “King James” has been deliberate in taking a position to support African Americans, whether it be posting a protest picture supporting the late Trayvon Martin or voicing criticism of former Clippers owner Donald Sterling. But James certainly has not been the only audible dissident. Members of the St. Louis Rams staged a pre-game demonstration in support of the Ferguson community in the wake of Michael Brown’s death by a Ferguson Police Officer. And after the news that Eric Gardner’s killer would not be indicted, Derrick Rose kicked off a wave of consternation donning a warm-up t-shirt embossed with the “I Can’t Breathe” protest declaration. Several football players and soon entire NBA basketball teams followed suit. These concerns, however, were not isolated to the professional athlete. Collegiate programs like Notre Dame women’s basketball and Georgetown men’s basketball also involved themselves in the fray.

Just when the final words were inked in my new manuscript, When Race Religion and Sport Collide, which examines the thorny issue of race in college athletics in an age where players are asserting themselves and their rights to a quality education or compensation, the Mizzou football program eloquently provided a cogent roadmap for other division I teams to follow that demonstrate the ways in which players can and should use their popularity within big-time college sports to influence action and policy.

In the wake of the Wolfe resignation, will this undertaking allow students of color greater voice on campus, such as recruiting more faculty of color and administrators to represent their interests? Or will all progressive action silently fade back to what it was as soon as the money streams reopen? After all, with the self-reinstatement of the black athletes, University of Missouri no longer stands to lose an estimated $1 million at their next game against the cougars at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium.

Many have criticized the involvement of the athletes and Coach Pinkel, despite issues of race that directly affect the players on a human level. And yet, these dissenters are the same folk that buy tickets to the games, hoping to be a part of the sports madness so long as the players remain silent to marginalization. In other words, their presence is strictly for the sole purpose to entertain the fan. But this is precisely what these high-profile student-athletes should be doing—using their status for positive measures in the community, advancing the cause of equality in a nation rife with hatred.

University of Maryland wide receiver Deon Long walked among demonstrators during a Black Lives Matter protest holding a sign that would define his generation. He asked, “Are we still *thugs* when you pay to watch us play?” His question embodied all that is wrong with US race relations.

Darron T. Smith is a professor at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. He is the author of When Race, Religion & Sports Collide: Blacks Athletes at BYU and Beyond, which was recently released to critical praise in November 2015. Follow him on twitter @drdarronsmith This post first appeared on Huffington Post Sports