Revisiting the NFL’s Racial Politics of Patriotism

This is jointly authored by Kristi Oshiro and Anthony Weems

Introduction

In a recent comment on Weems and Kusz’s Racism Review piece, From Bush to Trump: White Nationalism and the NFL, sociologist Earl Smith made a powerful statement reminding us of the real injustice that persists within the National Football League (NFL). Smith expressed,

The key non-figure for the coming Super Bowl that outlines the grave injustices of a white controlled NFL is the absence, the “black-balling,” the blocking of employment of Colin Kaepernick. Regardless of how many Super Bowl rings Brady has, or how many times he plays golf with Trump or how many beauty pageants Brady participates in, this does not erase the injustice.

In the thick of activist efforts that transpired in the 2016 NFL season and on the heels of “Choose-your-side Sunday” during the 2017 season, we published NFL Protests and Racial Politics of Patriotism. In this piece we sought to refocus the narrative; specifically, returning the attention to the message behind the symbolic displays of athlete activism (e.g., kneeling). In doing so, we shed light on the deeply embedded racial politics of patriotism at play as well as the role the mainstream media has played in shaping said discourse. As Smith’s timely comment suggests, the unrelenting efforts by NFL ownership groups to silence Kaepernick and other athletes peacefully protesting elicits a re-visitation of this piece in 2019. Moreover, further examination to understand how the racial politics of patriotism have changed over time and how athletes have been moving their activist efforts beyond the NFL since “Choose-your-side Sunday” is warranted.

#TakingAKnee

The movement, pioneered by Colin Kaepernick’s courageous efforts (e.g., kneeling during the national anthem to bring awareness to the systemic oppression and police brutality towards black people and other people of color) over the course of the 2016 NFL season ignited a resurgence of black athlete activism in the twenty first century distinct and different from any that had come before it – that is, what Harry Edwards has referred to as the fourth wave of black athlete activism. While the first three waves of athlete activism characterized by (1) a push for recognition and legitimacy during Jim Crow, (2) post-World War II desegregation and access, and (3) an uncompromising fight for social justice in the late-1960s and 1970s, the fourth wave of athlete activism outlined by Edwards is characterized by a struggle for power within a white-dominated society. Throughout this fourth wave of athlete activism, perhaps the most iconic gesture has been that of kneeling.

As the act of kneeling quickly took hold in the 2016 and 2017 seasons inspiring activist efforts across the sports world, so too did coverage by the mainstream media and academic communities as practitioners and scholars alike weighed in. While the “Kaepernick effect” has and continues to make a meaningful impact, the NFL quickly responded making it clear that this revived fourth wave of black athlete activism and players with activist intentions would not be welcomed, nor tolerated on the gridiron. Thus, we have gone from the league-wide display of athlete activism on “Choose-your-side Sunday” in 2017 to three individuals this past season. Yes, just three. At the conclusion of the 2018 season only Eric Reid, Kenny Stills, and Albert Wilson continue to kneel. Additionally, several noteworthy events have transpired since our last post including but not limited to the following:

NFL Players Coalition co-founded by Anquan Boldin and Malcolm Jenkins (October 2017); Reid and others withdraw from Players Coalition (November 2017); Reid blackballed by the NFL (December 2017); NFL drafted a new Anthem Policy (May 2018); Reid files collusion grievance against the NFL (May 2018); Nike runs Kaepernick “Just Do It” ad (September 2018); Reid reinstated to the league signing one year contract with the Carolina Panthers (September 2018); Reid criticizes Players Coalition and outs specific owners intentions (October 2018); multiple musicians decline to be a part of SBLIII citing the NFL’s blackballing of Kaepernick as a reason (October 2018); Reid “randomly” drug tested for the seventh time in eleven weeks (December 2018); #Kaeplanta and #WakandaAli mural on Atlanta building demolished on Super Bowl weekend (February 2019).

And throughout all of this, Kaepernick remains blackballed from the NFL and the collusion case against NFL remains ongoing, with the hearing set for later this year. In the span of basically a single season the mostly white male elite and their acolytes who constitute NFL ownership and who have control of the league managed to effectively and efficiently “neutralize” the “threat” that this movement posed to the NFL brand. Thus, as another NFL season comes to a close, it is apparent that not only do the Patriots reign once more – but the racial politics of patriotism also continue to be perpetuated in and through the strategic operation of the NFL. To better understand this operation, a focus on the role of the owners is necessary.

NFL Owners and the Silencing of Protests

Fans might be paying to see the players, but the league is the owners. They make the decisions. They set the policies. They make the money with the extra zeros. Then there are the general managers and head coaches, as of this writing overwhelmingly white.(Bennett & Zirin, 2018, p. 47)

Despite the pageantry of expressing “solidarity” with players on Choose-your-side Sunday, owners and ownership groups have been overwhelmingly against the athletes engaging in protests since Kaepernick and Reid first knelt in 2016 – most discernibly through the blackballing of Colin Kaepernick from the NFL. Recently, Reid provided further insight into the views of owners on player protests throughout this process:

Y’all remember that players-owners meeting in New York City? So we were brought in under the premise that the NFL wanted to use their resources to help the black community. We established within the first five minutes of that meeting that we weren’t there to negotiate an end to the protest. After about an hour and a half of talking, Bob McNair says, “I think the elephant in the room is this protesting.” Terry Pegula follows up with “Yeah, I’ve already lost two sponsors for my hockey team. We need to put a Band-Aid on this, and we need a black figure-head to do it.”… [Jeffrey] Lurie says, “We can do more for the black community than you could ever imagine with our resources.” Bob McNair then says, “Yeah, just make sure you tell your comrades to stop that protesting business.”

As suggested by Reid’s comments about the obsession of several owners over bringing an end to the protests, the hypocritical performance of predominantly white male owners on “Choose-your-side Sunday” has only been matched by their disdain for substantively dealing with any of the critical issues brought forth by Kaepernick and others. This type of performance is indicative of what Picca and Feagin refer to as “Two-Faced Racism.” Two-Faced Racism discusses the nuanced nature of whites’ frontstage and backstage racism: “Much of the overt expression of blatantly racist thought, emotions, interpretations, and inclinations has gone backstage – that is, into private settings where whites find themselves among other whites” Thus, the frontstage/backstage framework is employed to “examine the significantly divergent racial performances by white Americans in public (multiracial) and private (all-white) arenas” (p. x).

Exposed by Eric Reid, the approach taken by McNair, Pegula, Lurie, and other NFL owners in the backstage had little to do with their frontstage act of supporting players in the fight against systemic oppression. Rather, the opposite is true. Owners fervently sought to develop new policy designed specifically to control and/or rout player protests.

According to Weems and Atzmon, “In light of the NFL taking on a major role in white nationalist politics, its new [National Anthem] policy aims to censor the voices of those actively fighting against racist sport systems.” Though the policy drew enough criticism to delay its’ implementation, the persistent efforts and subsequent effects of owners’ attempts at censoring athletes has been nothing short of profound. Not only did the development of new policies and programs aim to rein in athletes fighting for social justice, but the dependency of sport media outlets (e.g., ESPN, Fox, CBS) upon the NFL as a political economy further veiled the voices of athletes using these mediums to speak out against injustice. This strategic silencing of athlete protests had a collateral effect of shaping and constraining public discourse surrounding the fourth wave of athlete activism. Therefore, it certainly behooves us as scholars and activists to take serious the notion that NFL ownership groups (and the NFL as an organizing body) play central roles in transforming the racial politics of patriotism. More broadly, the behaviors and actions of NFL owners actively reflect, shape, and maintain the political economy of the NFL — a primary sociocultural institution in the United States.

Resistance and Persistence Moving Forward

According to cultural theorist and postcolonial scholar, Stuart Hall,

Popular culture is one of the sites where this struggle for and against a culture of the powerful is engaged: it is also the stake to be won or lost in that struggle.

Sport as a cultural site continues to be a central space in the struggle for and against the politics of oppression. However, as NFL owners have cracked down on black athlete protests in an effort to silence political voices that don’t fit the brand-nexus of white-framed patriotic capitalism, athletes have sought to innovate the ways in which they engage with issues of systemic oppression and inequality. For example, while Kaepernick has sought to continue his fight through the legal system via a collusion case against the NFL, others have turned to various social, cultural, and educational outlets – ranging from Kaepernick’s Know Your Rights Camp to Martellus Bennett’s Imagination Agency — to continue to fight for justice and equity in the United States. Thus, while the impact of kneeling before games today has been relatively silenced by NFL owners, many athletes continue to adapt their approaches to fighting for a just world.

In 2016 when Kaepernick first knelt in protest of systemic oppression and police brutality, kneeling was necessary as a pragmatic act. In 2017, kneeling was just as necessary as protests continued to grow despite constant criticism from many fans, team owners, and the president. In 2019, however, the social and political effects of physically kneeling before the game have declined in relevance due to the acts of silencing taken by team owners and corroborating media outlets. In response, many athletes have sought to innovatively engage in activism through alternative outlets. In other words, what we are beginning to see from many athletes is the evolution of political activism beyond the stage of the NFL. And while this evolution beyond the gridiron may appear as if team owners are “winning” their battle against players, it brings with it more direct social, political, and economic change as athletes and other activists become more involved both individually and as a collective. Said differently, the persisting resistance of athletes and activists in the face of systemic racism brings hope moving forward. As Derrick Bell (1991) stated in his discussion of racial realism,

Continued struggle can bring about unexpected benefits and gains that in themselves justify continued endeavor. The fight in itself has meaning and should give us hope for the future. (p. 378)

Kristi F. Oshiro is a Sport Management doctoral student at Texas A&M University. Her research interests include diversity and inclusion in sport with a focus on the intersection of race and gender.

Anthony J. Weems is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Division of Sport Management at Texas A&M University. His research interests revolve around the social structure of sport and sporting organizations and the roles sport plays in broader social and cultural contexts.

Governor Northam, no Surprise, but Disappointment and Opportunity

In my home state of Virginia, there are more people than ever before talking about race, debating whether Governor Northam should resign due to racist photos on his medical school yearbook page. It seems like even more people are concerned about whether Northam is racist than were ever concerned about white supremacist terrorism in Charlottesville less than two short years ago—-the kind of racist violence that actually killed people. And certainly way more people care about the Northam question than were ever concerned about the bill that was killed in the Virginia House to remove the confederate monuments in Charlottesville, or the one-man protest that Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax led by stepping out while the rest of the body honored Robert E. Lee.

Much of the public debate around Northam does not dispute that the photos on this page—one of a person in blackface, and another in KKK garb—are racist and offensive. Strangely, that seems to be the point of common agreement for many from all political angles. The most frequent points of disagreement seem to be whether something racist in his past should be held against him now. Questions raised include whether Northam should be forgiven, and whether the picture reflects who he is today. Practically everyone in his Democratic party, in the state (both U.S. senators and many key representatives, as well as past governors) have urged him to resign, and even politicians of national stature—Democratic as well as Republican—have called for his resignation. And the photo keeps flapping around like it’s normal, almost as if we have become desensitized to the pain and terror that these images signify to African Americans—stay in your place or face the consequences. White people of any and all political backgrounds are being asked to give their two cents—as if they are the new arbiters and experts of what this photo means. Journalists that are flocking to get the person-on-the-street opinion appear to be not unlike the foolish person who approaches someone who has never given birth to ask them what it feels like. How is it that we whites would have any idea what a continued governorship by the man in this photo would mean to the over 1.5 million African Americans living in the state, day in and day out? Quite simply, we don’t, so we should not get to decide.

But we can learn to develop empathy. We can get closer to the understanding that we were trained not to have. Even Pamela Northam, the governor’s wife, not exactly the poster child for being a white ally or an antiracist, knew enough to advise her husband that attempting to perform a moonwalk during a press conference intended to apologize for his past behavior, would not be “appropriate” at that moment he appeared to consider it. Imagine what actual work on true empathy with people of color might look like for white people. Even after 30 years dialoging and living in community, dialog, and family with African Americans, I did not even think of developing my own opinion on Northam or stating it out loud until I had engaged in some frank discussions with some African American friends whose opinions I respect and admire—-and whose opinions would likely be diverse, not uniform. And I am still learning.

But what I have learned from listening is Northam is not the first, nor will be the last, of whites they thought they could trust, but turned out to be a disappointment. As a white teenager dating an African American young man, I heard multiple testimonies right from local families about how their son thought they had a white girlfriend they could trust, but once the breakup happened and things went sour and she wanted revenge, it was all too simple for her and her family to bring the entire wrath of the racist court system down against them, simply by “crying statutory rape.” It worked every time here in good ol’ VA. And this was decades after the 1967 Loving v. Virginia ruling that made interracial marriage legal. It was only after I went on to study race in graduate school and as a scholar of race relations, that I learned about Emmett Till, and so many others where the testimony of whites, particularly white women, was all the excuse a community needed to round up people of color and do whatever violence they wished to them, without fear of repercussion, or concern for justice or getting the facts. In what Katheryn Russell-Brown has called “racial hoaxes,” dozens of whites over the years have committed a crime and tried to blame someone African American for it, and tragically the justice system locks right in on the profile—in the case of Charles Stuart, they even found an African American person to coerce into confessing to a crime he did not even commit. Whites can be shady like that. People of color are not surprised. It is not a matter of Republican or Democrat. When it comes to a white father protecting a white daughter, or a white family hoarding school district resources for their own family, there is no limit to the ends whites will go, regardless of party line, to enact their privilege in service of their own. Both Dr. King and Malcolm X were unequivocal on this point: the white moderate/white liberal was who they feared and distrusted more than the over white racists. So, yes, people like Northam with a “surprise” racist photo lurking in the background are really not all that much of a surprise to many folks of color. You always have to watch your back.

Too often, individual whites who get caught saying something racist end up giving what Michael Eric Dyson calls a “dress up, fess up” press conference that falls woefully short of actual remorse, and Northam’s was no exception to that pattern. As Dyson argues, a true apology is not a self-centered attempt at clearing one’s name—it is focused on those harmed, in a way that pledges making amends, in an ongoing meaningful way to those one has harmed. What so many whites fail to realize is that our country was founded on racism, and continues to thrive on that foundation, so it is practically inevitable that almost all of us will have either inadvertently or purposely been witness to racism without interrupting it, and/or will enact racism ourselves. It is no big revelation that we all have racism in our pasts, and likely in our present. It is what we do with that information, how we pledge to live our lives going forward, to undo what we (and those who went before us) have caused going forward, that is the true measure of our characters. This requires empathy, and an ongoing commitment that lasts well beyond when the flashing lights are over, when the news cycle has moved onto the next hot take. And most importantly, it is the kind of work that would take many others along with us in the fight for justice, as opposed to merely seeking to clear our own names.

As Bonilla-Silva so brilliantly states, by focusing on these individual stories of “bad apples” we miss the much more important bigger picture of the “rotten apple tree.” We are all bound up together on this tree and implicated within it. I believe Governor Northam resigning and everyone going on as usual will not do much to change things here in Virginia. Virginia is leading the way in problems of institutional racism in this country, as one of 12 US states where over half the prison population is black (yet less than 20 percent of the state’s population), and many of those become disenfranchised after finishing their time. We have a deep history of educational segregation, and continuing racial and economic divides between our school districts have actually worsened tremendously in the past decade.

Should Northam continue to ignore the multitude of voices urging him to resign, being coy and defiant about whether or not he even remembers being in the photo (but does remember using blackface on another occasion), he is not going to earn back the public trust. Most people who care about racism and truly understand it know that this is not about figuring out what’s “in his heart”—which is where the predictable conversation often goes when debating any racist politician, Trump or otherwise– but rather what kind of policies he is willing to support and go to bat for. Clearly, Northam was not standing at his Lieutenant Governor’s side when Lt Gov Justin Fairfax sat out the Robert E. Lee tribute, alone, hoping for a new America 400 years later. Being on the right side of racial justice when it matters, over and over again, even when your party does not agree with you, is one way to rebuild it, and it will take time, not a brief press conference. Not even time that the news cycle has time for. Time will tell if Northam is ready to get out of his own way, and lead Virginians by example, in humbling himself to understand what antiracist commitment really means.

Eileen O’Brien is a Professor of Sociology at Saint Leo U. and the author of several books on white racism issues, including Whites Confront Racism.

From Bush to Trump: White Nationalism and the NFL

Anthony Weems and Kyle Kusz are joint authors of this post.

Introduction

The stage is set for the Super Bowl LIII. On February 3rd, 2019, the New England Patriots will take on the Los Angeles Rams at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia. Luckily for the NFL, the game has just enough controversy to make it one of the most watched Super Bowls in league history. Officiating decisions in the conference championships raise questions about whether or not each team deserved to advance to the Super Bowl. Nevertheless, all is set for a seemingly riveting match between the two franchises. However, given the current polarized social and political climate and the way in which President Donald J. Trump has consistently used sports–its rhetoric, cultural values and logics, and the NFL specifically–to advance his white supremacist brand of nationalism, this particular Super Bowl represents more than meets the eye.

In this blog post, we discuss the role the NFL has played in the development of white nationalist politics over the last two decades. Specifically, we recount how the first Super Bowl meeting after 9/11 and between the Rams/Patriots in 2002 was politicized through a white-centered populist patriotism that was part of a broader ‘soft’ white cultural nationalism that emerged in Bush’s America, how they grew through the Obama presidency (i.e., Birtherism and Tea Party movement), and how they play out through the NFL in the Trump presidency. Trump strategically politicizes the NFL as a means of casting himself as a strongman, populist politician aligned with whites anxious and resentful of the changing norms of American culture and society wrought by globalization, feminism, and multiculturalism. Even further, Trump’s invocations of the NFL serve as a conduit through which he has communicated his white nationalist project. And although these socio-cultural dynamics often go unnoticed by many casual fans, political pundits, and even some academics alike, once unveiled they reveal how sport is far more than simply a game.

Revisiting SBXXXVI and George W. Bush’s America

In the 2001-2002 NFL season, the New England Patriots made a “magical” run to Super Bowl XXXVI to face the St. Louis Rams. The media’s framing of the Patriots’ saga was largely fueled by the institutional response to the horrific events of September 11, 2001 (9/11) just five months earlier. At that time, professional sport leagues, especially the NFL, were increasingly politicized, performing multiple cultural functions: returning a sense of “normalcy” in a post-9/11 America, uniting Americans and providing a sense of healing, offering massive displays of patriotism and militaristic might. Whether it was the designation of Super Bowl XXXVI as a National Security Special Event (the first sport event to be designated as such), the militarization of local police units, or the dozens of nationalistic events held before, during, and after the game, this first meeting between the Patriots/Rams offered a uniquely white, masculine, and nationalistic stage for the framing of an emergent post-9/11 American national identity. Through the overtly white-masculinized and nationalistic event of Super Bowl XXXVI, political leaders manufactured a large-scale cultural event that consolidated and normalized what it meant to be an American as a narrowly defined idea of white-masculinist militarism. The NFL itself is quite proud of their display in Super Bowl XXXVI as suggested by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell who recently reflected on the passing of George H. W. Bush:

We witnessed his integrity, humility and grace on a number of occasions, including at Super Bowl XXXVI in New Orleans where he participated in the coin toss ceremony and helped Americans begin to heal from the tragedy of September 11.

The post-9/11 brand of “superpatriotism” and the mythologizing of football as a cultural panacea became a defining feature of nationalist politics in the US under George W. Bush. In the years following Super Bowl XXXVI, white nationalism would continue mainstream as the NFL took on a more prominent role in the politics of “patriotism.”

White nationalism in a post-9/11 US

As Ducat (2004) and Faludi (2007) document, some conservative culture warriors who long complained about political correctness, feminism, and multiculturalism seized on the tragic events of 9/11 and blamed them for making the country vulnerable to attack. Promulgated through Fox News and conservative talk-radio among other cultural sites, together these laments formed a “white cultural nationalism” that attempted to reproduce whiteness as American cultural norm in the name of patriotism and love of country. Most often, this white cultural nationalism was not expressed in virtiolic terms, but through an affirmative centering and valorization of everymen like New York City police, firefighters, and first responders who came to the rescue of those who suffered as a result of the 9/11, and the armed forces more broadly via the War on Terror. Valorization of these American everymen became a way of praising a strong, tough, performance of white manliness that, according to social conservatives, was being squeezed out of American culture by feminism and political correctness. As Andrew Sullivan put it, “One of the most welcome cultural shifts after September 11 may well be the re-emergence of traditional masculinity as something no-one need apologize for” (cited from King, 2009, 13).

Unsurprisingly, US sports’ media became a prominent conduit and purveyor of the racialized, populist, masculinist tropes and logics of this ‘soft’ white nationalism. These ideas crystallized in the media spectacle made of former NFL player, Pat Tillman’s choice to forgo his lucrative career to serve in the War on Terror and then on the occasion of his untimely death in Afghanistan (under dubious circumstances). Social conservatives in particular lionized Tillman as an ideal white male hard-bodied patriot-citizen. At the 2004 NFL Draft, then commissioner, Paul Tagliabue, honored Tillman by describing him as personifying “the best values of America and the National Football League” (cited from Kusz, 2015), while NFL fans attending the draft acknowledged Tillman by temporarily putting aside their team loyalties and collectively chanting: “USA! USA! USA!” Professional football’s key role for the enunciation of white cultural nationalism in the post-9/11 era was essential for the development of Trump’s white nationalist project to ‘Make America Great Again.’

Trump, white nationalism, and the NFL

This white cultural nationalism became more pointed and virulent in reaction to the Obama presidency (i.e. Birtherism and Tea Party movement). These impulses, of course, were stoked and ennobled by Trump, first, as the most vocal proponent of Birtherism questioning Obama’s Americanness and his right to be president and later through Trump’s explicitly racist and xenophobic anti-immigrant campaign rhetoric, his repeated re-tweets of white supremacist propaganda, his racialized immigration policies and proposals, his equivocation on the hate and violence enacted in Charlottesville, Virginia by alt-right and older white supremacists in the summer of 2017, and finally his open embrace of the ‘nationalist’ label in 2018.

But even before Charlottesville, during the 2016 campaign, Trump regularly communicated the values and norms of his white nationalism through his associations with white sportsmen (Kusz, 2016). He drew on the language of sports, lionizing these men (and others like them) as ‘real athletes’ and ‘winners’ at his rallies, to outline his white nationalist aims (Oates & Kusz, in press). And not only would Trump name-drop white sports figures at rallies, but he would actively look to attack the protests of NFL players protesting police brutality and systemic oppression. Through his use of white sportsmen and black athletic protesters like Kaepernick and others as political props, Trump made clear how his nationalist project to ‘make America great again’ opens up space for unapologetic, omnipotent performances of white masculinity as it seeks to contain, silence, and dehumanize all people of color, religious minorities, and immigrants who refuse to accept and defer to the prerogative of white Christian men to decide and lead American cultural and institutional life (Kusz, 2016).

Super Bowl LIII, Trump, and Tom Brady

A key figure in this year’s Super Bowl, like so many recently, will be New England Patriots quarterback, Tom Brady. As fans ready themselves for Super Bowl LIII, they should not forget that the prophet of pliability is on record for calling President Trump a ‘good friend.’ Their friendship began when Trump invited the newly minted Super Bowl champion to be a judge at a beauty pageant following Super Bowl XXXVI in 2002. From there, they bonded on golf courses; very likely, through being one of the boys, trading in ‘locker room talk’ and fantasies of (white) male omnipotence. Recall also that it was Brady who unapologetically displayed a MAGA hat in his locker and who refused to denounce Trump’s xenophobic anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric when pressed by reporters.

Brady is idolized as a great leader not just because of his on-the-field accomplishments (of which he has many), but also because, he embodies the ideal of white male omnipotence at the heart of Trump’s white nationalism. Yet, he concurrently represents a way of being a white American that pretends one can remain neutral about Trump’s white nationalism and broader issues of racial (in)justice. It is precisely this willful ignorance of contemporary American racial realities as much as his five Super Bowl rings that enables Brady to be imagined as an ideal leader in the conservative white imagination. This lionization of Brady as a great leader evinces how white racial ignorance is enabled and white racial innocence protected through the narratives that produce and nourish NFL fandom. It’s why alt-right leader and avowed white nationalist, Richard Spencer, labeled Brady “an Aryan avatar” and claimed the Patriots’ historic comeback in SB LI as a victory “for Trump, the #AltRight, and White America” through a series of joyous Super Bowl Sunday tweets just months after Trump took office (Chabba, 2017).

Thus, as we approach the rematch between the Rams and the Patriots in Super Bowl LIII, the fallout from Trump’s government shutdown, further militarization of domestic spaces, and other constituents of the realizing dystopia, it’s important to emphasize the essential nature of white nationalist politics in and through the NFL. Super Bowl LIII is more than just an isolated sporting event that celebrates masculinity, racial politics, and capitalism. Football, post 9/11 superpatriotism, the mainstreaming of white nationalism over the last few decades, and Trump’s brand of white nationalism today are not anomalous events happening in silos. They are a more calculated and systemic push toward the continued nationalization of white masculine militarism, the political expression stemming from the contradiction of white masculine impotence. Therefore, we must continue to disentangle the sporting politic so that we may better understand the cultural tools through which white nationalism is cultivated as well as understanding and naming the white elites who seek to use these tools to further their own political program. Because only then can we be in a position to counter the corrosive culture of white nationalism.

Author Bios:

Anthony Weems is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Division of Sport Management at Texas A&M University. His research interests revolve around the social structure of sport and sporting organizations and the roles sport plays in broader social and cultural contexts.

Kyle Kusz is an Associate Professor at the University of Rhode Island and the author of Revolt of The White Athlete (Peter Lang, 2007). His research critically examines how discourses involving sport function as political terrains where struggles take place over what ideas race, gender, class, and nation will form public common sense at various times in history.

Swedish Racism: Engineering a False Image of Democratic Solidarity

When I, Masoud Kamali, arrived to Sweden as a political refugee from Iran in 1987, I had heard a lot about Sweden. While serving time as a political prisoner in Iran, one of my first images of Sweden came from an article that I had read in Iran’s major newspaper, Keyhan, when I was in jail in Iran in late 1970s. It was about Sweden’s charismatic Prime Minister Olof Palme. The article contained a picture of Palme walking his bicycle on the grounds of Stockholm’s famous Citadel and gathering money for the Sandinista movement in Nicaragua. As a leftist believing in a socialist revolution at that time, my prison-mates and I were very impressed by a country in which the Prime Minister dared openly support a leftist/Marxist movement.

At the time that Olof Palme was assassinated in 1986, I had been arrested and jailed in Turkey for trying to leave the country illegally, since I did not have a valid passport and visa. I remember that I could not control my tears since he had become a symbol of democracy and solidarity for me. Though Palme was remarkable for many reasons, his anti-Vietnam war campaign and strong opposition to Apartheid in South Africa were among his impressive political stances.

A few years later in 1989, I began studying Sociology at the University of Linköping in Sweden. Initially and for the first time, I felt that I had another identity instead of just being a “refugee.” Given my student status, I envisioned that my peers with Swedish backgrounds and I would be treated as equals. However, I would quickly learn that (GWF) Hegel was wrong; the abstract could not be understandable if it turns into concrete human action. On the contrary, in many cases quite the opposite is true. Abstract declarations of “Human Rights” and “equality of human beings” propagated by the Swedish government become meaningless when actualized as concrete action. I was not welcome to my Swedish classmate’s “after work” gatherings and to other “student activities.” I realized very soon that even questions such as “Do you like Sweden?” or “Are you happy to be in Sweden?,” were not neutral inquiries and should not be answered in accordance with your actual feelings and genuine sentiments. Such questions are master narrative scripts to be answered subserviently with responses like “Absolutely” (as in “Yes, sir boss!”) in order to “fit in” not as part of a Swedish group but rather in the token role of an “immigrant” who is a symbol of Swedish generosity and solidarity.

In other words, in a (Emile) Durkheimian manner, “if you will be integrated, you should accept your place in society.” Comments such as “You are coming from another culture” and “our cultures are so different” should be accepted without any objection, clarification, or nuance. In lectures on theories of “modernity,” when my professor pointed to me as an example of “those coming from non-modern or traditional societies,” I was not supposed to say anything about centuries of modernization and modern revolutions in Iran. By the way, this is a topic that I eventually explored in my book Revolutionary Iran published by Routledge. I felt that I had to be quiet and even show approval for being “considered a fact” that proved “Western modernization theory.” Against this arrogant and fake ‘fact’ constructed in European (post)colonial academic circles, I published another book on the subject, titled Multiple Modernities, Civil Society, and Islam (Liverpool University Press 2006). I hoped to contribute to opening the narrow imperialist and colonial eyes of West-centric academics.

“To Think Freely is Great, but to Think Rightly is Greater”

I realized very soon that there is a “double morality” or “double standard” in Sweden: a private domain and a public domain. However, for any individual to “fit in” society the public domain is much more important. This means that what you think is not important and should not be expressed publicly, or you will be held accountable or even harmed by failing to “think rightly.” This quote—“To think freely is great, but to think rightly is greater,”—by eighteenth century jurist Thomas Thorild is prominently engraved in gold at the entrance of the Grand Auditorium of Uppsala University’s Main Administration Building. Though intended in theory as a quote that promotes social justice, in practice it discourages people from thinking and speaking candidly and honestly because if you do not “think rightly” you will be labelled and sanctioned as being “deviant.”

I have experienced the negative sanctions of “thinking freely” and, worse than that, of communicating my free and honest thoughts publicly in Swedish journalistic and other media outlets. Thinking freely is not a problem as long as you keep your thoughts to yourself or only express them in a very private circle; but “thinking freely” and publicly is strictly taboo. I realized very soon that I had to adjust my thoughts to the tyranny of thinking rightly, which in some cases forced me to “lie.” I tried to convince myself that such “lies” were necessary in order to make parts of my free-thinking public. One of my earliest experiences of “thinking rightly” in Sweden went back to early 1990s. While completing my Master’s degree in Sociology at Uppsala University in 1993, I lived in a dormitory and shared a kitchen with 12 other students. During a dinner in the kitchen as the Swedish Parliamentary Elections were approaching, I asked one of my Swedish friends for which party he was going to vote. He tried to reformulate my inquiry, change the subject and avoid answering my question. When I asked my other dorm mates, they did the same. I felt ignorant and tried to understand why in a democratic society like Sweden, people do not openly discuss their democratic political positions and beliefs. I received several different, but unconvincing, answers. Several years later as I began academic research and writing about white racism and integration in Sweden, many Swedish colleagues and acquaintances would often say to me, “You say what you think” or “You are not afraid of saying what you think.” This repetitive observation was a bit confusing at the beginning. Why were Swedes stating the obvious? I thought that in a democracy you should not be afraid of saying what you think.

When I finished my doctoral education and received my PhD in Sociology from Uppsala University (the “Harvard” of Sweden), I started participating in the public debate on white racism in Swedish media. Experience had taught me that instead of speaking about “racism” in Sweden, you should speak about “integration.” Therefore, I tried to find a compromise by focusing upon “ethnic discrimination” when both conducting research and talking about the experiences of People of Color in Sweden. In other words, I tried to adjust myself to Swedish public norms, by following the custom of “do not say what you think” but adjust yourself to what you are expected to say. Since I was a frequent analyst in Swedish media and often making comments about migration and integration, politicians started contacting me and inviting me in their “inner circles.” As I became a social analyst of importance with expertise on issues of diversity and inclusion, politicians and political parties sought me for their own political agendas. My early political contacts with three Swedish Integration Ministers and other important politicians convinced me that in Sweden racism was “a non-issue” that one should never mention or discuss.

Early Scientific Racism: Swedish Origins

Reading the history of white racism in Sweden made me more concerned about the contemporary denial of racism. Sweden is a country in which one of the earliest institutes of “scientific racism,” namely “The State Institute for Racial Biology” was established in 1922 in Uppsala. The establishment of the institute was a legacy result of the Swedish botanist Carl von Linnaeus’ “Theory of Races” that was elaborated in his book, Systema Naturae, published in 1735. Linnaeus divided human beings into a race-hierarchy based on the color of their skin and their hair. Whites were, of course, the best race and were attributed with the best moral properties in contrast to “blacks,” “yellows,” and “reds,” who were placed under whites’ supremacy. The Institute survived even World War II and changed its name to the “Medical Biological Research Center” in 1958.

This Swedish racist history has also influenced the question of migration. The famous Swedish social democratic inquiry into the “Crisis in the Population Question” was co-authored by Gunnar Myrdal, along with his wife Alva Myrdal, because of concerns about the shortage of the working population in Sweden during the early 1930s. This book suggested that lack the same “qualities” as Swedes. This is the same Gunnar Myrdal who was a famous sociologist that was very critical of racial segregation in the United States and who criticized the disconnect between US ideals about equality and the inhumane treatment of Black Americans in his famous book, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. In contrast to what he suggested for the U.S., Myrdal claimed that Sweden should introduce policies for Swedes to give birth to more (white) “Swedish children” instead of allowing immigration. Notwithstanding such racist attitudes, the policy was not successful and after World War II the country was forced to actively invite migrant workers to Sweden. However, the migrants were considered “guest workers” who were supposed to return home when Sweden did not need them anymore.

Several years later and after a public debate on the question of “the failed Swedish integration policies,” I was appointed by the Swedish government as the head of a governmental inquiry called The Governmental Inquiry into Power, integration and Structural Discrimination in early 2004. Though an honorable, important, and well-intended appointment, as the saying goes, “Good intentions pave the road to Hell!” One Swedish professor who I assumed was my friend warned me:

You have not a clue who you are going to fight against, there are hidden powers in this country; nothing is going to be the same for you as it was before the investigation; you will not even be able to get a job in this country, they are everywhere and very influential.

Since I saw my fight against Swedish racism as an inseparable part of my struggle for social justice, and as a former human and civil rights revolutionary who participated in the Iranian Revolution of 1979, I convinced myself that heading a governmental investigation regarding racialized power inequities was the right thing to do. I thought that people have lost their lives in struggles for humanity and many are losing their hopes and dignity because of the existence of racism in the world in general and in Sweden in particular. Though only one individual on a global battle field, I was determined to do whatever I could to change the racist institutions and structures in Sweden. I have to admit though that I underestimated the huge resistance to the investigation and the role of powerful institutions, entities, and persons in opposing me and my investigation.

Once I accepted the position of Chief Investigator for a research-based governmental inquiry into racism and discrimination in Sweden, my future life and professional career were forced down that road paved to Hell. I was misrepresented as a trouble maker who “calls gentle Swedes” racists and characterizes the solidarity based Swedish society as a racially biased society. A few days after my appointment as the Chief Investigator, more than 70 Swedish professors and academics led by a leading professor at Gothenburg University wrote a petition to the government and attacked the Minister of Integration for “devaluating the Swedish investigation system” with the appointment of me (Masoud Kamali) as a major governmental investigator. They wrote that “the Swedish governmental investigation system has, prior to Kamali’s appointment, had an excellent scientific quality, which now is at risk of destruction.” In order to defend my scientific and human dignity against such racist attacks, I participated in a debate with the leading professor on Swedish Radio where I said the following:

I received my entire academic training in Sweden and in Swedish universities and if there is any problem with my academic training and my academic merits, the same critics should logically be directed towards the leading professor and other Swedish professors who signed the petition.

The professors did not even take a moment to check where I received my academic education and training. Assuming that my higher education was entirely from Iran and not from Sweden, they accused me of not being as “good an academician” as they (Swedish whites) were.

In an interview when I mentioned the role of “The State Institute of Racial Biology” and the racist theories of Linneaus for perpetuating racist ideology in Sweden as well as their consequences for institutional discrimination against people with immigrant and/or minority backgrounds, I received a huge number of threatening letters and phone calls telling me to leave the country if I did not like it. I was familiar with such racist attacks whenever I was in the Swedish news media spotlight, but the extent of the attacks after the investigation far exceeded the attacks before I led the investigation.

The attacks, however, did not come only from openly racist groups, but also from academicians, politicians and even the Social Democratic Party, which had appointed me as the investigator. I was supposed to “be kind” to the governing party, the Social Democrats. It was a period of huge pressure on me from different political parties and groups who sought to influence the investigation. Empirical findings from the first report of the investigation that was titled “Beyond Us and Them” emphasized the need to change the focus of the problems of integration from “the others” to problematical Swedish institutional arrangements and structures. This was what Gunnar Myrdal had suggested for the United States, but not for Sweden. The new Integration Minister, Jens Orback, publicly declared that “I am not sharing Masoud Kamali’s analysis of the problem of integration.” This was followed by many journalists’ and other politicians’ attack on me for “being anti-Swede” and “an immigrant who did not understand the Swedish solidary history.” Though the findings from the governmental investigation were scientific publications written by 130 Swedish experts and international experts in the area, many Swedes, who for many decades presented themselves and their country as champions of democracy and solidarity, did not like my candid reports.

As my leadership of The Governmental Inquiry into Power, Integration, and Structural Discrimination came to an end in 2006, a long campaign of destructive individual and institutional racism against me began. Instead of accepting scientific findings that empirically challenged the essentialist claim of white Swedes and Sweden as the champions of solidarity in the world, powerful people, entities, and institutions scapegoated me as a prime enemy against their imagined Swedish utopia.

Twenty years after the assassination of Olof Palme, it became crystal clear to me that members of the democracy that I once believed in would invest far more energy and resources into denying harsh inequities than becoming the democracy that Palme stood and died for.

(Part one of a three-part essay).

Dr. Masoud Kamali
Uppsala January 2019

The Diary of a Black Man and the “Me Too” Movement

Dear Diary,

While subconsciously reconciling my compartmentalized thwarted and grief stricken emotions regarding the legend Bill Cosby and the convicted rapist Bill Cosby, I noticed something occurring inside of me. I had completely become disoriented in my media-inspired, vicarious attempt to keep track of the detailed salacious, gritty and heart-wrenching stories of sexual assault and harassment women (and some men) have endured while working behind and in front of Tinseltown cameras. I was essentially burned out.

The need to be constantly aware of the latest sexual assault or harassment claim brought on media inspired emotional drowning as my brain swallowed too much (literally) man-made sadness. For too many of us, it is inescapable. We are forced to see the damage and consequential pain brought on by numerous local (almost always male) government officials, state representatives, senators and even president of “this here” United States. There have been so many gloomy stories of abuse and violence finally being brought to the light.

As of late, the confirmation of now Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh has brought a new level of debauchery. His actions alongside the Republican party’s slimy maneuver of trying to not offend registered-Republican white women voters while at the same time standing behind “their man,” have taken the oxygen out of the room of sanity and caused much confusion and euphoria. Silicon Valley, higher education, and even the evangelical church are not immune to these acts of sexist injustice as well.

Sexual violence and harassment allegations have captured the US psyche. They draw one to believe the occurrence of sexual assault and harassment within Hollywood, branches of government, higher education, Silicon Valley, and God knows where else are simple examples of a society founded in white male privilege. It includes patriarchal privilege historically wielded widely by white males, but practiced to some degree by men in every racial-ethnic group. This gendered privilege has placed women at the whim of male physical, economic, academic, legislative and psychological dominance.

Today, the energy and power derived from the anger and frustration over sexual assault and harassment has generated a long overdue spotlight on a sexist system that creates and supports the injustice women have long endured, on the people who support and protect it, on and the darkness that was created to force the silence of the victims. Entrenched threats to the bodies, careers, minds and souls of anybody who publicly acknowledges the acts as highly unjust are easing as survivors seek public and monetary retribution.

Now I know way before the dam was broken with the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., President Donald Trump, comedian Andy Dick, former Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court Roy Moore, actor Ben Affleck, Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., casino magnate Stephen Wynn, director Brett Ratner, news anchor Matt Lauer, Rep. Eric Massa, D-N.Y., filmmaker Paul Haggis, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., and countless others (too many to mention without becoming physically ill), there was President Bill Clinton. Two decades earlier, there was Rep. John Young, D-Texas. And the repressive misogynistic beat goes on and on.

Women from the beginning of time have been subjugated by predominantly privileged white men who have operated as if their possession of a penis allotted them a right –– an unbridled freedom to ogle, sexually harass, grab, assault and rape without counteraction. Men from the birth of our nation have attempted to control every aspect of a woman’s life and body functions. Yet women have risen to be prospering survivors in a male-subjugated landscape. I have witnessed this along the intersectionality of gender and race. As a Black child, I became familiar with the illustrations of Black females in America anointed by non-Blacks with a degree of invisibility and debasement many women who are not of color could not fathom.

Therefore, my pride was understandable as I surfed through the cable news channels on January 20 and watched millions of women around the world energetically march to protest sexual harassment and assault. I began to even chant “Me Too! Me Too!” as my 1- and 4-year-old boys played in the living room.

But after each speech a mounting sense of recollection laced with fear began to creep into my mind. Within the emotional testimonies and speeches performed by the elite in music, television, politics and movies, I heard a theme that spoke of “believing all women.” In the weeks that followed, I observed male commentators and reporters on the more liberal channels pledge their alliance to the Me Too movement without hesitation in the context of high-profile accusations associated with Trump, Moore and comedian Louis C.K. The same feeling emerged when television networks showed video of congressmen and senators such as even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell saying, “I believe the women.”

As a self-proclaimed “woke” Black man, the phrase reverberates abruptly off the pages of Black U.S. history, which creates angst in my soul. So much so that when new allegations surface, I cringe, cross my fingers and toes and pray the accused is not a Black man. Ridiculous? Maybe to those of a lighter hue. But I cannot help but fear the social and psychological repercussions of stories related to Bill Cosby and Russell Simmons to the American psyche. I am NOT saying they are innocent. I am saying I have certain fears.

Evidence of my fear is illustrated on the crying face of the 9-year-old Black boy in a Brooklyn store last week who was accused of sexual assault by a white female patron, now being called online as “Cornerstone Caroline.” She called for police assistance and accused the child of grabbing her backside. The store security’s videotape (thank God there was a tape) proved that her allegations were completely false. When I consider her actions, which I feel are based on black male racial stereotyping, and her sick undertaking to sexualize a 9-year-old little boy, I am reminded of what hangs from the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

The newly constructed museum was brought to life by the nonprofit Equal Justice Institute. The museum opened April 26, 2018 in Montgomery, Ala. to becoming the country’s first memorial to the legacy of enslaved Black people who were victims of white terroristic behavior — lynching. The names of Blacks symbolically hang from the rafters as evidence of a presumption of guilt and consequential violence. The museum gives voice to “strange fruit” hung from southern trees. The 4,000 Black men, women and children were not simply tortured, but savagely lynched, burned and castrated alive, and at times dragged on display for others to be reminded of their place within the white constructed racial hierarchy. White men, women and children who treated the cruelty as attending a circus or county fair, gleefully observed many of these ungodly incidents. If one has the stomach, evidence can be found in historical photos, postcards and newspaper clippings.

Many of the 805 etched steel markers suspended from the rafters of the museum illustrate limitless examples of “believe the [white] women.” Before the Civil War, many statutes were passed by white male politicians to provide a penalty of death or castration for Black men suspected or convicted of raping white women. Many whites believed lynching was necessary to protect the prized possession of a white man — the white female –– from the “human beast” of white-racist imagination, the Black man. Our country’s whites accepted this form of natural law as an appropriate measure to secure not only the sanctity of the white woman, but also the larger system of white racial oppression. The spark that gave fire to the Tulsa (Oklahoma) white race riots of 1921 and the 1923 white massacre of black citizens in Rosewood (Florida) were fueled by white allegations of rape. It has been noted that in 1900, on the floor of the U.S. Senate, the powerful Senator Benjamin Tillman (D-S.C.) stated:

We have never believed him [the Black man] to be equal to the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him.

But for white men, the rules were and continue to be quite different. Historically, white rapists who victimized their female counterparts were likely to receive less severe punishment. For Black men, pure allegations were enough to invoke white mobs to capture the alleged rapists or forcefully break them out of prison or court. The sentiment and ideological perspectives regarding Black male sexuality that prompted these acts continued beyond the days of slavery. Movies such as “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), “Super Fly” (1972), and name your pick of a Tyler Perry movie, all personify and perpetuate fear of Black male sexuality. Regardless, the system that allowed Black men to be accused, tortured and murdered due to “believing the [white] woman,” by way of white mobs or an illegitimate justice system continues.

The infamous wrongful conviction of the Central Park Five in 1990 stands out. Black and Latino teenagers from Harlem were not only accused of raping a white woman in New York City’s Central Park, but also publicly “hung” by the media. The events that occurred after the rape revealed a city and nation’s horrid and sinful side –– a side filled with not only the white fear and false stereotypes of Black males, but a white disdain for those seen as “other.” A call to bring back the death penalty, overzealous police harassment and public attacks of Black men were rampant in the city. In fact, the media, and white people such as then simply millionaire Donald Trump, fed the city the raw meat that often nourishes the white psyche and reaction to Black men. Even after evidence proved the teens innocent, whites like President Trump continue to this day affirming their guilt.

Bob Allen, once a senior Republican, anti-gay legislator in Florida, was convicted in 2007 for attempting to solicit oral sex in a men’s bathroom from an undercover police officer. What was his defense? He said the undercover officer was a large and daunting Black man, therefore he felt he had no choice but to perform any act necessary to survive the encounter. In 1994, Susan Smith of Union, S.C., drowned her two children by rolling her car into a lake because a man she was dating in an extramarital affair did not want kids. She told police her children were carjacked by a Black man, only to confess nine days later. As Time magazine put it:

Susan Smith knew what a kidnapper should look like. He should be a remorseless stranger with a gun. But the essential part of the picture — the touch she must have counted on to arouse the primal sympathies of her neighbors and to cut short any doubt — was his race. The suspect had to be a black man. Better still, a black man in a knit cap, a bit of hip-hop wardrobe that can be as menacing in some minds as a buccaneer’s eye patch. Wasn’t that everyone’s most familiar image of the murderous criminal?

In 2008, Thomas McGowan, a Black man, was released after spending nearly 23 years in Texas prison for rape and burglary. With help from the Innocence Project, some DNA indicated he was wrongly convicted. In March 2017, the white Texas native Breana Harmon, 18, reported she was abducted by three Black men and raped. Two weeks later, she confessed to lying to authorities and was offered a sentence of probation and ordered to pay $10,000. In 2007, the white female Carolyn Bryant Donham recanted parts of her 1955 accusations of sexual harassment that led to the abduction and ghastly murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy visiting family in Mississippi.

Currently on many college campuses, sexual assault and harassment issues are finally being taken seriously. However, Harvard law professors Jeannie Suk and Janet Halley have criticized new university policies related to sexual assault, arguing against an ideological and legal perspective that always and undiplomatically believes all accusers. They have found the majority of sexual assault complaints at Harvard were brought against students of color, which feeds into the unjust over criminalization of male students of color.

During the horrific murder of nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015, the young white shooter Dylann Storm Roof allegedly told churchgoers:

You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go.

He meant Black men. I could provide much more, but you could lose your way navigating the historical and contemporary injustice pertaining to Black men and the concept, “believe all the women.”

I know those women survivors and the empathetic allied parties to the Me Too movement will probably receive my feelings badly. And I get it. These survivors have been forced into darkness and silence for far too long and the newly created space to tell one’s hard truths is roaring like a necessary tidal wave. However, after the proverbial dust settles, and the fiery speeches of condemnation begin to wither, maybe our country will begin to make space for honest conversations from all sides of the issue where we can begin to apply specific contextual and situational parameters to realities of sexual abuse and harassment. I hope that we will be able to apply a clear racialized lens to allow those of color to be fully seen and heard. Just maybe we can all one day be on a new page of #MeToo.

Signed, Dr. Terence Fitzgerald

US Open: Much Gendered-Racist Framing

[This post is jointly authored by Kristi Oshiro & Anthony Weems]

The recent US Open women’s tennis singles championship has garnered significant attention from fans and non-fans alike. However, the attention hasn’t been on Serena Williams’ return to championship form just one year removed from giving birth or the triumph of 20-year-old Naomi Osaka over her tennis idol on one of the sport’s biggest stages. Instead, both Williams and Osaka have had to deal with the steady onslaught of racialized and gendered backlash from various media outlets. In a seemingly unconscious attack on Serena Williams and her frustration with the referee of the finals match, Mark Knight of the Herald Sun portrayed a caricatured version of Williams and Osaka that only a white male could have put together. Given the long history of anti-black, caricatured images produced by white men, the photo immediately drew criticism on social media. Following the Herald Sun’s publication, a battle over the framing and racial/gender implications of such a photo erupted.

Although many news outlets are claiming the photo was really about Williams’ “bad behavior,” this form of gendered racism has a long history rooted in white racial framing. Therefore, the purpose of our piece is to further explore the nuanced nature of gendered racism in the aftermath of the US Open. More specifically, we interrogate how the white-male framing of both Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka reproduces the white racist and male sexist frames. The framing and ongoing defense of Knight’s depiction not only dehumanizes Serena Williams and presents her as a hyper-visible subject in what is traditionally a white-oriented spectator sport, but it also invisibilizes Naomi Osaka presenting her as a whitened and docile figure passively looking on in background. To make matters worse, Knight and his colleagues at the Herald Sun have since vehemently defended his depiction and have explicitly positioned themselves as victims of political correctness. Thus, we problematize these narratives here and seek to further explore the implications for sport, media, racial framing, and the intersection of white racism and sexism on a global scale.

White Racial Framing

In his book, The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Racial Framing and Counter-Framing, sociologist Joe Feagin outlined the extensive white racial frame that both informs and rationalizes systemic racism. In addition to the anti-other and pro-white subframes that are central to the overarching frame, Feagin noted that an “important dimension of the dominant racial frame is its gendered-racist character” (p. 105). On top of a long history of racist framing of both men and women of color by whites, Feagin pointed to the role of the white-run media in perpetuating the gendered-racist character of the dominant frame: “The mostly white [male] media executives generally decide what blatantly racist elements from the dominant frame can be openly used by commentators and entertainers on their programs” (p. 106). Feagin later added to this by discussing how the dominant gendered-racist framing had been resisted over time:

These gendered-racist framings of black women, some of which are also applied to other women of color, persist because they are fostered by white-dominated media and undergird recurring discrimination. In research on black women, researchers like [Angela] Davis, [Philomena] Essed, [Patricia Hill] Collins, Elizabeth Higginbotham, Yanick St. Jean, and Adia Harvey Wingfield have regularly emphasized the importance of liberating women of color from racial, gender, and gendered-racist stereotypes and discrimination. (p. 181)

Since the publishing of the original Knight photo, many prominent voices, such as the journalist Jemele Hill, have taken to Twitter and other media outlets in defense of both Williams and Osaka. One Twitter user even posted her own reframed drawing of Williams who was depicted as saying “It’s almost like it’s pretty easy to draw a black woman without being racist!” However, in the midst of the backlash to the gendered-racist framing of both women, Knight and the Herald Sun have adamantly defended their original publication. In a follow-up issue of the Herald Sun titled, ‘Welcome to PC World’, the news outlet – run by mostly white men – dismissed the backlash tweeting that the cartoon “had nothing to do with gender or race.” Falling in line, Knight’s white-male colleagues weakly emphasized that the cartoon was “about bad behavior, certainly not race.”

But as Lonnae O’Neal stated in her article for The Undefeated, racism is always part of the story. And this is certainly the case given the long history of white obsession with the “behavior” of women of color. Still, as the battle over media framing continues to take place in the public sphere, one aspect is being consistently overlooked: the actual white-run media conglomerates and their male-sexist framing of both Williams and Osaka. In the media’s weak attempts to refocus on Osaka’s victory, an attack on Williams’ behavior as “wrong” has taken over the headlines. Moreover, as Williams’ behavior has now become the central media narrative in the U.S., Knight’s racist cartoon takes on a symbolic role along with its blatantly racist framing. The drawing has become symbolic in the sense that mainstream media outlets in the U.S. and around the world have ultimately echoed the sentiments represented in the photo. These media outlets and their mostly white and male producers have effectively created a lose-lose situation for Williams and Osaka; a reality that has long plagued women of color in white racist societies.

Intersection of Race and Gender

As the mainstream media remains central to the perpetuation of this gendered-racist framing (Feagin, p. 105) intersectionality is a powerful analytic tool that can be used to better understand and deconstruct said power relations and interlocking systems of oppression imposed upon women of color. Moreover, it allows us to shed light on the similar, yet, distinct ways in which both, Williams and Osaka, were victimized by the framing of this emotion-laden caricature. Here we see a dichotomy of hyper-visibility and invisibility reflective of society at large. In regards to the former, one cannot ignore the “re”presentation of Williams front and center. In the words of O’Neal, the photo

…[depicted] Williams as an enraged behemoth. She is drawn with big lips as well as an outsize chest and arms that make her tutu and ponytail (i.e., indicators of femininity) part of his editorial judgement. She is jumping up and down on the wreckage of a tennis racket destroyed by her thunderous legs.

Interestingly, in stark contrast to a hyper-visible Williams, in the background is Osaka, portrayed as a much smaller, thinner, docile, observably white female with blonde hair taking direction from the official. The black-white conceptualization of race illustrated in this caricature gives way to a host of topics worthy of discussion. However, in this particular case we argue there is a bigger issue at hand and many are overlooking a prominent piece of this puzzle: Naomi Osaka is not even a white female. In fact, she has been explicit and proud in embracing her biracial identity as a woman of Japanese and Haitian descent.

While many have criticized the ignorance and racist/sexist undertones of Knight’s illustration primarily focusing on Williams, fewer have problematized the invisibility and misrepresentation of US Open tournament champion, Naomi Osaka – the first Japanese player ever to win a Grand Slam singles title. In direct juxtaposition to Williams, the attack on Osaka may not seem quite as severe, although in reality she is being subjected to many of the same white-male racist gendered frames herself. In being reduced to a white female in Knight’s caricature, a new identity was imposed upon her. As the Huffington Post’s Zeba Blay suggests “Osaka was robbed of something else: her agency, her identity, her story, and her blackness.” Furthermore, her soft spoken demeanor represented here as a submissive, innocent bystander plays directly into white anti-other framing and asian (American) stereotypes such as the model minority myth, the perpetual foreigner, and the exotization of Asian women imagined as hypersexual, submissive sex objects. In turn, despite Osaka being secure in her identity as a biracial female, we witness the media struggle with this notion and impose their own narratives as if her identity is theirs to name.

Nevertheless, following in a rich tradition of strong resilient women, particularly women of color in sport and beyond, both Williams and Osaka have stayed true to themselves and persisted but also resisted these intersecting forms of oppression. However, this is not to undermine the very real burden of the emotional and cognitive labor internalized when one falls victim to forces of systemic oppression. In an event that could have easily divided two competitors, amongst boos from the crowd Williams and Osaka literally came together in solidarity in an emotionally charged trophy ceremony following the match. Perhaps this would have been a more accurate illustration to capture the essence of what had transpired that night.

While this particular incident took place on U.S. soil, the omnipresent white racial frame and its ability to legitimate, produce, and reproduce multiple forms of systemic oppression transcends national boundaries. In this piece, we call attention to the predominantly white-run media conglomerates and their male-sexist framing as a primary outlet to mobilize such ideologies, although others may be equally applicable. The events that transpired at the US Open and subsequent press released in the Australian based newspaper, the Herald Sun, is just one of many incidents in a series of controversies that have been associated with the sport in recent months. For example, the ban against Williams’ Black Panther “Wakanda” inspired catsuit at the French Open – for no reason other than suggesting it was disrespectful to the game and space – shows that these microaggressions on the premise of race and gender are not isolated occurrences, but rather, an ongoing structural problem present on a global scale. In contemporary times, it is undeniable that sport and society are inherently intertwined as these social issues are reflective of the broader politics operating both in and through sport. Thus, it is imperative that we view the institution of sport as a legitimate platform to continue to deconstruct and better understand the implications for sport, media, framing, and the intersection of white racism and sexism worldwide. As social justice scholars it is important that we listen to, support, and stand alongside these athletes and strive to produce emancipatory research that challenge these unjust interlocking systems of oppression.

White Nationalism in the NFL

[Note: This post is coauthored by Anthony Weems and Thaddeus Atzmon

In a recent press release via their web page, the National Football League (NFL) issued a policy statement that was clearly designed to stop future players from participating in on-field anti-Racist protests that draw attention to the systemic and foundational racism of the U.S. This embedded white racism is evident in The Star Spangled Banner–particularly at the end of the third verse, which celebrates slavery in the U.S. In creating this new policy, the NFL has, in effect, chosen to actively engage in the promotion and sanctification of white nationalist displays while simultaneously banning any form of protest against them.

What do we mean by this? We mean that not allowing players who are on the field to show their protest for the US anthem, which celebrates the enslavement of people of color by whites and was composed by a major white slaveholder, is a means of protecting an openly white nationalist display that takes place before every NFL game. This coerced censorship is accomplished through the rules laid out in sections one, four, five and six of the NFL policy statement which require “personnel” on the field to “show respect for the flag and the Anthem” and outline possible ways to discipline those who do not. Coerced censorship is also accomplished by hiding players who choose to protest the anthem off the field where they can not be seen during the televised white nationalist display of the anthem. This is accomplished through sections two and three of the new NFL policy, which remove a previous requirement for all players to be on the field and state that players who choose not to stand for the anthem in protest “may stay in the locker room or in a similar location off the field until after the Anthem has been performed.” Herein, we delve into the way that coercive patriotism is used in the NFL, how the dominant white racial frame and white nationalism are reproduced through NFL games, and how past white nationalists have also used coercive patriotic displays of white nationalism in US sport activities. We end by noting the ways that athletes are pushing back against this form of coercive nationalism through discussions about denying their labor to the NFL.

Coercive Patriotism

Interestingly enough, NFL players even being on-field for the national anthem is a relatively new phenomenon. For example, sports analyst Stephen A. Smith has noted the following on how and why NFL players came to be on the field for the playing of the anthem:

Until 2009, no NFL player stood for the national anthem because players actually stayed in the locker room as the anthem played. The players were moved to the field during the national anthem because it was seen as a marketing strategy to make the athletes look more patriotic. The United States Department of Defense paid the National Football League $5.4 million between 2011 and 2014, and the National Guard $6.7 million between 2013 and 2015 to stage onfield patriotic ceremonies as part of military-recruitment budget line items.

The NFL’s new policy that requires players to “stand and show respect” to the US flag and during the national anthem builds upon and goes well beyond this “marketing strategy” to a much more coercive form of patriotism. According to Tricia Jenkins (2013), coercive patriotism in the sport context is problematic for athletes and fans alike, as nationalist politics are packaged and sold “through the pageantry of sport, rather than through more thoughtful explorations of a conflict” (p. 247). In other words, coercive patriotism serves as a sort of nationalist sedative that further advances the politics of white nationalism through the emotion-laden arena of sport. Critical outcomes of this coercive form of patriotism by the NFL are both the reproduction and the dissemination of the white racial frame and its central role in mainstreaming white nationalism.

Reproducing the White Racial Frame

Sport provides a cultural skeleton for communicating the politics of nationalism to the American public. In the context of a globalized sport/media complex, protests led by predominantly African American players against policing and other racism have effectively challenged many Americans to take seriously the claims of liberty and justice for all. In reality, this challenging of espoused American ideals extends back well beyond Colin Kaepernick’s first protest in 2016. As the great scholar W.E.B. Du Bois opined nearly a century ago, African Americans’ challenging of the legitimacy of (white) “American values” since the foundation of this country has significantly pushed the nation in a more just direction. Today, the taking serious of these values remains a central element in many counter-frames developed by various communities of color resisting systemic racism.

However, in the aftermath of the NFL’s new policy the spectacle of coercive patriotism and the production of resistance-less nationalism serves not only to silence anti-Racist player-activists but also to reproduce the dominant white racial frame and stimulate a nationalist base. Through coercive tactics and mediated agenda-setting therein, the NFL is able to frame what is and is not “patriotic” for millions of NFL viewers across the nation. What this has accomplished so far is it has emboldened white nationalist groups and “patriotic” Americans in general to support nationalistic practices and to act in accordance with the nationalist elements of the white racial frame. Indeed, when the President of the US frames protesting athletes as being disrespectful “sons of bitches” while legitimizing neo-Nazis as “very fine people,” and the NFL adopts a policy that seeks to hide and/or punish players for protesting, a reflection on the gravity of this new policy is warranted.

For example,while there are clear differences between the German Nazi system of oppression during the second world war and systemic white racism in the U.S. today, we also see disturbing parallels in the ways elite white men protect white nationalist displays and promote dominant white racial framing through coercive patriotism in public sporting events within these two contexts. Take this newspaper article dated January 7th 1934, which details the Nazi punishment of German soccer players for refusing to give the Nazi salute during a game. In this instance, the Nazi white nationalist salute is help up as sacred and those who dare not respect and honor it were subject to serious punishment. Today, the white nationalist display of the US anthem is held up as sacred and the anti-Racist athletes who choose to openly protest the history of white racism it represents are subject to punishment or forced off-field by the elite white men who own NFL teams and set the league’s policy in an attempt to silence them.

White Nationalism and Resistance

According to one important history of white nationalism,

African Americans in particular had changed American life at every one of its critical junctures since the advent of New World slavery. Ideological thinkers on the white-ist side of politics remain completely blind to this aspect of the twenty-first century. And from this failure, vanguardist and Aryan killers will continue to pop up, at odds with the direction of American life. (Zeskind, p. 542).

Recent information that has come to light as a result of Kaepernick’s collusion legal case against the NFL owners points to the central political role of President Donald Trump in the development of the NFL’s new nationalistic policy. As if the President’s publicly white-nationalist comments in response to protesting athletes weren’t enough, NFL team owner Jerry Jones’ sworn disposition claimed that Trump told him the following:

This is a very winning, strong issue for me… Tell everybody, you can’t win this one. This one lifts me.

In light of the NFL taking on a major role in white nationalist politics, its new policy aims to censor the voices of those actively fighting against racist sport systems. However, athletes and activists alike will not be quelled so easily, as many look to continue resisting systemic forms of oppression hidden behind the veil of white patriotism. Several NFL players have already discussed the possibility of sitting out this upcoming NFL season until both Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid are signed to NFL rosters. In addition, several players have told journalist Shaun King that they intend to stop paying their NFL Players Association dues following the Association’s failure to adequately represent the players and their interests. If anything, it seems as though the new coercive NFL policy has provided more justification for athletes protesting or withholding their labor altogether. At this critical juncture in time it is imperative that we, as social science scholars and social justice activists, seek to contextualize and understand the NFL’s sanctifying of white nationalist politics, the active resistances to the NFL’s new policy from players, and how we might be able to work with and support social justice athlete-activists moving forward.

She Doesn’t Negotiate with North Korea: “Angry Korean Lady” Explains

“Where are you from?,” queried President Donald Trump last fall, to which a career intelligence analyst ultimately replied that her parents were from Korea. Trump then wondered aloud to another adviser why this “pretty Korean lady” wasn’t a negotiator with North Korea. Trump therefore assumed that her parent’s quasi-ancestral roots should be synonymous with her career choice, that she knew a lot about North Korea, and that perhaps she spoke some Korean. What his query didn’t grasp is that she’s a Korean American who might know none of the sort, in the same way that Trump is a German-Scottish American who doesn’t seem particularly versed in either place. The intelligence analyst is American, as am I, and as are the almost 2 million Korean ethnics who claim this country – not North or South Korea – as home (incidentally, #prettykoreanlady story broke the day before National Korean American Day to commemorate the arrival of the first Koreans in this country a 115 years ago). Perhaps Trump should have commented instead on how atavistic the most powerful world leader sounds when in 2017 he refuses to believe that Korean Americans actually come from New York and actually pursue careers like US state intelligence analyst and hostage policy expert. In fact, “our people” also go into American industries of business, reality TV, and politics, but Trump doesn’t grasp this because he sees anyone who looks like the intelligence analyst as Asian foreigners who aren’t “real” Americans. That’s why Trump wasn’t satisfied with her initial answers of “New York” and “Manhattan” when he asked that age-old foreigner-making question, “Where are you from?” How terrific or tremendous would he feel if, based on his logic, we presumed that he’s really from Bobenheim am Berg, Germany?

Trump’s query also doesn’t grasp that a “pretty Korean lady” can actually be capable of making up her own mind of what type of career she’ll pursue and thereby does not deserve to be ogled and talked about in the 3rd person, all in her presence. To spin the prophetic words of Janet Jackson: “No, her first name ain’t lady, it’s ‘American.’ Ms. Expert’ if you’re nasty.” And Trump has proven that he’s nasty in the worst way. He derides accomplished women as such when he’s not busy slut-shaming or invoking “pussy.” Worse, he does so while claiming to make the country great again. Far from great, however, many – including some Norwegians – believe that he’s turning America into a “shithole.” What could be worse than the most powerful person on earth being a racist and sexist who thinks he and Norwegians are superior to shithole countries teeming with all “those” shithole people?

To start with his racism, let’s be clear. To be racist, one need not lynch Black Americans from trees, as some are wont to use as criteria today. Anachronisms aside, one need only believe that White people are superior, are most entitled, and are the norm vis-a-vis non-White peoples. So when Trump renders foreign a Korean American by lumping her with Korea and refuses to accept her definition of herself (New Yorker), he racially excludes her from his club, that is, as not entitled to claim the United States as her country. This type of racism most often levied against Asian Americans, also known as nativist racism, seems much less iniquitous than stereotyping all Haitian people as having “AIDS” or all Nigerians as living in “huts.” Its consequences, however, are far from iniquitous.

Take for example the most infamous case: Japanese Americans being mass incarcerated by their own government despite the US citizenship of most of the Japanese ethnics and the lack of anti-US activity of all. But few Americans also know that one of the first groups banned by US federal immigration law was Chinese women. According to historian Sucheng Chan, Congress passed the 1875 Page Law to forbid the entry of Chinese (or “Mongolian”) sex workers, contract laborers, and felons. Yet, because White Americans assumed that all Chinese women were (opium-addicted) prostitutes, no woman who phenotypically resembled the Chinese was safe from racialized and sexualized harassment. Fast forward nearly a 140 years to 2012 when we witness Ellen Pao lose her lawsuit against venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins for widespread sexual harassment and related retaliation. Because countless other Asian American women like myself had also experienced a sexually-charged work environment her case birthed “the Pao effect” and emboldened Asian American women to speak up and fight back. Indeed, such harassment has known no bounds, as research by Shirley Hune found that Asian American women in higher educational settings are among the most vulnerable targets of a hostile work environment. Yet, sociologist Tiffany J. Huang underscores that the role of racial stereotyping has scarcely been mentioned in the #MeToo movement, and few Americans know that compared to White women college-educated Asian American women earn less income and are more likely to be unemployed. They are also often the least likely to advance into executive or leadership positions.

In the same vein of the 1875 Page Law and the sexual harassment of Ellen Pao, Trump is turning this country into a shithole because he’s a sexual predator who fuses both racism and misogyny. In the case of the intelligence expert, he drew on intersecting race-gender stereotypes of the hypersexual, exotic, passive Asian woman, effectively normalizing her dehumanization. And, as history has shown, dehumanization almost always leads to violence such as sexual assault, or to the violence of white supremacists and nationalists whom he lauds as “some very fine people.” Trump clearly evidences the racialized and gendered dimensions of sociologist Joe Feagin’s “white racial frame” (and sub-frames) wherein mostly white men arrogantly presume that they know best and are most virtuous.

It’s true, of course, that some Korean Americans consider themselves a part of both countries. But answering the dreaded “Where are you from?” question with one’s US hometown is a common device to Americanize oneself in a racially-charged encounter. It’s also true that some women might be flattered to be called “pretty;” but as the historic Women’s March and the #MeToo movement have made clear, not if it prevents men from seeing women as capable in their jobs and especially not if it comes from men multiply accused of sexual assault.

Ultimately, Mr. Trump could only make a “Why doesn’t pretty Korean lady negotiate with North Korea?” type of wisecrack if he saw her as more stereotype than human. But I write this to let him and everyone know that Korean American women, a group from whom we almost never hear, are human and are American. Oh! And many of us are angry: Ms. Angry if you’re nasty.

Nadia Y. Kim is Professor of Sociology at Loyola Marymount University and the author of Imperial Citizens: Koreans and Race from Seoul to LA (Stanford Press, 2008).

White Men Reeling: #CelebrateStarWarsVII as Counter-Frame

Joe Feagin contends that while it is important to acknowledge that white racial framing helps legitimize systemic racism, it is also essential to understand counter-framing. He suggests that racial counter-frames are typically, though not exclusively, developed by Indigenous peoples and people of color as a way of making sense of persistent racial disparities.

A good illustration of counter-framing presented itself when some familiar names, who happened to be Star Wars fans and/or supporters of the casting choices for the 2015 film, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, pushed back against #BoycottStarWarsVII. African American director (Selma and 13th) Ava DuVernay created the hashtag #CelebrateStarWarsVII, which served as a powerful counter-frame to #BoycottStarWarsVII. People of color, like DuVernay and the film’s star John Boyega, do not share whites’ material investment in whiteness. They have a necessary investment in counter-frames. So, too, does Aaron Barksdale, an African American Star Wars fan turned Huffington Post writer. Regarding #BoycottStarWarsVII, he wrote:

[R]ace relations in space are not light-speed ahead of our own challenges in the real world. I hope that more diversity is able to shine in the follow-up films — fingers crossed there will at least be one black female human character. One thing is clear, the force is definitely woke.

As #BoycottStarWarsVII started trending, counter-framers took charge of the hashtag. Accordingly, the bulk of the tweets began to counter the systemic racism and white racial framing behind the hashtag’s origin. Counter-resisters, for example, wrote:

“I would love to see the Venn diagram of #BoycottStarWarsVII supporters and Trump supporters, but I’m pretty sure it’s just one circle.”

“I’m going to #BoycottStarWarsVII because I missed the entire point of science fiction and all the morals it tries to teach?”

“Lunatic #BoycottStarWarsVII racists, weren’t you serving drinks in Mos Eisley cantina? (‘We don’t serve their kind here.’)”

“Aliens that speak English, bad physics & WOOKIES, but you people can’t deal with a black guy?”

#CelebrateStarWarsVII accentuated and extolled the diversity of the film’s cast and Star Wars fans. Boyega chimed in too, stating,

I’m in the movie, what are you going to do about it? … You either enjoy it or you don’t. I’m not saying get used to the future … [it] is already happening. People of colour and women are increasingly being shown on screen. For things to be whitewashed just doesn’t make sense.

According to Feagin, counter-frames such as anti-racist counter-frames and home-culture frames have long provided people of color with “important tool kits enabling individuals and groups to effectively counter recurring white hostility and discrimination” (p. 166). Successfully countering the recurring white hostility and discrimination he faced, Boyega recognized the systemic nature of the whitelash, as opposed to seeing it as simply individual prejudice. He explained,

It’s Hollywood’s fault for letting this get so far, that when a black person or a female, or someone from a different cultural group, is cast in a movie, we have to have debates as to whether they’re placed there just to meet a [quota]. … ‘He’s just placed there for political correctness.’ I don’t hear you guys saying that when Brad Pitt is there. When Tom Cruise is there. Hell, when Shia LaBeouf is there, you guys ain’t saying that. That is just blatant racism.

The counter-frame of which Feagin has so skillfully written is plainly seen in DuVernay’s and Boyega’s responses to #BoycottStarWarsVII and other systemic racism and white racial framing surrounding The Force Awakens.

NFL Protests and Racial Politics of Patriotism

This blog post is coauthored by Anthony Weems, Kristi Oshiro, and John Singer

(Image: The Seattle Times)

Friday night’s rally in Huntsville, Alabama sparked the beginning of what proved to be a hectic weekend for President Donald Trump. Only, the chaos was not related to the upcoming Senate health care vote or post-hurricane relief in Puerto Rico as some might expect but rather the president felt the need to address athlete activism, specifically targeting the National Football League (NFL). In a weak attempt to redefine black athletes’ protests of systemic racism, oppression, and police brutality as a disrespect to the US flag and the US military, Trump criticized NFL players who have openly protested by kneeling or sitting in peaceful protest during the national anthem. Moreover, Trump arrogantly and disrespectfully referred to these athletes as “sons of a bitches”, and suggested owners should exercise their power and have them fired. He would later take to Twitter and argue that the NFL should make their players stand during the national anthem. In the days that followed, NFL players, coaches, owners, and other personnel met to discuss how to strategically respond before taking the field for the highly-anticipated game day on Sunday.

As for the NFL, September 24th, 2017 will forever go down in history as “choose-your-side Sunday.” Coming on the heels of the Alabama rally, the comments made about NFL athletes protesting served as a catalyst for a protest unprecedented in the NFL (or any other league for that matter). Whether kneeling, sitting, locking arms, raising fists in solidarity, or remaining in the locker room altogether during the national anthem, as a collective unit the NFL made a statement that transcended national boundaries, as hundreds of athletes, coaches, owners, executives, and other staff across the league responded in unity to criticisms made by Trump. However, in all of the chaos springing from the weekend of September 22nd, 2017, it is important that we refocus our attention on what it means to #TakeAKnee.

Colin Kaepernick and Taking the Knee

When Colin Kaepernick first refused to stand during the national anthem in 2016, he was pretty much alone. Though many black athletes and athletes of color had been using their platforms to bring racial injustice to the forefront for years, Kaepernick’s silent and peaceful protest during the national anthem brought the politics of racism and police brutality into the homes of many Americans – particularly, white Americans:

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick explained shortly after kneeling during the playing of the national anthem before NFL games. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Working with Dr. Harry Edwards while still a member of the San Francisco 49ers, Kaepernick engaged in peaceful protest that sparked what Dr. Edwards has referred to as the fourth wave of black athlete activism. Originally, this silent protest only involved a handful of other NFL players such as Kaepernick’s former teammates, Eric Reid and Eli Harold, or Michael Bennett of the Seattle Seahawks. Kneeling as a form of silent protest, however, would continue to spread across sports.

Throughout various sports and across different levels of sport participation, black athletes (both male and female) began to take a knee to bring awareness to the unjustified treatment of Americans of color, particularly black Americans that were murdered while the police officers responsible often received paid administrative leave. Players in the WNBA have consistently been at the forefront of protests for racial justice in recent years. Bruce Maxwell has become the first Major League Baseball (MLB) player to kneel during the national anthem. Raianna Brown, a dancer/cheerleader at the Georgia Tech, recently knelt during the national anthem. High school athletes across sports have knelt during the national anthem. Even youth teams across sport have taken to the protest of taking a knee.

Creating what many are referring to as “the Kaepernick effect,” the gesture of kneeling in sports has become a movement in itself. And for those who have boldly taken the knee, the message has remained clear. Even as entire NFL franchises have come forward in support of player protests during the national anthem, the message has not changed. Take this statement from the players of the Seattle Seahawks before their game on Sunday for example:

The current protests by players in the NFL have been about and continue to be about “the injustice that has plagued people of color in this country.” In fact, contrary to many claims of these protests disrespecting the US flag or the military, the Seahawks players’ statement emphasizes honoring the country and the sacrifices that have been made in the name of equality and justice for all.

Following his firsthand experience with excessive force used by the Las Vegas Police Department on the night of the Mayweather/McGregor boxing match, Seahawks defensive lineman Michael Bennett clearly stated that this kind of conduct by police is precisely why he kneels during the national anthem before every game. Note how Bennett says nothing in his statement about the US flag, the US military, or any other nationalistic form of politics in his statement. The protest has always been about how communities of color are policed and the devaluing of black and brown lives in the criminal (in)justice system. When Trump lashed out at NFL players who were protesting, he wasn’t defending the flag, military veterans, or patriotism – he was racially targeting US citizens who have bravely spoken up and out against a racist system.

Protesting Today

In recent years, athletes across sport leagues have consistently protested the systemic devaluing of black and brown lives by the judicial system. But following Trump’s comments about protesting (black) athletes needing to be fired and required to stand for the national anthem, NFL players responded. In a league-wide statement of unity amongst each other, NFL players sent a message. Across the league, players (and some coaches, staff, and administrators) either kneeled during the national anthem, locked arms with one another, raised their fist in solidarity, or refused to come out onto the field altogether during the anthem. And players such as Miami Dolphins safety Michael Thomas made it clear what message they were trying to send. In an interview on CNN, Thomas stated the following:

“[The protest] is about race,” he said adding that the players are fighting for “inequalities in our communities… It’s not about just us. It wasn’t about Kaepernick himself. It wasn’t about, you know, the athletes who chose to take a knee themselves,” Thomas said. “We’re speaking for everybody that’s come from the communities we’ve lived in and my family and friends still live in.”

This is in stark contrast to Trump claiming on Sunday that he

never said anything about race. This has nothing to do with race or anything else. This has to do with respect for our country and respect for our flag.

But race and racism is what taking a knee is all about. The policing of communities of color, the mistreatment of black and brown people by police, and the criminal lack of justice for these communities is what taking a knee is all about. Attempts to repackage the politics of white racism under the umbrella of “patriotism” serves to mask these issues while maintaining systemic racism.

The mainstream media have played a significant role in perpetuating this a-critical discourse that dilutes the very core of the message courageous individuals like Colin Kaepernick and others are trying to send. This has potentially created confusion amongst viewers that can be detrimental to the purpose of kneeling. In turn, current players like Eric Reid who was the first to kneel alongside Kaepernick are speaking out to reclaim their narratives and clarify the essence of their protest. In a recent New York Times opinion piece Reid shares his personal insight reflecting on the time dedicated to making the very informed and educated decision to stand up for his and others’ rights and to kneel during the national anthem in what he felt was the utmost respectable way.

What’s Patriotism Got to Do with It?

In 2016, Colin Kaepernick stated the following: “There’s a lot of racism disguised as patriotism in this country… but it needs to be addressed.” Over the course of the protests undertaken by predominantly black athletes and with the help from mainstream media outlets, many whites have sought to paint or label the protests as some sort of unpatriotic display that disrespects the US and its military. For whites, this isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. White Americans have long used “patriotism” as a proxy for white nationalism dating back to the Founding Fathers’ invocation of the “common cause” of white patriotism. Contemporarily, white nationalist groups such as the Christian Patriots Defense League have risen to prominence under this same banner of the patriot cause.

But for Americans of color, and particularly black Americans, the patriotic ideals of liberty and justice for all have historically been taken seriously. For instance, as W. E. B. Du Bois discussed in The Gift of Black Folk, the ideological challenge to the white-defined ideals of freedom and justice through the political struggles for equality by black Americans has helped significantly to push the US towards being a more democratic nation for all. This is true throughout US history as well as in today’s context. The Seattle Seahawks players’ statement referred to above embodies this challenge to the notions of equality and justice for all while simultaneously honoring those that have fought for these freedoms.

The language of white racism today is often masked by claims to patriotism. But when US President Trump referred to neo-Nazis marching in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia as “very fine people” and black NFL athletes as unpatriotic “sons of a bitches,” NFL players were explicitly put in a position where they had to decide between standing for justice and supporting white supremacy. A US president – or anyone for that matter – that espouses this kind of rhetoric has no claim to patriotism; they are a white supremacist. The real patriots in this scenario are those that have (and continue to) courageously use their social platforms to bring critical issues to the forefront in the quest to make liberty, justice, and democracy a reality for all. Real patriots stand alongside one another and against systemic forms of oppression such as police brutality. Real patriots #TakeTheKnee.

 

 

Anthony J. Weems is a doctoral student in Sport Management at Texas A&M University working under Dr. John N. Singer. His research focuses on issues of race, power, and politics in and through the sport organizational setting.

Kristi F. Oshiro is a Sport Management Ph.D. student at Texas A&M University working with Advisor Dr. John N. Singer. Her research interests include diversity and inclusion in sport with a focus on the intersection of race and gender, culture, and the lived experiences of ethnic minority groups and marginalized populations from a critical perspective.

Dr. John N. Singer (Ph.D., The Ohio State University) is an Associate Professor of Sport Management at Texas A&M University. His research interests primarily focus on a) intersections between race, sport, and education, with a keen focus on complex and contextual realities Black males face as primary stakeholders in organized school sport; and b) diversity and social justice matters in sporting institutions and organizations, with an emphasis on the experiences and plight of historically underrepresented and marginalized groups.