Racializing DNA: How People Interpret their Ancestry Tests

[Note: The authors of this post are Amina Zarrugh, Luis A. Romero, and Paige Buell]

DNA testing related to ancestry has become very popular in the United States, with roughly 1 in 7 Americans utilizing a mail-in DNA service according to survey data collected by the Pew Research Center in 2019 . Leading companies in this industry, such as AncestryDNA and 23andMe, report upwards of 18 million and 12 million DNA customers, respectively, around the world with combined revenue of billions of dollars. The social impact of ancestry DNA testing varies widely but, in the Pew Research Center survey, approximately 40 percent of users express “surprise” about their results and, for some, the results change how they choose to identify themselves racially and ethnically.

Scholars of race have recognized the growing significance and pitfalls of ancestry DNA testing. Namely, scholars emphasize how the categories of ancestry used by scientists are themselves socially constructed, as the work of Kim TallBear emphasizes in the case of Native and Indigenous peoples: “Native American DNA could not have emerged as an object of scientific research and genealogical desire until individuals and groups emerged as ‘Native American’ in the course of colonial history. Without ‘settlers,’ we could not have ‘Indians’ or ‘Native Americans’—a pan-racial group defined strictly in opposition to the settlers who encountered them” (p. 5). Alondra Nelson voices reservations in her book about the emancipatory potentials of DNA testing because it can be revered in ways that supplant and diminish non-genetic narratives and histories. From these perspectives, it is clear that DNA indicators of particular ancestries are themselves products of social decisions and take on new social meanings in public life and discourse.

Following in the footsteps of this scholarship, we are interested in how DNA ancestry testing results are discussed and interpreted within the public sphere. In our study of how ancestry tests are mediated on YouTube, we observe a tendency for consumers of ancestry testing to simplify and conflate ancestry with race and ethnicity. This can, in part, be attributed to the very structure of the tests themselves; AncestryDNA reports results as “ethnicity estimates” or sometimes refers to the product more generally as uncovering one’s “genetic ethnicity.” Ancestry, ethnicity, and genetics, from this perspective, are interchangeable.

For example, a man named Anthony, who self-identifies as mixed race and anticipates that he will have a share of African, European, and Native American ancestry, summarizes his results as follows:

“So the results I got is that I’m 55 percent European. Um, I was really psyched about that. I knew I have white in me but I didn’t know it would be, like, that overpowering. Like mostly white…. I wasn’t, like, overly shocked – I guess – because I know my mom has got some white in her.”

By regarding ancestry in Europe as synonymous with being white (race), as Charles does, individuals effectively “biologize” race and ethnicity. In doing so, DNA test users extend this “racialization of ancestry” by conflating behavioral traits or tastes to particular racial and ethnic groups. For instance, a woman who reflects upon what she considers to be a relatively large share of Italian and Greek ancestry says:

So that definitely explains, you know, my whole life. Why I grew up eating pasta [holds up a bag of dry pasta], pizza, and watching Godfather-type movies and the Sopranos. So I am over a third Italian and Greek.

In this example, the woman’s existing social behaviors, including her enjoyment of Italian food and popular media that feature Italians in stereotyped roles, is explained biologically through a DNA test that identifies ancestral connections to Italy. These kinds of claims made in narrations of ancestry test results illustrate how seamlessly people connect biological information and social and cultural practices that have little to do with DNA or biological inheritance.

Our analysis of YouTube videos also showed that those who take ancestry DNA tests often expect the results to either fortify or potentially change how they perceive their own identity. In light of her ancestry results, a woman named Linda began questioning her identity, saying “I’ve been raised for 34 years now being black, but my tests reveal that I’m biracial.” In processing her results, she exhibits a tendency among consumers of DNA technology to feel compelled to adopt and incorporate their results as their own, even if it changes their previous identity perceptions. For example, in another video, a man named Langston says, “I’ve always wondered “what am I?” … “am I fully black?” … its good to know what you are.” The ancestry results, from the perspectives of people processing them, showcased people’s desire to find ‘proof,’ in this case through their ancestry results expressed quantitatively, to give them answers to ‘who’ they are and as ‘what’ they ought identify themselves.

This process, however, is uneven as some consumers emphasize certain ancestries over others, a finding that aligns with Roth and Ivemark’s (2018) notion of “genetic options theory,” which emphasizes that consumers of DNA testing technologies do not accept wholesale the results of their genetic testing but make selections about what to emphasize in their results. For example, Dani, who identifies as biracial, describes how she feels ambivalent about certain ancestries because they represent, in the results, a small proportion of her overall ancestry composition:

I got three percent Russia, one percent Scandinavia, and less than one percent European Jewish. And, um, all these are really small so I don’t let me take them seriously… But I mean, I’m not even really sure I really am that, especially since it’s less than one percent. That is so small …. I don’t really take the percents [sic] that are less than like ten or eight very seriously because it’s really down the line.

Beyond Dani’s case, we find that many people doubt “small percentages” but are more inclined to doubt them when they are from certain regions of the world, like the Middle East, that are stigmatized in American culture. In contrast, people may exalt small percentages of ancestries in Europe, as many consumers do with Scandinavia. We find, thus, that while consumers of DNA testing may weigh their “options,” many are inclined to do so in racialized ways, venerating ancestries that they regard as “desirable” or that are perceived as “cool” – even if they aren’t a large share of their results – and minimizing the relevance of ancestries that may be stigmatized or marginalized in society.

While ancestry DNA testing is widely marketed by companies such as AncestryDNA and 23andMe as offering consumers a way to connect to a broader humanity through their own individual ancestry, it is clear that this technology also offers the possibility of reducing the complexity and diversity of human experience. By promoting DNA as the authoritative and scientific way to identify ancestry (or, in the case of AncestryDNA, your “genetic ethnicity”), users seldom critically question the limitations of this field and erroneously conclude that ancestry is synonymous with race and ethnicity. An important consequence is that ancestry DNA testing, as popularly understood, can reify to the public race and ethnicity as biological categories rather than as social constructions. In the process, such testing risks reinforcing biological notions of race and racial stereotypes that scholars and activists have worked to debunk for the last several decades.

Note: All names have been changed to pseudonyms to provide anonymity to individuals quoted here.


Amina Zarrugh is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Texas Christian University. Her research focuses on politics and forced disappearance in North Africa and race/ethnicity in the U.S. Her work has appeared in journals such as Ethnic and Racial Studies, Critical Sociology, Middle East Critique, Teaching Sociology, and Contexts, among others. She completed her BA in sociology and government and her MA and PhD in sociology at the University of Texas at Austin.

Luis A. Romero is an Assistant Professor of Comparative Race and Ethnic Studies at Texas Christian University. He researches immigration enforcement, such as immigration detention, crimmigration, race/racialization/racism, and Latina/o/x Studies in the United States. His work has appeared in journals such as Ethnic and Racial Studies, Humanity & Society, and Journal on Migration and Human Security, American Behavioral Scientist, and Contexts, among others. He completed his BA in sociology at Texas A&M University and his MA and PhD in sociology at the University of Texas at Austin.

Paige Buell completed her BA in anthropology and political science at Texas Christian University. Her research interests center on migration and she has worked as a case manager for Refugee Services of Texas. In 2020, she was awarded the Andrew Miracle Paper Award from the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at TCU for her research entitled, “Gang Violence and Migration from Honduras.”

“Good White” Liberals and “Bad” Black Radicals: Conflicting Views

Working within a white liberal frame is not only frustrating for progressive African Americans who speak out honestly and forcefully about racism and other forms of social oppression: it often entails vilification that, in addition to being toxic to our mental and physical well-being, is actually hostile to our very existence.

I have dealt with this type of racial madness for the more than four decades I have worked within predominantly “white” academia where I am “tolerated” only when my politics do not venture beyond conflict-aversive, white liberalism. It seems like mission impossible for most of my colleagues to understand that although our politics and methods overlap at times in ways that allow us to work together on social justice issues we care about; the life experiences and standpoints of “white” liberals and radical African Americans are in important ways diametrically opposed. Indeed, “white” liberals often chose to not see politics at all, but instead to imagine themselves as being somehow apolitical, kind, and caring people, in contrast to the unruly African Americans they discount as unkind, reckless, and dangerous. In brief, the black demonic opposite of their white sainthood. I recall getting angry at a department meeting when a colleague pompously bragged about being an especially “tolerant” person and I wondered, who is it that he thinks is so despicable that, at best, all they might expect from him is to be tolerated.

Epistemologically, my experiences with racially paternalistic “white” colleagues are emblematic of what I have dubbed the IPA Syndrome, that so often plagues members of socially dominant groups; the Ignorance of not knowing, the Privilege of not needing to know, and the Arrogance of not wanting to know.

Now assuming that some of you who are reading this essay really want to know what divides “white” liberals and radical African Americans in terms of our politics, moral philosophy, and overall worldview, here is an expansion of something I wrote some time ago to outline my views on the conflicting orientations to social justice of members of the liberal/dominant group and those who experience a radical/oppressed viewpoint.


While socially-dominant liberals want to open the system up a bit, which they assume otherwise works just fine, so that it is inclusive of those currently excluded–the creation of a kind of Noah’s Ark, two of everything, diversity zoo–those who experience things from a radically-oppressed standpoint work assiduously to dismantle oppressive systems. For example, a liberal-social-science response to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II would have been to send in a team of researchers to make sure that the internees received proper food, clothing, health care, heat, light, and ventilation; while those taking a radical perspective might have conspired to destroy the camps and free their prisoners.                                                  


The liberal/dominant group member solution to social oppression is to make “reasonable,” facts-based arguments, to convince other members of the socially dominant group that certain ameliorative reforms are the right, the reasonable, and the rational thing to do to alleviate some of the suffering of the oppressed and to ultimately fix whatever is broken in a system which, again, is assumed to, otherwise, work just fine. In contrast, the radical oppressed change strategy begins with the recognition that both the cause and the solution to oppression is power. Therefore, meaningful change entails going way beyond being “nice,” “civil,” and accommodating. It, instead, requires, as the African American social protest slogan so aptly puts it, “No justice, no peace!” confrontations that forcefully remove the foot of oppression off our necks.                                                                   

View of Self

Liberal members of socially dominant groups tend to see themselves as caring people who strive to be inclusive and tolerant of others; while those who take a radically oppressed perspective view themselves a committed, lifelong, warriors against social oppression.                                                          

View of Oppressors

Liberals who are not socially oppressed tend to see social oppressors as merely ignorant people who simply do not know any better and who need to be educated and reasoned with; while a radically oppressed viewpoint views them as people who must be challenged politically and forced to change.

View of the Oppressed

Socially privileged liberals view the oppressed as social “others” to be tolerated and helped. [Note: Such “tolerance” is not extended, however, to those who operate outside of the liberal worldview. At best such a person is deemed as not being very “nice” as the social-tolerance rubber band of liberalism either breaks or violently snaps back.] All too often those who do not go along with their program are perceived as being an “immoral” and “unethical” demagogues. In contrast, oppressed radicals view themselves and others as allies in a never-ending struggle against social oppression.                                          

Position Within the Social Structure

While the position of liberals from socially dominant groups is relatively secure and privileged,oppressed radicals live lives that are insecure and subject to constant threats and traumas, as we struggle not only to be free, but to simply stay alive.  

Ideological Worldview

Finally, while members of socially dominant groups embrace a political and social liberalism  and diversity-framed, multi-culturalism that accepts the social system as good and worthy of protecting through making need tweaks here and there, as needed, those who hold a radical oppressed view will be satisfied with nothing less than fundamental systemic change.

As you can see these are real and serious differences; ones that must be understood and overcome when working as allies, and that must be accepted for what they are when working together is not possible, that is as genuine political disagreements that must be respected, without denigration or name calling.

Noel A. Cazenave (https://sociology.uconn.edu/person/noel-cazenave/)is Professor of Sociology at the University of Connecticut. He is currently writing a book titled, Kindness Wars: The History and Political Economy of Human Caring.    

Activation of the White Army

Over the course of embracing of Feagin and Ducey’s concept of the elite-white-male (EWM) dominance system, I have often found myself asking the following question: Where does white nationalism fit into the broader EWM dominance system? In this blog post, I argue that white nationalism was/is the foundational cultural capital through which the EWM politics are mobilized. When the EWM dominance system is threatened, particularly through the perpetual quest for liberation and justice by Black Americans, non-elite whites tend to polarize to often violent forms of white nationalism.

As I argue, this racial polarization is not an accident – it is a core function of the US and the maintenance of the EWM colonial-imperial homeostasis. Here, I am largely referring to the non-elite form of nationalism, as it often differs from elite imperialism. Elite invocations of white nationalist and supremacist views are tied to their own imperial desires; non-elites’ embracing of white nationalism is a support structure.

Manufacturing the “Common Cause”

Even before the “formal” founding of the US, the EWM (often referred to as the “Founding Fathers,” or the original patriots) sought to actively racialize the government in support of their own interests. In fact, many of their interests were already dependent upon white racism – be it through the economic system of slavery, segregated educational systems, support for white colonial expansion, supremacist beliefs of white civilization, and much else. In various editions of Racist America, Joe Feagin has poignantly showed just how foundational white racism is to the formation of the new nation of the US. As Feagin has noted, the Constitutional Convention

was not just a political gathering with the purpose of creating a new bourgeois-democratic government; it was also a meeting to protect the racial and economic interests of [white] men with substantial wealth in the colonies (p. 3).

By 1787, at least 7 sections of the Constitution dealt with slavery from the perspective of the ruling elite. Indeed the US is a “house founded on racism” but the racial framing of the white public had already been taking place before the Constitutional Convention.

As fleshed out in depth by Robert Parkinson in his book The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution, the “Founding Fathers” were able to effectively manufacture and intertwine white racism into the elite’s goals of revolting against the British. Before and during the American Revolution, the elite framers of the soon-to-be new nation had already began reinforcing and legitimating “a system of racial oppression that they thought would ensure that whites, especially men of means, would rule for centuries” (Feagin, 2014, p. 6). As the private infiltration of the public sphere had already formally began during this time, the Founding Fathers and their white male acolytes effectively used the tools of the press to manufacture and mobilize white racist fears in an effort to unify American colonists around a new national/racial identity to revolt against the British. Parkinson noted how

The founding fathers also were not shy about fabricating a story. In 1782, Benjamin Franklin – concerned about a potential reconciliation with Britain – reported that American forces had discovered packages containing the scalps of women and children taken by Seneca Indians. Franklin then wrote a fake letter from naval great John Paul Jones urging the importance of independence because the king “engages savages to murder their defenseless farmers, women and children.

Men such as Benjamin Franklin were key actors in manufacturing and distributing white lies in order to mobilize a new nationalist public to move against the British. Thus, white racism/nationalism are foundational to the formation of the U.S. It is no coincidence that the U.S. National Anthem plays off of these same white fears of rebellious slaves defecting to British lines in an effort to continue manufacturing white nationalist solidarity.

Transformation of the public sphere            

Throughout the course of the 18th century, and particularly on into the 19th century, the new American public sphere was being substantially shaped by EWM with private interests. The initial formation of the white nationalist “patriot” narrative, already being propagated through various elite-run media outlets, was beginning to shape a new middle-and-lower class culture of white nationalism. Sociologist Jurgen Habermas broadly referred to this transition as going from a culture-debating public to a culture-consuming public. The new culture to be consumed, as directed by elite framers, was a culture of white nationalism.

The Cultural/Institutional Politics of Racism            

As EWM with increasingly private interests capitalistically responded to the new “public” adoption of white cultural nationalism, the politics of white nationalism (which are significantly built upon racist, sexist, and classist programs) became embedded within social, economic, and cultural institutions – especially institutions of opinion control. A key factor in accomplishing and legitimizing this feat was what W.E.B. Du Bois referred to as the public and psychological wage of whiteness. This wage of whiteness was a capitalistic reinvigoration of the “common cause” of patriotism in order to unite non-elite whites and manufacture buy-in for the EWM colonial power of the US. As Feagin stated, “the elite-crafted social and ideological arrangements that deflected white workers’ class consciousness were threatened” (p. 25) by the new freedoms and rights obtained by black Americans over the course of the 19th century. During these threatening times, and particularly with the “white flight” from the public arena to private arenas during this era, EWM politics of domination became further entrenched within the institutions of opinion control. Sport is one such sociocultural institution that emerged from and was framed by the private politics of the EWM in order to collectively rally and celebrate both elite and non-elite white men.

Sport and the Neo-Common Cause            

Characteristic of the visceral nature of coloniality, colonial powers seek to re-articulate their elite politics through affective mediums according to Achille Mbembe – a more refined, mechanistic postulation than Habermas’s discussion on the role of “institutions of opinion control.” Perhaps one of the furthest-reaching, affective institutions in the US is the sport industry. It is within the sporting realm that elite politics have been strategically embedded to better control the American “public.” As my colleagues and I have shown elsewhere, various sports and sporting entities emerged from the mid-to-late 1800s as a response to the manufactured needs of white masculinity amidst the dissembling of chattel slavery, black political progress, women’s suffrage movements, and more. The re-definition of white American masculinity during this time became the cultural and ideological framework upon which the “modern” sport industry was built. Especially as the development of capitalism spurred the industrial growth of sport entities, the politics of racism, sexism, and nationalism became deeply entrenched in the already white-masculine-framed institution.            

Today, sport often operates as the ideal institutional representation of American meritocracy. For instance, take this quote from an NFL executive speaking on why Colin Kaepernick is not currently playing for an NFL team:

There’s been a lot of noise about this, obviously. But at the end of the day, we’re part of the ultimate meritocracy. So if someone feels like this guy can help win games, he’ll be in the league.

In this instance, the white-framed narrative of meritocracy is explicitly invoked to rationalize the social lynching of Colin Kaepernick. Indeed, this meritocratic view of sport is part of what sociologist of sport Jay Coakley refers to as the “great sport myth.” Not only is sport not a meritocratic structure, but it has taken on the elite’s politics of oppression, systemic domination, and the rationalization of such. Sport is a uniquely affective space through which hegemonic politics become augmented and rationalized.

For example, let us look at a contemporary reinvigoration of the foundational “common cause” of white nationalism in the NFL: the New England Patriots. Along with a team mascot branding that romantically re-tells the white-framed patriot narrative and being the most successful NFL franchise on the field since the year 2000 (note the discursive importance of the patriot narrative in the mainstream media post-9/11), the trio of Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and Robert Kraft have themselves become cultural symbols of white nationalism. As of July 19, 2017, Tom Brady’s jersey was the number one selling NFL jersey in the states of Alabama, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, Arkansas, Florida, and Virginia. It is no coincidence then when Donald Trump would refer to Tom Brady’s “innocence” during the 2016 Presidential race while Brady was being investigated for cheating.

Trump has a friendship with Brady that extends back to 2002 just after the Patriots won their first Super Bowl. Brady himself kept a “Make America Great Again” hat in his football locker during the presidential campaign. Trump’s mobilization of his relationship with Brady and Brady’s status particularly among conservative white men demonstrates one of the contemporary ties of white cultural nationalism with EWM politics. Again, this is no coincidence. The US “public sphere” has been designed to enable the mobilization of white nationalisms for this very purpose.

Conclusion: The White Army Persists

In the US, when the EWM dominance system is threatened by resistance (e.g., anti-racist protests, critical public consciousness) or needs to exert control over its subjects, elite politics that have now shaped the middle and lower classes of white Americans necessitate a nationalistic response. Structurally, I refer to this as the activation of the “white army.” Violent white nationalism is never limited to an “incident.” There are no accidents involving white nationalism. This is because white nationalism is not an ephemeral phenomenon. Indeed, it is central to the foundation of the US and the stimulation and activation of a white nationalism is what racist America is designed to do. It is the lifeblood by which EWM coloniality rules its own nation as well as how it legitimizes its imperial conquests around the globe. White cultural nationalism re-centers supremacist politics, including support for racial-colonial projects such as neoliberalism, and actively terrorizes non-white communities. In doing so, the EWM become better positioned to mobilize and exert control over their own white people. As we continue to witness increased racial violence by neo-nationalists and other “well-meaning” whites, we are reminded of a sobering reality: the U.S. depends on white violence to function as a colonial power.

Dr. Anthony Weems is an assistant professor of sport management at Western Carolina University. His teaching and research interests revolve around social, ethical, and legal aspects of sport with a particular focus on race, leadership, and policy development.

Vaccine Trials: “BIPOC do not Want to be Pawns for Medical Advancement”

Increased numbers in Covid-19 continue to paralyze the world. Peoples’ hope is that a vaccine will soon be the solution. However, before this happens, we need to be scrutinizing the methods of how we arrived at the vaccine. As more global conversation is taking place around the systemic global oppression of Black and brown people, the medical establishment has been called out. Colonialism did not part ways with medical research and there are hundreds of years of unethical research and trials that have harmed colonized subjects. Although the Tuskegee Syphilis Studies are well known known for their ruthless testing and withholding of information to Black male patients, the consequences of that has not been repaid.

How many studies are we not aware of that unethically and brutally experimented (and without the consent) on Black bodies? Is it happening now? In a rush to produce the vaccine against Covid-19, clinical trails are hitting different phases. From the different information you can find, the United States is in Phase 3 for clinical trials. You can read up on the company that is developing the vaccine, but you do not find information on who exactly is being tested. The reality is that white supremacy has severely invaded the medical field. Not only is healthcare access poor for Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities, but the treatment offered is subpar and groups of color have higher rates of mortality while in care. Additionally, medical education very much continues to sit on the model of the white male patient, making medical advances irrelevant, useless, and even dangerous.

It is then no surprise that white doctors can so naturally suggest places like Africa to do mass testing because of their little regard for Black lives. When it comes to vaccines, testing grounds have been places where testing companies can save costs, yield favorable results, and not be liable.

In her book Adverse Events, sociologist Jill A. Fisher gives detailed accounts into the way testing sites are run. Dr. Fisher discusses some of the conditions that includes subjects being very private, facilities varying in treatment, and overworked staff. She adds that subjects find shame volunteering for these clinical trials. It is imperative to note that those individuals that have consented to more than a handful of trials are all Black. This is no coincidence and shows how medical advancement prospers at the expense of Black people. We need to be wary of how these vaccines are being tested. What liability waivers did the subjects receive and what are the conditions for these facilities? These are legitimate questions and it should be important to look out after the most vulnerable communities. After a vaccine is released, will Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities be given access to these vaccines or where they just used “for the good of science”?  

Frederick Douglass: The “Meaning of July 4th” for African Americans

On this Independence day it is well to remember yet again a probing and candid speech, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” given by the formerly enslaved and probably greatest 19th century (male) American, Frederick Douglass, at Rochester, New York, on July 5, 1852, at the peak of North America slavery (indeed, about 230 years into that era).   Frederick_Douglass_c1860s In this era Black Americans were usually not allowed at 4th of July celebrations in the slaveholding South, apparently because many slaveholders feared that they might get an idea of freedom from such events (as if they did not already have such an idea!). Also, Black residents were often discouraged from attending such festivities in the North.

It is in this very dangerous and hostile national racial climate that the great Douglass–increasingly, a leading intellectual of his day and the first Black American to receive a roll-call vote for US President (later on, at the 1888 Republican national convention)–was asked by leading citizens of Rochester to give an address at their Fourth of July celebrations. He gave them this stinging indictment of racial oppression:

Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men, too-great enough to give frame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory. [But later adds:]

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy-a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour. Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival. Take the American slave-trade, which we are told by the papers, is especially prosperous just now. Ex-Senator Benton tells us that the price of men was never higher than now. He mentions the fact to show that slavery is in no danger. This trade is one of the peculiarities of American institutions. It is carried on in all the large towns and cities in one-half of this confederacy; and millions are pocketed every year by dealers in this horrid traffic. In several states this trade is a chief source of wealth. It is called (in contradistinction to the foreign slave-trade) “the internal slave-trade.” It is, probably, called so, too, in order to divert from it the horror with which the foreign slave-trade is contemplated. That trade has long since been denounced by this government as piracy. It has been denounced with burning words from the high places of the nation as an execrable traffic. To arrest it, to put an end to it, this nation keeps a squadron, at immense cost, on the coast of Africa. Everywhere, in this country, it is safe to speak of this foreign slave-trade as a most inhuman traffic, opposed alike to the Jaws of God and of man. The duty to extirpate and destroy it, is admitted even by our doctors of divinity. In order to put an end to it, some of these last have consented that their colored brethren (nominally free) should leave this country, and establish them selves on the western coast of Africa! It is, however, a notable fact that, while so much execration is poured out by Americans upon all those engaged in the foreign slave-trade, the men engaged in the slave-trade between the states pass with out condemnation, and their business is deemed honorable. Behold the practical operation of this internal slave-trade, the American slave-trade, sustained by American politics and American religion. Here you will see men and women reared like swine for the market. You know what is a swine-drover? I will show you a man-drover. They inhabit all our Southern States. They perambulate the country, and crowd the highways of the nation, with droves of human stock. You will see one of these human flesh jobbers, armed with pistol, whip, and bowie-knife, driving a company of a hundred men, women, and children, from the Potomac to the slave market at New Orleans. These wretched people are to be sold singly, or in lots, to suit purchasers. They are food for the cotton-field and the deadly sugar-mill. Mark the sad procession, as it moves wearily along, and the inhuman wretch who drives them. Hear his savage yells and his blood-curdling oaths, as he hurries on his affrighted captives! There, see the old man with locks thinned and gray. Cast one glance, if you please, upon that young mother, whose shoulders are bare to the scorching sun, her briny tears falling on the brow of the babe in her arms. See, too, that girl of thirteen, weeping, yes! weeping, as she thinks of the mother from whom she has been torn! The drove moves tardily. Heat and sorrow have nearly consumed their strength; suddenly you hear a quick snap, like the discharge of a rifle; the fetters clank, and the chain rattles simultaneously; your ears are saluted with a scream, that seems to have torn its way to the centre of your soul The crack you heard was the sound of the slave-whip; the scream you heard was from the woman you saw with the babe. Her speed had faltered under the weight of her child and her chains! that gash on her shoulder tells her to move on. Follow this drove to New Orleans. Attend the auction; see men examined like horses; see the forms of women rudely and brutally exposed to the shocking gaze of American slave-buyers. See this drove sold and separated forever; and never forget the deep, sad sobs that arose from that scattered multitude. Tell me, citizens, where, under the sun, you can witness a spectacle more fiendish and shocking. Yet this is but a glance at the American slave-trade, as it exists, at this moment, in the ruling part of the United States.

[And then concludes with this:] Americans! your republican politics, not less than your republican religion, are flagrantly inconsistent. You boast of your love of liberty, your superior civilization, and your pure Christianity, while the whole political power of the nation (as embodied in the two great political parties) is solemnly pledged to support and perpetuate the enslavement of three millions of your countrymen. You hurl your anathemas at the crowned headed tyrants of Russia and Austria and pride yourselves on your Democratic institutions, while you yourselves consent to be the mere tools and body-guards of the tyrants of Virginia and Carolina. You invite to your shores fugitives of oppression from abroad, honor them with banquets, greet them with ovations, cheer them, toast them, salute them, protect them, and pour out your money to them like water; but the fugitives from oppression in your own land you advertise, hunt, arrest, shoot, and kill. The far off and almost fabulous Pacific rolls in grandeur at our feet. The Celestial Empire, the mystery of ages, is being solved. The fiat of the Almighty, “Let there be Light,” has not yet spent its force. No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light. The iron shoe, and crippled foot of China must be seen in contrast with nature. Africa must rise and put on her yet unwoven garment. “Ethiopia shall stretch out her hand unto God.” In the fervent aspirations of William Lloyd Garrison, I say, and let every heart join in saying it: God speed the year of jubilee The wide world o’er! When from their galling chains set free, Th’ oppress’d shall vilely bend the knee, And wear the yoke of tyranny Like brutes no more. That year will come, and freedom’s reign. To man his plundered rights again Restore.

Sadly, our system of racial oppression still persists, even as most white Americans are in denial about its deep and foundational reality. Yet, there remain many people like Frederick Douglass today who still fight to remove this “yoke of tyranny” from us all. May they flourish and prosper. We should remember those now and from the past who fought racism most on this day to celebrate freedom. Some forty-two years later, in the last speech (“Lessons of the Hour”) he gave before his death—at an AME Church in DC, on January 9th, 1894—Douglass made these comments as he watched southern and border states hurtle toward bloody Jim Crow segregation, the new neo-slavery system:

We claim to be a Christian country and a highly civilized nation, yet, I fearlessly affirm that there is nothing in the history of savages to surpass the blood chilling horrors and fiendish excesses perpetrated against the colored people by the so-called enlightened and Christian people of the South. It is commonly thought that only the lowest and most disgusting birds and beasts, such as buzzards, vultures and hyenas, will gloat over and prey dead bodies, but the Southern mob in its rage feeds its vengeance by shooting, stabbing and burning when their victims are dead. I repeat, and my contention is, that this “Negro problem” formula lays the fault at the door of the Negro, and removes it from the door of the white man, shields the guilty, and blames the innocent. Makes the Negro responsible and not the nation….. Now the real problem is, and ought to be regarded by the American people, a great national problem. It involves the question, whether, after all, with our Declaration of Independence, with our glorious free constitution, whether with our sublime Christianity, there is enough of national virtue in this great nation to solve this problem, in accordance with wisdom and justice. He concluded thus, his very last words ever spoken in public: But could I be heard by this great nation, I would call to to mind the sublime and glorious truths with which, at its birth, it saluted a listening world. Its voice then, was as the tramp of an archangel, summoning hoary forms of oppression and time honored tyranny, to judgment. Crowned heads heard it and shrieked. Toiling millions heard it and clapped their hands for joy. It announced the advent of a nation, based upon human brotherhood and the self-evident truths of liberty and equality. Its mission was the redemption of the world from the bondage of ages. Apply these sublime and glorious truths to the situation now before you. Put away your race prejudice. Banish the idea that one class must rule over another. Recognize the fact that the rights of the humblest citizen are as worthy of protection as are those of the highest, and your problem will be solved; and, whatever may be in store for it in the future, whether prosperity, or adversity; whether it shall have foes without, or foes within, whether there shall be peace, or war; based upon the eternal principles of truth, justice and humanity, and with no class having any cause of compliant or grievance, your Republic will stand and flourish forever.

Corporate #BlackLivesMatter Statements: Never Solidarity

“If we are going to talk about the total liberation of Black people, we first have to liberate ourselves from the material conditions of our oppression… [to] seize the wealth from all the giant corporations that exploit and control the lives of all working people, but particularly Black people.” (Dr. Angela Davis)

When Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Khan-Cullors started #BlackLivesMatter in 2013, the movement faced widespread, bipartisan backlash. Conservatives called it a terrorist organization that encouraged violence against police. Liberals scolded activists for “yelling” instead of compromising. Corporations treated Black Lives Matter as a third rail—too charged to touch. Uprisings against police murders of Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and George Floyd have brought the movement back into the news. Yet something is different: Corporations are responding to protests by publishing statements of “solidarity” (see here for a list). This may feel like progress, and in some ways it is—thanks to decades upon decades of activist organizing, especially by Black queer and transgender women, Americans are being forced to acknowledge the racism of the U.S. criminal punishment system.   However, as critics have been quick to point out, these are still corporations. Rising public support for Black Lives Matter has made it less risky and more rewarding for brands to hop on the bandwagon, which is why we are now hearing “Gushers wouldn’t be Gushers without the Black community,” whatever that means. Quite transparently, many of these statements only exist because someone in the marketing department saw a branding opportunity. For example, Google posted, “We stand in support of racial equality, and all those search for it,” because—get it?!—Google is a search engine. L’Oréal, which in 2017 fired a Black transgender model for speaking out about racism, posted “speaking out is worth it,” a play on its own slogan “because you’re worth it.” The bidet company Tushy quipped, “We got your back(side).”

Obviously this is not solidarity. Still, some commentators insist there is a “right way” for corporations to be in solidarity with Black Lives Matter—by tinkering with their language, or making bigger donations, or incorporating Black executives into the C-suite. But the truth is that corporations can never be in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, because their existence depends on exploiting Black workers. There are no “good corporations” in a global system of racial capitalism. There are only oppressors. And these statements—even “the good ones”—are nothing but a meaningless performance meant to distract us from that reality.   Consider The North Face’s statement, which says “Stop Racism. Stop Brutality.” Just “racism” and “brutality,” forces with apparently no agents, victims, or beneficiaries. This was not an oversight. It was a choice. The North Face could have named specific problems (antiblack racism) or implicated specific offenders (the police). Instead, they weighed the costs and benefits and decided to walk the tightrope, throwing a nod to justice-seeking consumers while accommodating the widest possible spectrum of political views. No corporate board would judge it wise to declare support for “racism” or “brutality.” So does it signify much to say otherwise?

Or look at Disney’s statement, which recycles a potpourri of vague, euphemistic language meant to appear courageous while, again, saying nothing of substance. Disney “stands against” racism, but whose? Where does this racism live? Does it live at Disney? (Yes, yes, and yes) What practices, processes, and ideologies are encompassed in Disney’s definition of racism? What does “inclusion,” a beloved corporate buzzword, have to do with racist state violence? And all this is to say nothing of the biggest elephant in the room: Where, in this statement, are the police? In fact, practically none of these statements name the police. Even those that say “Black Lives Matter” have this problem. Paramount says “these racist and brutal attacks must end,” with no mention of who does the attacking. Netflix proclaims “to be silent is to be complicit,” though complicit in what, exactly, we do not know. CBS denounces “all acts of racism, discrimination, and senseless violence,” with no indication of where racism comes from, how it is maintained, or whom it privileges. These statements recognize Black people as victims of violence; however, they fail to identify any perpetrators or beneficiaries of this violence. Ambiguity offers deniability, a PR strategist’s best friend.

“Disney doesn’t mean me,” a white cop can plausibly think to himself. “They are talking about racists, and I am not a racist.” It requires no risk, no sacrifice, to claim an opposition to “racism” without context or a concrete call to action. And because it requires none of these, it is not solidarity. It is easy to “stand against” an abstracted boogeyman. It is harder to call out the true culprits.   Yet it is no wonder corporations refuse to criticize police even as they claim to value Black lives. Corporations rely on police to suppress resistance against a system that abets their growth at the expense of workers deemed expendable—immigrants, indigenous people, queer and trans people, women, and of course, Black people. “If you look at any factory, any plant,” said Dr. Angela Davis in 1972, “Who does the worst jobs? Who gets paid the smallest salaries? It’s Black people.” Million- and billion-dollar entities are natural opponents of Black Lives Matter because they are literally invested in racist policing.  

Throughout history, the purpose of police has always been to protect white property. Slavery defined Black people as the lawful property of wealthy white men. White civilians were empowered to arrest any Black person they saw and return them to their “rightful” place in servitude. Slave patrols, organized by groups of white men, were early precursors to modern police forces. In the mid-19th century, police departments were tasked with protecting white property from undesirable “outsiders,” defined as immigrants, people of color, and labor-rights activists. Today this is still the case. Arrests for nonviolent offenses like fare evasion and theft comprise nearly all of policework. This accounts for the fiction that cops exist to “protect and serve”—historically, this is the white middle-class experience of police.

Corporate Black Lives Matter statements are not only inadequate; they are smokescreens. Speaking the language of anti-racism allows brands to deflect scrutiny from the ideologies, structures, and practices that perpetuate antiblack racism within and outside their organizations. This is why, when brands do hint at solutions, they tend to target individuals, not structures. Examples of such solutions include the hiring of Black individuals in positions of power—what Dr. Cornel West calls putting “Black faces in high places”—and the changing of individual “hearts and minds” through interracial friendships and book clubs. Brands that defy hate and call for unity promote the falsehood that what we are dealing with is a matter of individuals or groups who don’t see eye to eye. In reality, antiblackness pervades American culture, systems, and institutions so comprehensively as to eclipse the “hatred” of any one individual or group. Individualizing language goes hand in hand with neoliberal reform, which works with—not against—the forces of capitalism.

Reform is not a demand of Black Lives Matter, whose stated goal is to defund the police. By diluting this demand with depoliticized rhetoric, brands attempt to signal allyship in Black struggle without jeopardizing their access to police protection or alienating their white and/or middle-class consumers. This is not allyship. This is silence disguised as taking a stand. This is another form of All Lives Matter. Yes, the discourse has shifted, although not as much as you might think. Police unions are still accusing Black Lives Matter of terrorism. Liberals are still scolding activists for employing a diversity of tactics, in the face of clear evidence that riots and property damage work. And even if they weren’t, changing the conversation is nowhere close to enough. Tweeting about “the brutal treatment of Black people in this country” won’t stop Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, from brutally mistreating Black workers in this country and around the world. Stating “everyone should feel safe in their neighborhood” won’t stop Sarah Friar, CEO of Nextdoor, from making Black people feel unsafe in their neighborhoods. Platitudes and tearful apologies won’t stop Roger Goodell, NFL Commissioner, from blackballing and silencing Black players who dare speak out against the conditions of their oppression. (To no one’s surprise, the San Francisco 49ers posted a black square without so much as a word about Colin Kaepernick.) Their so-called “solidarity” is nothing more than a performance meant to conceal their own antiblackness.

Corporate Black Lives Matter statements, much like the branded Pride statements that resurface each June, accomplish nothing for racial justice. They do nothing to disrupt a system that enables white men to hoard the world’s wealth under the free protection of armed guards funded by billions of taxpayer dollars. So long as they are allowed to exist, corporations will continue to co-opt the language of “justice for all” to benefit the few white men who sit at the top.   Instead, we need transformative institutional change. Transformative change means divesting from police and investing in social structures that benefit all people. It means facilitating Black people’s access to quality jobs, housing, and medical care. It means challenging an economic ideology that pays lip service to Black death while celebrating Black exploitation in the workplace.

Corporations are part of the problem. They are not engines of racial justice, but of racial oppression. They will not—they cannot—save us. Do not believe their lies.

Katie Kaufman Rogers is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research focuses on racism and sexism at work and in organizations.

Moving Beyond Tests of Ally Purity

Over the past two weeks, or so, there has been a sea change in racial attitudes among European Americans due to the spate of police killing: including those of Breonna Taylor, Ahmuad Arbery, Dreason Reed, George Floyd, and most recently Rayshard Brooks. This has included a shift in the attitudes of even some “white” Republicans.

Indeed, much has changed in the two years since I wrote Killing African Americans: Police and Vigilante Violence as a Racial Control Mechanism. European Americans are now acknowledging, with the most straightforward language seen in this nation’s history, that America has always been racist, that its racial oppression continues and is systemically embedded in every fiber of its fabric, and that significant change must happen, now. And this has not just been talk; tens of thousands of them have taken to the streets to “walk the walk” while putting themselves at risk for potentially fatal COVID-19 infection and brutal police repression.

Now, while this is encouraging, we don’t know whether this is, to quote Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, going to be a mere “moment” or a sustainable “movement” that brings about systemic change. History tells us that: the poll numbers will not continue to rise, there will likely to a white backlash, and that, even if it wins significant change, when this phase of the movement is over systemic racism and racial oppression will remain, and there will still be lots of work to be done. In brief, racial oppression and the struggle against it will continue. One of the most interesting and, to me, disappointing recent developments is the amount of time and highly-emotional energy some African Americans have given in making the case that “white people” are not reliable allies and cannot be trusted. In some quarters there actually seems to be more focus on that “issue” than on the movement itself and the opportunity it brings to make black lives matter more.

While acknowledging that, based on historical facts, African Americans have good reason to be suspicious of Europeans American allies, to be angry about past betrayals, and to be weary of what is happening now, and what may happen in the future; I would like to explain why, knowing all this, I think that the focus on the genuineness and trustworthiness of “white” allies is not only a reactionary distraction from the serious business at hand; but is, in fact, not an “issue” at all.

Of course, coalitional politics has its problems. In my African Americans and Social Protest class at UConn I give specific examples of them like the pressure placed on John Lewis by European American political, union, and religious leaders to “moderate” the speech he gave as a SNCC leader at the March on Washington in 1963. I also stress in that class that, when entering into a coalition, the group that has the greatest stake in its success must be in total control of its leadership, goals, language, strategies, and tactics; and not allow allies to tamp down its militancy for any reason. So yes, having “white” allies, like any relationship, can entail problems.

But to me the question of whether we should have “white allies” is not really an issue. Why? First, not all European Americans who are involved in the current protests, and who are pushing for changes, are “allies.” As we have seen over and over again, some, are not allies because they don’t really care about issues like the pervasive, disproportionate, and persistent killings of African Americans, but are content to exploit the movement for their own, often assumed to be larger and more important, purposes. Others are not simply allies, in that they actually believe in what they are fighting for, through their protests and other means and would be out there in the streets and elsewhere even if there was not a single African American at their side. In brief, they are working to protect their own values and ideals; not just to help us.

But there is a more politically realistic reason for progressive African Americans not spending a lot of time searching for ally purity. That reason was articulated decades ago by the late Shirley Chisholm, an African American Congresswoman and presidential candidate, who made it clear that African Americans have no permanent friends, no permanent enemies . . . just permanent interests. Through that lens of such racial-political realism, therefore, it makes no difference whether “white” people who work toward our goals are friends or enemies, good or bad, trustworthy or untrustworthy; or whether our feelings toward them are love, hate, or indifference. What matters is how effective they are as a resource toward winning the changes we want and need. With that in mind our position is simple; we work with them when that works for us; we leave them along when it does not; period, end of discussion!   With this racial-political realist approach the question of whether or not we should have “white” allies is simply not an issue; and we can move on to focus our attention on the movement at hand.    

Noel A. Cazenave is Professor of Sociology at the University of Connecticut. He is currently writing a book titled, Kindness Wars: The History and Political Economy of Human Caring.    

Black Rights Protests: A New Era?

As some readers know, I have been researching and writing on Black antiracist movements, revolts, and rebellions now since 1970. With Harlan Hahn, I did the major social science book on the hundreds of 1960s Black “riots” against systemic racism, especially white policing racism (Ghetto Revolts: The Politics of American Violence, 1973, Macmillan)

The current, mostly nonviolent protests against anti-black racism are similar in a number of ways to the 1960s Black civil rights movements, which I have researched in a number of places since 1970 as well. They are also similar to many uprisings by enslaved and Jim Crowed black people before the 1960s.  

Researchers like me have long assessed the major dimensions of these human rights movements, which include the “underlying conditions” that lie behind all such Black protests and the “precipitating events” that generate them in a specific societal setting. These problematical underlying conditions include white racial discrimination in policing, jobs, housing, education, and many other areas, on a daily basis. There is an extensive social science literature (for example, here in Racist America) documenting these conditions, decade after decade after decade. The precipitating events usually involve substantial, often dramatic discrimination against a Black person by specific whites in a public setting, especially by police officers engaging in discriminatory brutality or other policing malpractice. The majority of Black protests, small and large and now in the 1000s since 1619, have been nonviolent, but some have involved Black violence responding to the the white violence that has undergirded systemic white racism in this country for four centuries.

There are several major differences now between the current civil rights demonstrations and those of earlier decades, including even the more recent 1990s. One is the commonplace presence of cameras carried by ordinary citizens, which capture important aspects of black rights demonstrations and policing responses that would not have been known, or would have been covered up, in previous decades. Today, such videos can reveal aspects of policing brutality and other malpractice that are much harder for whites in power to deny. They carry images of often horrific precipitating events quickly onto cable TV and social media, a dramatic new reality compared to previous eras of blacks rights demonstrations.

A second obvious difference is that the current black rights demonstrations involve far more non-black Americans, including large numbers of white Americans, than in most previous eras of these human rights demonstrations. This suggests there is now broader US citizen support for social change and reform, especially in regard to the all too commonplace police brutality tactics. How enduring these white commitments are remains to be seen, but they do clearly mark a major difference in regard to black protest demonstrations since the 1960s and 1990s protest eras.  

A third difference that I see is the significant number of white supremacists and other white invaders uncommitted to black rights who have been violently involved in looting and property damage in some of the demonstrations, a new aspect that likely confuses many (especially white) people about the legitimacy of some of the rights demonstrations. Some of these whites, mostly men, have posted extensively online about the desire to trigger a “race war” by invading nonviolent black demonstrations, and they are trying to get a more violent and authoritarian government response against black and other rights demonstrators.

There is a long history of white officials, especially in the segregationist Jim Crow South, blaming “outside agitators” for local Black uprisings, and one sees some of this today in regard to the contemporary black rights demonstrations, but there is also a quite new phenomenon of outside white agitators coming in to accelerate violent activities with criminal and race-war goals.

A fourth difference in these current black rights protests is how widespread they are and how long they have lasted so far. There have been black rights demonstrations in at least a hundred cities, including many in other countries. And, as of this writing, they have been taking place repeatedly for 8-10 days in numerous cities, a longer period of time than for most black rights demonstrations and uprisings in past decades and centuries.

These briefly stated insights are where I start on comparing the current black rights uprisings to past uprisings. I have seen little serious analysis on most of these dimensions so far, but I am sure we will see much more in the future. Hopefully, we are at the beginning of real racial change.

Cinco de Mayo

The UCLA Chicano Network has a nice summary of the holiday Cinco de Mayo, which is celebrated in Mexican American communities (one such celebration in California a couple of years ago, pictured right, photo credit) and not yet much outside those communities: Cinco de Mayo is a date of great importance for the Mexican and Chicano communities. It marks the victory of the Mexican Army over the French at the Battle of Puebla. Although the Mexican army was eventually defeated, the “Batalla de Puebla” came to represent a symbol of Mexican unity and patriotism. . . . Cinco de Mayo’s history has its roots in the French Occupation of Mexico. The French occupation took shape in the aftermath of the Mexican-American War of 1846-48. With this war, Mexico entered a period of national crisis during the 1850’s. Years of not only fighting the Americans but also a Civil War, had left Mexico devastated and bankrupt. On July 17, 1861, President Benito Juarez issued a moratorium in which all foreign debt payments would be suspended for a brief period of two years, with the promise that after this period, payments would resume.The English, Spanish and French refused to allow president Juarez to do this, and instead decided to invade Mexico and get payments by whatever means necessary. The Spanish and English eventually withdrew, but the French refused to leave. Their intention was to create an Empire in Mexico under Napoleon III. Some have argued that the true French occupation was a response to growing American power and to the Monroe Doctrine (America for the Americans). Napoleon III believed that if the United States was allowed to prosper indiscriminately, it would eventually become a power in and of itself.In 1862, the French army began its advance. Under General Ignacio Zaragoza, 5,000 ill-equipped Mestizo and Zapotec Indians defeated the French army in what came to be known as the “Batalla de Puebla” on the fifth of May.Clearly, it was a substantially indigenous army that defeated the mighty Europeans, an early and clear counter-colonialism event. This is an event that all who support self-determination for indigenous peoples and full human rights for all peoples should remember and honor.The UCLA network account also makes some interesting observations about how this day is differentially celebrated in Mexico and the United States:In the United States, the “Batalla de Puebla” came to be known as simply “5 de Mayo” and unfortunately, many people wrongly equate it with Mexican Independence which was on September 16, 1810, nearly a fifty year difference. Over, the years Cinco de Mayo has become very commercialized and many people see this holiday as a time for fun and dance. Oddly enough, Cinco de Mayo has become more of Chicano holiday than a Mexican one. Cinco de Mayo is celebrated on a much larger scale here in the United States than it is in Mexico. People of Mexican descent in the United States celebrate this significant day by having parades, mariachi music, folklorico dancing and other types of festive activities.And here is a more detailed discussion of how it came to celebrated by Chicanos (Mexican Americans) over the years in the US. In my view, this is a good holiday for all those Americans who are opposed to colonialism and imperial invasions.

Sports, Racism & COVID-19

Throughout the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, sports have been at the center of much public and private discussion in the United States (U.S.) and around the world. For example, the National Basketball Association (NBA) was “at the forefront” of spreading awareness about the pandemic in the U.S., particularly when players began contracting and spreading the virus amongst themselves. In the early stages of the spread of the virus, the state of Florida declared World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) to be an “essential business” – allowing for the production of professional wrestling matches to continue taking place as much of the world adopted different stay-at-home practices. U.S. President Donald Trump even spoke with several sport commissioners, owners, and executives to discuss the pending “return” of sports and leading the “re-opening” of the U.S. economy. But why has sport occupied such a high-profile role during this time and how does it relate to the racialization of COVID-19? In this blog post, I explore these questions and other nuances of sport as a vehicle for racial politics in the U.S.

Why Sport?

            This institution of sport is cloaked by what sociologist Jay Coakley referred to as the Great Sport Myth (GSM). The GSM is comprised of three major beliefs that lead to a widely accepted and evangelical view of sport and sporting organizations: (1) sport is inherently pure and good; (2) the purity of sport is transmitted to those who play or consume it; and (3) sport inevitably leads to individual and community development. Due to widespread belief in the GSM, most people passively accept sport as a legitimate institution and often fail to consider the central role sport plays in political and economic processes. In other words, people buy sport – figuratively and literally.

            The reality of elite sport is that it is central to the politics of domination and has been for millennia. Because it is shrouded in the larger myths of purity, meritocracy, and equal opportunity – and other “American” tropes – elite white men in the U.S. have explicitly used sport as a cover for colonial projects (domestically and internationally) for several decades. For example, Rupert Murdoch, the owner of News Corp, has discussed how “sport, with a particular emphasis on football, has been his ‘battering ram’ to establish the competitive success of his media properties.” Still, even with the often-overt ownership of sporting colonialism, people buy sport. This is why most people passively accept its return – or at least await its return with curiosity. When will sports come back? In what capacity will they return? What will be the precautions taken when they do return? These are the questions many individuals with an interest in sport are currently asking. However, few are questioning the return of sport altogether. Few people are asking about the political ramifications of a sporting return amid COVID-19. Who is it that controls sport? Why is sport – beyond its mythical potency – being touted as an economic spearhead by Donald Trump? These are essential questions that must be explored.

Who Controls Elite Sport?

            My dissertation research highlighted various aspects of how elite sport is overwhelmingly controlled by a while male oligopoly. This research adopted a perspective that necessarily reached beyond the confines of sport to gain a deeper understanding of the role sport plays in contemporary society. NFL team owners, for example, represent a small network of large corporations that use the NFL as an advertising platform for legitimating otherwise illegitimate politics. From this perspective, any discussion of “the shield” (a reference to the league’s logo design) becomes less about the brand of the league and more about a protected assault on the world. The economic sectors represented by NFL ownership alone include politics, real estate, construction, gambling, technology, transportation, oil and gas, hospitality, and several other elite sport leagues/teams that all collapse in on one another in terms of connectivity. These owners collectively use the NFL to prop up their own capitalist interests while also using the league as a vehicle for political promotion – a set of politics which were substantially challenged in recent years by Kaepernick and many others who protested against police brutality and systemic oppression. Accordingly, elite white men like Trump are likely to continue pushing for sport to lead the way in “re-opening” the U.S. economy because of its dual function as a cultural opiate and its central location in the politics of white patriarchal domination. Still, there is another side to this coin which should be teased out to better understand the ramifications of this suicidal sporting mission – especially as it relates to the labor needed for sports to “return.”

Sporting Labor

            The workers that produce the labor necessary for the ongoing production of elite sport are overwhelmingly comprised of people of color. From athletes to facility workers to gameday parking staff, the sport industry relies on a labor force that is much more racially diverse than the general U.S. population. Outside of a small group of elite (and mostly male) professional athletes, the sport industry is notorious for relying on underpaid labor, long hours, seasonal jobs, and jobs without access to benefits (e.g., health insurance). Many of the workers which sport organizations rely on are the first to lose their jobs in the midst of a crisis, as was witnessed with the onset of COVID-19 – notable in this recent mass layoff was a wanton lack of support for these employees by multi-billion dollar sport organizations and their “owners.” And yet, many of these individuals are now being asked to risk their lives in a “return” process of sport where the very voices of those who sport depends upon have been silenced. Considering, for example, how Black Americans have been disproportionately affected by the virus, jumpstarting the sport industry puts these communities directly in the line of fire.

Whether ignorant of these implications or complicit in them, many white Americans remain eerily silent on the “restarting” of sport. But perhaps this white silence at the prospect of thousands of fellow Americans losing their lives is normal. It certainly isn’t the first time white Americans have tacitly (or violently) accepted the eugenics approach. In fact, research shows that erasure may even be an integral aspect of the dominant white racial frame.

Racial Framing & Black Death

            Research from scholar and philosopher Tommy Curry has emphasized the fixation on and colonization of Black male bodies in the U.S. (and European history more broadly). This has particularly been the case when it comes to the projection of violence and death; European institutions developed with an inherent reliance on the death of Black people, and Black boys and men in particular:

“…racism is not simply racial antipathy, but the power whites assert over the world, thereby making Black life inconsequential in its rush to acquire ownership over reality; a dynamic creating the orders of knowledge as an extension of the order of society necessary to maintain anti-Blackness and preserve white supremacy.”

This critical work by Curry applies to the U.S. sporting context, both in terms of its routine operation and in terms of its future agenda beyond COVID-19. In an upcoming book chapter co-authored with Scott Brooks and Stacey Flores, we explore the “disposability” of Black male bodies in American youth basketball. This violence against Black (male) bodies lays at the core of today’s sport industry, especially with “elite” leagues such as the NBA, NFL, and NCAA. Several major books have highlighted various aspects of this colonial practice, including William Rhoden’s Forty Million Dollar Slaves and Billy Hawkins’s The New Plantation.

However, this problem extends well beyond athletes and the dangers to which they are subjected as much of the sporting workforce is now being pressured to take on the risk of COVID-19 for the economic benefit of an elite faction of U.S. society. Now heightened, the white-framed inconsequentiality of Black life remains a foundational axiom for the resurgence of the sporting project. As political and economic leaders continue to push for the return of sport and sport events, I am reminded of what Tim Wise recently stated on the racial politics of “ending” COVID-19 lockdowns too soon:

“This is about a soft Civil War… This is about attempting to use mass death as a wedge issue and a culture war that this president wants to wage on behalf of whiteness.”


            In sport, there are significant differences between individual sports and even greater differences between different levels of sport (e.g., professional, collegiate, recreational, etc.). However, there are two critically important realities when it comes to “re-opening” the U.S. economy and sport leagues such as the NFL, NBA, WWE, and NCAA, among others. The first important reality is that elite white men rule undemocratically and use sport to buttress political stratifications founded on the triple helix of systemic racism, classism, and sexism. This is a material, ideological, and even spiritual project that is central to elite white male dominance in the U.S. The second reality of the sport industry is that the labor propping up elite sport leagues relies heavily on Americans of color and other white working class Americans. As such, the impact of sport’s return will be felt more deeply by Americans of color when it comes to the continued spread of the virus. The cultural quest to “Make Sport Great Again” is being weaponized by elites as the racial project of neoliberalism seeks to re-establish its footing. And the likely result of such action will be the death of several thousand Americans of color – a reality that many white Americans (across the political spectrum) appear to be okay with. Indeed, millions of Americans are ready to embrace some sort of return to sport. For some, this process will signal a return to normal. For many others, it just means more of Racist America.

Anthony J. Weems, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Western Carolina University. His research focus is on the political economy of sport with a particular emphasis on leadership, policy development, and (in)equity.