Race, Redemption, and Respectability: White Racism in Athletics

(This is co-authored with David J. Leonard.)

The ongoing media fascination with Tiger Woods and his personal transgressions should remind us of what a prominent place race, redemption, and respectability play in sport today. Like Michael Jordan, Woods’ immense talent tied to his well-known story of dedication and drive have allowed media commentators, commercial culture, and fans alike to see the golfer as having transcended race, to become emblematic of the ideals of a supposedly post-racial order. In wake of martial infedility, his cultural capital and real capital have allowed him to chart an increasingly familiar course of redemption for the rich and famous: apology, treatment, and a rededication to faith and/or family. Few African American athletes today can become a new person so easily. Redemption is reserved for whites and those who are imagined as Picca and Feagin have argued as “honorary whites.” In fact, we would suggest that commodification and criminalization of blackness, that the class and gendered signifiers associated with dominant “white racial frame,” particularly in the context of sport, has made them unredeemable.

Case in point. Just this week, a more common pattern unfolds, one that colors the possibilities for redemption in a purportedly colorblind era. On Sunday, in the wake of a public spat with a woman at a bar and amid a pending suspension for violating the league substance abuse policy, the Pittsburgh Steelers traded Santonio Holmes to the New York Jets. Media accounts suggest that this was in large measure because of “his rap sheet,” because team owners were tired of Holmes’ bad behavior, which had include illegal drug use and a previous suspension. Fans and analysts, moreover, referred to the MVP of the 2008 Super Bowl as “a problem child” with “a sense of entitlement” and “a bad boy” “infected by low morals” and made regular connections between Holmes and new teammates best known for their transgressions—Braylon Edwards who had previous run-ins with the law and Antonio Cromartie, who was lampooned for having seven children with five different women and needed a large signing bonus to pay off overdue child support. An article in today’s New York Daily News goes so far as to described the team as “[Coah Rex] Ryan’s halfway house for misbehaving millionaires.”In an article on National Football Post, Andrew Brandt questioned the logic behind the Jets’ acquisitions, noting “management feels this coach can take a potentially combustible mix of players and mold them into a productive group” He and others seem to wonder whether or not the father figure can redeem and reform their abject and pathologically dysfunctional black bodies.

Whereas as other athletes and public figures, from Tiger Woods and Ben Roethlisberger to Jesse James and countless politicians, have given the opportunity to seek public forgiveness, Holmes received no opportunity to apologize or make amends for his violation of league policies and bad public behavior. In fact, the elite athlete was summarily traded for a lowly fifth round pick in the upcoming draft–exiled, cast off, pilloried, damned.

In contrast, his former teammate, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger took to a podium in a Steelers’ locker room Monday evening and made a brief statement, stating in part,

“I’m truly sorry for the disappointment and negative attention I brought to my family, my teammates, coaches, the Rooneys and the NFL. I understand that the opportunities I have been blessed with are a privilege, and much is expected of me as the quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers…I have much work to do to earn this trust. And I’m committed to improving and showing everyone my true values.”

Roethlisberger offered an apology, the second in nine months, following accusations of sexual assault. In the most recent case, he stood accused of attacking a 20 year-old woman in the bathroom a bar after plying her with drinks. Although the star quarterback received his share of criticism from the public and the owner of the Steelers reportedly was “furious,” he was not quickly traded for a pattern of bad behavior and violation of the player code of conduct. Moreover, in contrast with a number of African American players who have had punitive actions taken before the rendering of legal decisions, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who William Rhoden described as “the law and order commissioner”who in the past has “wasted no time throwing down the gantlet and issuing verbal and financial penalties” opted to take no immediate action. He preferred to wait on local authorities before acting.

On Monday afternoon, District Attorney Fred Bright concluded he could not bring charges against Roethlisberger due to a lack evidence compounded by the victim’s desire to avoid a media saturated trial. During his press conference, Bright admonished Roethlisberger and condemned his behavior, maturity, and failure to be an adequate role model. He also advised him to “grow up.” These sentiments echoed comments from fans and pundits, who wonder when he would learn from his behavior, mature, and realize his potential. In others, the fallen hero can, and perhaps even must, redeem himself. And this appears to be what Steleers owner Art Rooney hopes to achieve:

During the past few weeks I have met with Ben on a number of occasions, not only to discuss this incident, but also to discuss his commitment to making sure something like this never happens again. The Pittsburgh Steelers take the conduct of players and staff very seriously. Ben will now have to work hard to earn back the respect and trust of Steelers fans, and to live up to the leadership responsibilities we all expect of him.

Responsibility and respectability interwoven in these comments provide a pathway to redemption for the star quarterback.

While one may quibble about the relative value of Holmes and Roethlisberger to the franchise, the difference in their treatment is telling: the former is traded, rapidly punished for violations, and marked as a deviant; the latter is retained and counseled, awaits possible punishment from the league and/or his team, and rendered a broken work in progress. These differences emerge from the application of a white racial frame, particularly the narratives it makes possible. Whereas Holmes fits neatly within pre-existing accounts of blackness—disobedient, transgressive, criminal, unredeemable, childlike—that must always already must be policed but can never been redeemed; whereas Roethlisberger takes on the role of the tragic hero, wounded by immaturity, hubris and wrong actions, who has the potential to be redeemed and otherwise grow-up. Furthermore, where Roethlisberger enjoyed and can earn back respect from his teammates, his boss, his fans, and perhaps even his critics, Holmes became doomed to exile and damned to condemnation. Failing to stay within confines of the politics of respectability and become a racially transcendent commodity, Holmes was sent packing. Writing about black masculinity and the politics of respectability in wake of the election of Barack Obama, Mark Anthony Neal argues that cultural inclusion and the calls for proper behavior and respectable “performances will ultimately falter under the weight of their pretensions. Like a suit that no longer fits, their performances are coming apart at the seams” (http://newblackman.blogspot.com/2010/04/coming-apart-at-seams-black-masculinity.html). For Holmes, his blackness and the associated signifiers within the dominant white racial frame precluded him from navigating the paths toward respectability. Yet for Roethlisberger, the journey toward acceptance, the efforts to perform an acceptable identity were just coming together, albeit with the powerful threads of whiteness.

Up is a Racist Downer

[Note: This was written with Carmen Lugo-Lugo, and Mary Bloodsworth-Lugo]

Pixar's Up in 3D at the Castro May 29 - June 17Creative Commons License photo credit: Steve Rhodes

In May 2009, Pixar released Up, its tenth animated feature. It premiered as the top grossing film the week of its release, and has netted more than $226 million in its first four weeks alone. Beyond the box office, popular reception has been far from critical, as high profile film critics have offered reviews that might be described as positive, glowing, and celebratory.

Even in the blogosphere where we might anticipate a bit more reflection, acritical responses and ringing endorsements have ruled the day, raining praise upon Up for everything from its uplifting message of enlightenment and the scientific puzzles it posesto the kindness of the studio that produced it. Moreover, At first blush, it might appear that Up also confirms that the United States, as discernible in its popular cultural forms, has indeed entered an era after or beyond the difficulties of race, gender, and sexuality. After all, it features no princess in need of rescue or prince charming to slay the dragon; it contains none of the uncomfortable images of racial and ethnic difference so prominent (in retrospect) in some of the classics-such as the crows in Dumbo, King Louie in the Jungle Book, or the Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp. However, such an analysis of Up would be a misreading of the film itself and of animated cinema over the past two decades-an argument we briefly rehearse here and elaborate in our forthcoming book Animating Difference. Moreover, as discuss in our forthcoming book, we advocate multiplying the white racial frame, which helps illuminate popular culture, as in the recent consideration of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, but which we believe should more fully foreground the centrality of race, gender, and sexuality-what we dub white racial (hetero)sexist frames.

Up focuses on the life of Carl Fredericksen (voiced by Ed Asner). Although set in the present, the past weighs on the narrative, particularly Carl’s love for his childhood sweetheart and wife Ellie, whose death leaves him alone and isolated in a quickly changing world, truncating their shared dreams of traveling to Paradise Falls in South America (modeled after Angel Falls in Venezuela) to shed the burdens of modern life. The turning of the movie is Carl’s struggle to retain his autonomy, property, and memory of Ellie from the forces of development encroaching upon him. Resisting a court order compelling him to be institutionalized, he engineers his escape by attaching thousands of balloons to his house, which literally lift him, and inadvertently a young scout, named Russell, who has stowed-away, up. After crash landing near Paradise Falls, the odd couple set out to the explore the environs, encountering a legendary tropical bird that Russell names Kevin, who with the assistance of a talking dog they also encounter in the new land, the pair struggle to save from an unscrupulous explorer, idolized by Carl as a youth. In the end the adventure, driven by the force of heterosexual love, rejuvenates Carl who changes from crotchety shut-in to community volunteer, becoming Russell’s surrogate father in the process.

Up can be seen as a touching story and artistic triumph to be sure. But more importantly, the film underscores the ways in which animated films use difference without appealing to stereotypes to express prevailing understandings about human possibilities, social relationships, and cultural categories.

Nearly a half-century after the civil rights movement and the second wave of feminism, it centers on the adventures of two males (a boy and a man) transformed through the raceless, homosocial bond forged in the wild making the “right choices” as individuals, thus “doing the right thing,” in this case, defending the defenseless. This is extremely important, given that Russell (the child) is Asian, yet his race is rendered invisible during the adventure. Russell’s values, imparted to him by US society, his family, and the Boy Scouts are similar to those of Carl. Russell tells us he is basically fatherless, and seems to have a void his (Asian) mother cannot fill. The child is looking for a father and finds one in Carl’s individualistic white masculinity. This story of white masculinity burdened with special obligations and tested in a hostile environment beset by evil reiterates the facts of whiteness and the race of masculinity.

The setting of Up further underscores this racialized and gendered morality play: the threats of urban development and technology and the changes associated with them (integration, big government) provide an allegory and grounding for white male resentment, expressed daily on talk radio, cable news, and internet chat rooms, while encouraging a kind of nostalgia for simpler times in which individual action mattered and entities like the Boy Scouts groomed young white men for their duties in life. Thus, Russell may not be white, but the institutions he belongs to (like the Boy Scout), and his interactions with White men (like Carl, and the unscrupulous explorer) are teaching him how to become an honorary straight white man. Moreover, Paradise Falls anchors not only Carl’s and Ellie’s dreams, but a geography of difference in which exoticism, escape, and opportunity are projected onto a place in the South, surprisingly absent of indigenous people and surprisingly easy to get to and claim for yourself.

Hence, the ideal space of imperial fantasy is open to the discovery of and in need of protection by (white) adventurers of the North. Finally, heterosexual romance and a failed quest for family propel Up, for it is desire for difference as much as attraction and commitment that bind Carl and Ellie to one another and compel Carl to repulse the force impinging on him as a white man by casting off the constraints of modernity and the chaos of change.

Senate Apologizes for Slavery: 219 Years Late

On June 18, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution apologizing for slavery and segregation. A day later, on Juneteenth, commemorated annually to commemorate the date in 1865 when African Americans learned of their emancipation, President Barak Obama praised the Senate’s action. And, the U.S. House, which voted in support of a similar resolution previously, is expected to endorse the Senate resolution, perhaps as early as the coming week.

In offering an apology on behalf of the American people, lawmakers joined peers in other settler states, namely Australia and Canada, to express regret for and in some way resolve historic injustices associated with nation-building and capitalist expansion. They took a step, even if small, to come to terms with race, but importantly, did so on terms acceptable to White America and shaped by the very racist history they so wanted to escape.

Undoubtedly, the resolution says something important about how far the U.S has come since 1865, while diverting attention away from how little has changed. Indeed, while the overt racism and legally sanctioned discrimination that flourished under slavery and were reborn under Jim Crow have receded, racial stratification, black disadvantage, and white privilege are as pronounced today, if not worse than, they were in 1965 when the civil rights movement crested in the U.S. Worse, the apology avoids accountability as it bars reparations. Words stand in for action and once more structural remedies to the legacies of slavery seem unimaginable to most white Americans and unworkable to their elected representatives.

In the apology, one can glimpse a pattern that has emerged around race relations as well. Over the past ten to fifteen years, it has become common for white celebrities and politicians who make a racist statement to issue an apology in which they express regret, claim lack of intention or forethought, and point to their true character which is not racist. As I suggested in a larger discussion of such apologies, they have emerged as important ways of disavowing racism, deflecting attention from the ubiquity of racism and deferring individual and collective responsibility for racism. In many ways, this is what I see in the apology, an effort to deny the persist of racism, locating its ills and the past as we craft images of our better selves today.

Another sort of denial has accompanied the resolution: the palpable resentment of white Americans. Although the precise phrasing varies, the themes are familiar: “my family did not own or benefit from slavery as we immigrated after 1900 and lived in the North” or “race is only an issue because Blacks keep talking about it” or “I am unemployed, the economy is a wreck, and all they can do in Washington is pass meaningless, feel good legislation,” and so on. The material rewards and social privileges of being white discounted, trumped by a rhetoric of injury and angry identity politics.

In contrast with Ben Buchwalter, who reads the action as a sign of strength, for me, sadly, this historic resolution reminds me more of the persistence and power of white racism today.