Racism Review | Scholarship and Activism towards racial justice
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The key non-figure for the coming Super Bowl that outlines the grave injustices of a white controlled NFL is the absence, the “black-balling,” the blocking of employment of Colin Kaepernick. Regardless of how many Super Bowl rings Brady has, or how many times he plays golf with Trump or how many beauty pageants Brady participates in, this does not erase the injustice.
In the thick of activist efforts that transpired in the 2016 NFL season and on the heels of “Choose-your-side Sunday” during the 2017 season, we published NFL Protests and Racial Politics of Patriotism. In this piece we sought to refocus the narrative; specifically, returning the attention to the message behind the symbolic displays of athlete activism (e.g., kneeling). In doing so, we shed light on the deeply embedded racial politics of patriotism at play as well as the role the mainstream media has played in shaping said discourse. As Smith’s timely comment suggests, the unrelenting efforts by NFL ownership groups to silence Kaepernick and other athletes peacefully protesting elicits a re-visitation of this piece in 2019. Moreover, further examination to understand how the racial politics of patriotism have changed over time and how athletes have been moving their activist efforts beyond the NFL since “Choose-your-side Sunday” is warranted.
The movement, pioneered by Colin Kaepernick’s courageous efforts (e.g., kneeling during the national anthem to bring awareness to the systemic oppression and police brutality towards black people and other people of color) over the course of the 2016 NFL season ignited a resurgence of black athlete activism in the twenty first century distinct and different from any that had come before it – that is, what Harry Edwards has referred to as the fourth wave of black athlete activism. While the first three waves of athlete activism characterized by (1) a push for recognition and legitimacy during Jim Crow, (2) post-World War II desegregation and access, and (3) an uncompromising fight for social justice in the late-1960s and 1970s, the fourth wave of athlete activism outlined by Edwards is characterized by a struggle for power within a white-dominated society. Throughout this fourth wave of athlete activism, perhaps the most iconic gesture has been that of kneeling.
As the act of kneeling quickly took hold in the 2016 and 2017 seasons inspiring activist efforts across the sports world, so too did coverage by the mainstream media and academic communities as practitioners and scholars alike weighed in. While the “Kaepernick effect” has and continues to make a meaningful impact, the NFL quickly responded making it clear that this revived fourth wave of black athlete activism and players with activist intentions would not be welcomed, nor tolerated on the gridiron. Thus, we have gone from the league-wide display of athlete activism on “Choose-your-side Sunday” in 2017 to three individuals this past season. Yes, just three. At the conclusion of the 2018 season only Eric Reid, Kenny Stills, and Albert Wilson continue to kneel. Additionally, several noteworthy events have transpired since our last post including but not limited to the following:
NFL Players Coalition co-founded by Anquan Boldin and Malcolm Jenkins (October 2017); Reid and others withdraw from Players Coalition (November 2017); Reid blackballed by the NFL (December 2017); NFL drafted a new Anthem Policy (May 2018); Reid files collusion grievance against the NFL (May 2018); Nike runs Kaepernick “Just Do It” ad (September 2018); Reid reinstated to the league signing one year contract with the Carolina Panthers (September 2018); Reid criticizes Players Coalition and outs specific owners intentions (October 2018); multiple musicians decline to be a part of SBLIII citing the NFL’s blackballing of Kaepernick as a reason (October 2018); Reid “randomly” drug tested for the seventh time in eleven weeks (December 2018); #Kaeplanta and #WakandaAli mural on Atlanta building demolished on Super Bowl weekend (February 2019).
And throughout all of this, Kaepernick remains blackballed from the NFL and the collusion case against NFL remains ongoing, with the hearing set for later this year. In the span of basically a single season the mostly white male elite and their acolytes who constitute NFL ownership and who have control of the league managed to effectively and efficiently “neutralize” the “threat” that this movement posed to the NFL brand. Thus, as another NFL season comes to a close, it is apparent that not only do the Patriots reign once more – but the racial politics of patriotism also continue to be perpetuated in and through the strategic operation of the NFL. To better understand this operation, a focus on the role of the owners is necessary.
NFL Owners and the Silencing of Protests
Fans might be paying to see the players, but the league is the owners. They make the decisions. They set the policies. They make the money with the extra zeros. Then there are the general managers and head coaches, as of this writing overwhelmingly white.(Bennett & Zirin, 2018, p. 47)
Despite the pageantry of expressing “solidarity” with players on Choose-your-side Sunday, owners and ownership groups have been overwhelmingly against the athletes engaging in protests since Kaepernick and Reid first knelt in 2016 – most discernibly through the blackballing of Colin Kaepernick from the NFL. Recently, Reid provided further insight into the views of owners on player protests throughout this process:
Y’all remember that players-owners meeting in New York City? So we were brought in under the premise that the NFL wanted to use their resources to help the black community. We established within the first five minutes of that meeting that we weren’t there to negotiate an end to the protest. After about an hour and a half of talking, Bob McNair says, “I think the elephant in the room is this protesting.” Terry Pegula follows up with “Yeah, I’ve already lost two sponsors for my hockey team. We need to put a Band-Aid on this, and we need a black figure-head to do it.”… [Jeffrey] Lurie says, “We can do more for the black community than you could ever imagine with our resources.” Bob McNair then says, “Yeah, just make sure you tell your comrades to stop that protesting business.”
As suggested by Reid’s comments about the obsession of several owners over bringing an end to the protests, the hypocritical performance of predominantly white male owners on “Choose-your-side Sunday” has only been matched by their disdain for substantively dealing with any of the critical issues brought forth by Kaepernick and others. This type of performance is indicative of what Picca and Feagin refer to as “Two-Faced Racism.” Two-Faced Racism discusses the nuanced nature of whites’ frontstage and backstage racism: “Much of the overt expression of blatantly racist thought, emotions, interpretations, and inclinations has gone backstage – that is, into private settings where whites find themselves among other whites” Thus, the frontstage/backstage framework is employed to “examine the significantly divergent racial performances by white Americans in public (multiracial) and private (all-white) arenas” (p. x).
Exposed by Eric Reid, the approach taken by McNair, Pegula, Lurie, and other NFL owners in the backstage had little to do with their frontstage act of supporting players in the fight against systemic oppression. Rather, the opposite is true. Owners fervently sought to develop new policy designed specifically to control and/or rout player protests.
According to Weems and Atzmon, “In light of the NFL taking on a major role in white nationalist politics, its new [National Anthem] policy aims to censor the voices of those actively fighting against racist sport systems.” Though the policy drew enough criticism to delay its’ implementation, the persistent efforts and subsequent effects of owners’ attempts at censoring athletes has been nothing short of profound. Not only did the development of new policies and programs aim to rein in athletes fighting for social justice, but the dependency of sport media outlets (e.g., ESPN, Fox, CBS) upon the NFL as a political economy further veiled the voices of athletes using these mediums to speak out against injustice. This strategic silencing of athlete protests had a collateral effect of shaping and constraining public discourse surrounding the fourth wave of athlete activism. Therefore, it certainly behooves us as scholars and activists to take serious the notion that NFL ownership groups (and the NFL as an organizing body) play central roles in transforming the racial politics of patriotism. More broadly, the behaviors and actions of NFL owners actively reflect, shape, and maintain the political economy of the NFL — a primary sociocultural institution in the United States.
Popular culture is one of the sites where this struggle for and against a culture of the powerful is engaged: it is also the stake to be won or lost in that struggle.
Sport as a cultural site continues to be a central space in the struggle for and against the politics of oppression. However, as NFL owners have cracked down on black athlete protests in an effort to silence political voices that don’t fit the brand-nexus of white-framed patriotic capitalism, athletes have sought to innovate the ways in which they engage with issues of systemic oppression and inequality. For example, while Kaepernick has sought to continue his fight through the legal system via a collusion case against the NFL, others have turned to various social, cultural, and educational outlets – ranging from Kaepernick’s Know Your Rights Camp to Martellus Bennett’s Imagination Agency — to continue to fight for justice and equity in the United States. Thus, while the impact of kneeling before games today has been relatively silenced by NFL owners, many athletes continue to adapt their approaches to fighting for a just world.
In 2016 when Kaepernick first knelt in protest of systemic oppression and police brutality, kneeling was necessary as a pragmatic act. In 2017, kneeling was just as necessary as protests continued to grow despite constant criticism from many fans, team owners, and the president. In 2019, however, the social and political effects of physically kneeling before the game have declined in relevance due to the acts of silencing taken by team owners and corroborating media outlets. In response, many athletes have sought to innovatively engage in activism through alternative outlets. In other words, what we are beginning to see from many athletes is the evolution of political activism beyond the stage of the NFL. And while this evolution beyond the gridiron may appear as if team owners are “winning” their battle against players, it brings with it more direct social, political, and economic change as athletes and other activists become more involved both individually and as a collective. Said differently, the persisting resistance of athletes and activists in the face of systemic racism brings hope moving forward. As Derrick Bell (1991) stated in his discussion of racial realism,
Continued struggle can bring about unexpected benefits and gains that in themselves justify continued endeavor. The fight in itself has meaning and should give us hope for the future. (p. 378)
Kristi F. Oshiro is a Sport Management doctoral student at Texas A&M University. Her research interests include diversity and inclusion in sport with a focus on the intersection of race and gender.
Anthony J. Weems is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Division of Sport Management at Texas A&M University. His research interests revolve around the social structure of sport and sporting organizations and the roles sport plays in broader social and cultural contexts.
Several things came to mind as I read the article. I was, of course, very excited and waited with anticipation for what I believed would be a deep and thorough articulation of the disconnect between law firm diversity missions and the reality evidenced.
The timing of the article’s publication gave Paul, Weiss an opportunity to regroup, put plans into action, and explain the reasons why the partnership class was indeed all white, and practically all male. The firm was essentially able to engage in damage control, to save face at a time when diversity and inclusion efforts are touted as being intrinsically part of firm culture. Despite Paul, Weiss’ attempt to explain away their “outlier” new partner cohort, the justifications and the timing of those justifications seem to be an attempt to cloud the realities of systemic racial and gender imbalances that exist in elite law firms.
At Least We’re Better than the Rest
To simply say that Paul Weiss fares better than their peer firms is a weak argument that lacks any substantive reflections on the practices of the firm. At the end of the day being better than their peer institutions is a mere attempt to be perceived as the lesser evil. A mirage that has no tangible manifestation of a truly inclusive work environment that provides advancement opportunities for all. The idea that we celebrate firms for being slightly better than firms that are already doing terribly at affecting real substantive visible change at the top is not applaudable. What this does, in actuality, is it sets the bar very low and continues to maintain elite white male dominance.
Scorecards and Surveys
Paul, Weiss’ chairman, Brad Karp stated, “We’ve always been ranked at the very, very top of every survey.” To accept Paul, Weiss’ argument that their diversity track record garners accolades from varying surveys and scorecards implies that these measuring agencies take into account all critical information about diversity. Diversity scorecards often provide superficial representations of diversity that give law firms agency to ignore the underlying causes of low numbers of black and brown lawyers, particularly as it relates to retention and advancement.
Many scorecards and surveys incorporate statistics that include all lawyers of color and other marginalized identities in their assessment, including Hispanic/Latinx, Black/African American, Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander, Asian, American Indian/Alaska Native, Multiracial, Persons with Disabilities, Openly LGBT, and Veteran. While this is useful in showcasing the numerical representation of marginalized groups in firms, it also increases the potential ranking of law firms that have low numbers of black and brown lawyers. If we were to examine black and Latinx partners specifically, we would find that they are severely underrepresented. We need to start challenging these surveys and scorecards to explicitly call out the dearth of black and brown partners, which will demand law firms to consider the visible racial and gender disparity evidenced in terms of retention and promotion. Surveys and scorecards should call attention to the need for improving diversity by highlighting the lack thereof, not celebrating the little that exists.
Everyone Is Diverse
Diversity can literally include everything, from race, gender, sexuality, class, political leanings, religious affiliation, ability, and more. Let’s actually be clear about what we are talking about and what is missing when we talk about diversity – racial and gender diversity. The fact that Paul, Weiss is a pioneer of diversity is not the argument. What stirs debate is the reality that having been the first firm to hire a black lawyer, male and female, the first to promote a woman to the partnership, a firm committed to fighting for justice and equality, why has it stalled in terms of their own progress? If they are so progressive, why is it difficult for black and brown lawyers to reach parity within their own ranks?
There’s More Work to Be Done
In the firm’s nearly 150-year history, Paul, Weiss elected its first black female partner in 2016. While an important milestone for the firm, having one black female partner is not a valid argument to demonstrate progress as compared to their peer firms. It is a way to control the narrative and to save face, when in reality there is still so much work to be done. I understand that progress is progress regardless of timing, but this certainly should not preclude the fact that there are systemic racial and gendered issues in law firms that prevent women and people of color from becoming partners. So while recruitment efforts over the years have improved to attract talent to the firms, the reality is that very few are actually able to rise to the rank of partner. The underlying reasons for that are multifaceted of which I discuss and explain in depth in my forthcoming book, You Don’t Look Like a Lawyer: Black Women and Systemic Gendered Racism.
Value, not Tolerance
One of the central weaknesses at the heart of elite institutions’ diversity efforts, which tend to focus more on hiring than retention, regardless of gender, is the notion that people of color are linked to low performance and affirmative action advantages. The insidious nature of white racial framing allow whites, and often people of color as well, to operate out of a frame that includes racist stereotypes, narratives, imageries, ideologies and emotions privileging whites over people of color. Consequently, this often leads some partners and senior associates to view women and people of color as unqualified, reinforcing the white racial frame and perpetuating racial and gender inequality. This is what shapes individual and institutional discriminatory practices that help to maintain elite white male dominance.
For example, white narratives of affirmative action, which suggest people of color are not qualified to be there in the first place, work to create discriminatory practices that exclude from access to the resources that support advancement. Resources in the form of substantive training, mentorship, social and professional networks, and most importantly, sponsorship are critical. Women and lawyers of color, like any professional, want to feel that their presence is valued, not tolerated. These lawyers do not want to feel like they are a part of a strategic marketing tool employed to signal diversity as core and intrinsic to the firm. Or that they are evidence of the firm succumbing to social pressure.
The Onus is on Us
Another, rather interesting, observation is that the article sourced a lot of information from current black partners in the firm. For example, Theodore V. Wells Jr., a nationally recognized prominent black partner at Paul, Weiss, said “I fear that African-American partners in big law are becoming an endangered species.” What is he supposed to say, as one of seven black partners out of 159 in the entire firm? Wells, along with other black partners including Patrick Campbell, David W. Brown, and Amran Hussein, are forced to publicly acknowledge Paul, Weiss’ deficiencies, while simultaneously working to soften the public relations nightmare and signaling diversity. All of these demands add invisible labor to what these partners are already burdened with, precisely because there are so few of them. This is one of the many nuanced experiences discussed by the black women lawyers interviewed in my forthcoming book. A disproportionate amount of responsibility often falls on women and racially subordinated partners due to the shortage of women and partners of color.
In Their Own Words
In conversing with several associates about their reaction to the article, this is what one former BigLaw associate stated:
It is mind blowing how the onus is put on disenfranchised (highly educated) professionals to spontaneously become whistleblowers. Without any of the whistleblower or collective bargaining protections.
Another poignantly stated,
Obviously, the vast majority of women and people of color will not come forward out of fear of retribution, or imposter syndrome, or racial Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This allows firms to continue thinking that this is not a serious problem worth addressing given that few lawyers were put on a public platform to admit grievances that could very well be detrimental to their employment and opportunity.
Reproducing and Maintaining the Status Quo
What is clear is that Paul, Weiss, whether they would like to admit it or not, engages in reproducing and maintaining the status quo. That is why in 2019 the majority of partners and associates are white, and male. This ensures that the pipeline is saturated with people that not only look like the top, but also learn to adopt the firm’s culture and to do business as usual. To invest time and resources into people of color is a way to share the wealth and foster true competition among all races. The coveted law firm partnership is in fact a means to create the foundation for generational wealth. And that as it stands, appears to be reserved for whites, and mainly males. If you look very carefully at who made partner – they are mostly laterals, mostly did not do the work of lawyering in Paul, Weiss for the 10-14 years prior to walking into a partnership position. The one woman promoted worked up through the ranks from associate, to senior associate, counsel and then partner, a journey that took a little over thirteen years. So it is still all the women and people of color who are doing the actual work — but the white men are taking home the money.
Comprehending and acknowledging how elite white men create, control, and reproduce a racialized system run by white male actors is imperative to understanding the experiences of women and people of color, regardless of industry. Finally, and to be absolutely clear, Paul, Weiss has made a grand effort to win accolades for diversity. So, if they feel “singled out” for falling down on their promise – they should be disproportionately lambasted. As one of the many former BigLaw associates who aspired to be partner but was met with disinterest, lack of opportunity for development, mentor-less, sponsor-less, and exclusionary practices clearly states: “The emperor has no clothes – and still no one is willing to tell him.”
Members of the Biostatistics Department at Duke University had complained in the past about Chinese graduate students speaking in their language instead of English in the Biostatistics area. Recently the Director of Graduate Studies in the department, Assistant Professor Megan Neely, received a new complaint from two faculty members about Chinese graduate students speaking their language “very loudly” in the student lounge and other student areas. According to a New York Times article, the faculty members’ objections went beyond the volume of the conversations:
They were disappointed that these students were not taking the opportunity to improve their English and were being so impolite as to have a conversation that not everyone on the floor could understand. . . . So upset were they that they looked for identifying information about the “offenders” to exclude them from future projects:The faculty members wanted to identify the students and write down their names, in case the students sought to work with them in the future.
PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE keep these unintended consequences in mind when you choose to speak in Chinese in the building . . . . I have no idea how hard it has been and still is for you to come to the US and have to learn in a non-native language. As such, I have the upmost respect for what you are doing. That being said, I encourage you to commit to using English 100% of the time when you are in . . . professional [settings].
Chinese is one of just a few racialized languages in the United States, and complaints about speakers supposedly being rude and missing opportunities to learn English just for sticking to their own language are often pretexts to silence them. Silencing aims at the suppression of racialized languages (often via the now famous command “Speak English, You are in America”) and the preservation of English as the dominant language. Elsewhere Joe Feagin and I have discussed silencing as part of the linguistic oppression of Spanish in the US (See “Language Oppression and Resistance: The Case of Middle Class Latinos in the United States,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 31(2008):390-410).
If a Chinese university required that American students not use English to communicate, I think this would not be normal.
Mary E. Klotman, the Dean of the School of Medicine, where Biostatistics is housed, apologized to the Chinese students in a letter and said that she had asked the university’s Office for Institutional Equity a “thorough review of the program” in order to “improve the learning environment for students from all background.” Then she added:
I understand that many of you felt hurt and angered by this [Professor Neely’s] message . . . To be clear: There is absolutely no restriction or limitation on the language you use to converse and communicate with each other. Your career opportunities and recommendations will not in any way be influenced by the language you use outside the classroom.
Professor Neely asked to step down from her position. I feel bad for her: She is an untenured Assistant Professor caught up in a major controversy not mainly of her making. Although she may not suffer adverse consequences, she is likely to be upset. I would be. It is inevitable to wonder where the two complaining faculty members stand at the conclusion of the language denigration controversy. Their request to silence the students of color runs counter to Dean Klotman’s categorical position of no linguistic restrictions outside the classroom. Their stated intention to exclude graduate students from future research projects for speaking their own home language openly seems vindictive and unprofessional. Will the Duke Medical School investigate them?
José A. Cobas, Ph.D. is emeritus professor of sociology, Arizona State University.
Much of the public debate around Northam does not dispute that the photos on this page—one of a person in blackface, and another in KKK garb—are racist and offensive. Strangely, that seems to be the point of common agreement for many from all political angles. The most frequent points of disagreement seem to be whether something racist in his past should be held against him now. Questions raised include whether Northam should be forgiven, and whether the picture reflects who he is today. Practically everyone in his Democratic party, in the state (both U.S. senators and many key representatives, as well as past governors) have urged him to resign, and even politicians of national stature—Democratic as well as Republican—have called for his resignation. And the photo keeps flapping around like it’s normal, almost as if we have become desensitized to the pain and terror that these images signify to African Americans—stay in your place or face the consequences. White people of any and all political backgrounds are being asked to give their two cents—as if they are the new arbiters and experts of what this photo means. Journalists that are flocking to get the person-on-the-street opinion appear to be not unlike the foolish person who approaches someone who has never given birth to ask them what it feels like. How is it that we whites would have any idea what a continued governorship by the man in this photo would mean to the over 1.5 million African Americans living in the state, day in and day out? Quite simply, we don’t, so we should not get to decide.
But we can learn to develop empathy. We can get closer to the understanding that we were trained not to have. Even Pamela Northam, the governor’s wife, not exactly the poster child for being a white ally or an antiracist, knew enough to advise her husband that attempting to perform a moonwalk during a press conference intended to apologize for his past behavior, would not be “appropriate” at that moment he appeared to consider it. Imagine what actual work on true empathy with people of color might look like for white people. Even after 30 years dialoging and living in community, dialog, and family with African Americans, I did not even think of developing my own opinion on Northam or stating it out loud until I had engaged in some frank discussions with some African American friends whose opinions I respect and admire—-and whose opinions would likely be diverse, not uniform. And I am still learning.
But what I have learned from listening is Northam is not the first, nor will be the last, of whites they thought they could trust, but turned out to be a disappointment. As a white teenager dating an African American young man, I heard multiple testimonies right from local families about how their son thought they had a white girlfriend they could trust, but once the breakup happened and things went sour and she wanted revenge, it was all too simple for her and her family to bring the entire wrath of the racist court system down against them, simply by “crying statutory rape.” It worked every time here in good ol’ VA. And this was decades after the 1967 Loving v. Virginia ruling that made interracial marriage legal. It was only after I went on to study race in graduate school and as a scholar of race relations, that I learned about Emmett Till, and so many others where the testimony of whites, particularly white women, was all the excuse a community needed to round up people of color and do whatever violence they wished to them, without fear of repercussion, or concern for justice or getting the facts. In what Katheryn Russell-Brown has called “racial hoaxes,” dozens of whites over the years have committed a crime and tried to blame someone African American for it, and tragically the justice system locks right in on the profile—in the case of Charles Stuart, they even found an African American person to coerce into confessing to a crime he did not even commit. Whites can be shady like that. People of color are not surprised. It is not a matter of Republican or Democrat. When it comes to a white father protecting a white daughter, or a white family hoarding school district resources for their own family, there is no limit to the ends whites will go, regardless of party line, to enact their privilege in service of their own. Both Dr. King and Malcolm X were unequivocal on this point: the white moderate/white liberal was who they feared and distrusted more than the over white racists. So, yes, people like Northam with a “surprise” racist photo lurking in the background are really not all that much of a surprise to many folks of color. You always have to watch your back.
Too often, individual whites who get caught saying something racist end up giving what Michael Eric Dyson calls a “dress up, fess up” press conference that falls woefully short of actual remorse, and Northam’s was no exception to that pattern. As Dyson argues, a true apology is not a self-centered attempt at clearing one’s name—it is focused on those harmed, in a way that pledges making amends, in an ongoing meaningful way to those one has harmed. What so many whites fail to realize is that our country was founded on racism, and continues to thrive on that foundation, so it is practically inevitable that almost all of us will have either inadvertently or purposely been witness to racism without interrupting it, and/or will enact racism ourselves. It is no big revelation that we all have racism in our pasts, and likely in our present. It is what we do with that information, how we pledge to live our lives going forward, to undo what we (and those who went before us) have caused going forward, that is the true measure of our characters. This requires empathy, and an ongoing commitment that lasts well beyond when the flashing lights are over, when the news cycle has moved onto the next hot take. And most importantly, it is the kind of work that would take many others along with us in the fight for justice, as opposed to merely seeking to clear our own names.
Should Northam continue to ignore the multitude of voices urging him to resign, being coy and defiant about whether or not he even remembers being in the photo (but does remember using blackface on another occasion), he is not going to earn back the public trust. Most people who care about racism and truly understand it know that this is not about figuring out what’s “in his heart”—which is where the predictable conversation often goes when debating any racist politician, Trump or otherwise– but rather what kind of policies he is willing to support and go to bat for. Clearly, Northam was not standing at his Lieutenant Governor’s side when Lt Gov Justin Fairfax sat out the Robert E. Lee tribute, alone, hoping for a new America 400 years later. Being on the right side of racial justice when it matters, over and over again, even when your party does not agree with you, is one way to rebuild it, and it will take time, not a brief press conference. Not even time that the news cycle has time for. Time will tell if Northam is ready to get out of his own way, and lead Virginians by example, in humbling himself to understand what antiracist commitment really means.
Eileen O’Brien is a Professor of Sociology at Saint Leo U. and the author of several books on white racism issues, including Whites Confront Racism.
Anthony Weems and Kyle Kusz are joint authors of this post.
The stage is set for the Super Bowl LIII. On February 3rd, 2019, the New England Patriots will take on the Los Angeles Rams at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia. Luckily for the NFL, the game has just enough controversy to make it one of the most watched Super Bowls in league history. Officiating decisions in the conference championships raise questions about whether or not each team deserved to advance to the Super Bowl. Nevertheless, all is set for a seemingly riveting match between the two franchises. However, given the current polarized social and political climate and the way in which President Donald J. Trump has consistently used sports–its rhetoric, cultural values and logics, and the NFL specifically–to advance his white supremacist brand of nationalism, this particular Super Bowl represents more than meets the eye.
In this blog post, we discuss the role the NFL has played in the development of white nationalist politics over the last two decades. Specifically, we recount how the first Super Bowl meeting after 9/11 and between the Rams/Patriots in 2002 was politicized through a white-centered populist patriotism that was part of a broader ‘soft’ white cultural nationalism that emerged in Bush’s America, how they grew through the Obama presidency (i.e., Birtherism and Tea Party movement), and how they play out through the NFL in the Trump presidency. Trump strategically politicizes the NFL as a means of casting himself as a strongman, populist politician aligned with whites anxious and resentful of the changing norms of American culture and society wrought by globalization, feminism, and multiculturalism. Even further, Trump’s invocations of the NFL serve as a conduit through which he has communicated his white nationalist project. And although these socio-cultural dynamics often go unnoticed by many casual fans, political pundits, and even some academics alike, once unveiled they reveal how sport is far more than simply a game.
We witnessed his integrity, humility and grace on a number of occasions, including at Super Bowl XXXVI in New Orleans where he participated in the coin toss ceremony and helped Americans begin to heal from the tragedy of September 11.
As Ducat (2004) and Faludi (2007) document, some conservative culture warriors who long complained about political correctness, feminism, and multiculturalism seized on the tragic events of 9/11 and blamed them for making the country vulnerable to attack. Promulgated through Fox News and conservative talk-radio among other cultural sites, together these laments formed a “white cultural nationalism” that attempted to reproduce whiteness as American cultural norm in the name of patriotism and love of country. Most often, this white cultural nationalism was not expressed in virtiolic terms, but through an affirmative centering and valorization of everymen like New York City police, firefighters, and first responders who came to the rescue of those who suffered as a result of the 9/11, and the armed forces more broadly via the War on Terror. Valorization of these American everymen became a way of praising a strong, tough, performance of white manliness that, according to social conservatives, was being squeezed out of American culture by feminism and political correctness. As Andrew Sullivan put it, “One of the most welcome cultural shifts after September 11 may well be the re-emergence of traditional masculinity as something no-one need apologize for” (cited from King, 2009, 13).
Unsurprisingly, US sports’ media became a prominent conduit and purveyor of the racialized, populist, masculinist tropes and logics of this ‘soft’ white nationalism. These ideas crystallized in the media spectacle made of former NFL player, Pat Tillman’s choice to forgo his lucrative career to serve in the War on Terror and then on the occasion of his untimely death in Afghanistan (under dubious circumstances). Social conservatives in particular lionized Tillman as an ideal white male hard-bodied patriot-citizen. At the 2004 NFL Draft, then commissioner, Paul Tagliabue, honored Tillman by describing him as personifying “the best values of America and the National Football League” (cited from Kusz, 2015), while NFL fans attending the draft acknowledged Tillman by temporarily putting aside their team loyalties and collectively chanting: “USA! USA! USA!” Professional football’s key role for the enunciation of white cultural nationalism in the post-9/11 era was essential for the development of Trump’s white nationalist project to ‘Make America Great Again.’
Trump, white nationalism, and the NFL
This white cultural nationalism became more pointed and virulent in reaction to the Obama presidency (i.e. Birtherism and Tea Party movement). These impulses, of course, were stoked and ennobled by Trump, first, as the most vocal proponent of Birtherism questioning Obama’s Americanness and his right to be president and later through Trump’s explicitly racist and xenophobic anti-immigrant campaign rhetoric, his repeated re-tweets of white supremacist propaganda, his racialized immigration policies and proposals, his equivocation on the hate and violence enacted in Charlottesville, Virginia by alt-right and older white supremacists in the summer of 2017, and finally his open embrace of the ‘nationalist’ label in 2018.
But even before Charlottesville, during the 2016 campaign, Trump regularly communicated the values and norms of his white nationalism through his associations with white sportsmen (Kusz, 2016). He drew on the language of sports, lionizing these men (and others like them) as ‘real athletes’ and ‘winners’ at his rallies, to outline his white nationalist aims (Oates & Kusz, in press). And not only would Trump name-drop white sports figures at rallies, but he would actively look to attack the protests of NFL players protesting police brutality and systemic oppression (http://www.racismreview.com/blog/2017/09/27/nfl-protests-racial-politics-patriotism/). Through his use of white sportsmen and black athletic protesters like Kaepernick and others as political props, Trump made clear how his nationalist project to ‘make America great again’ opens up space for unapologetic, omnipotent performances of white masculinity as it seeks to contain, silence, and dehumanize all people of color, religious minorities, and immigrants who refuse to accept and defer to the prerogative of white Christian men to decide and lead American cultural and institutional life (Kusz, 2016).
Super Bowl LIII, Trump, and Tom Brady
A key figure in this year’s Super Bowl, like so many recently, will be New England Patriots quarterback, Tom Brady. As fans ready themselves for Super Bowl LIII, they should not forget that the prophet of pliability is on record for calling President Trump a ‘good friend.’ Their friendship began when Trump invited the newly minted Super Bowl champion to be a judge at a beauty pageant following Super Bowl XXXVI in 2002. From there, they bonded on golf courses; very likely, through being one of the boys, trading in ‘locker room talk’ and fantasies of (white) male omnipotence. Recall also that it was Brady who unapologetically displayed a MAGA hat in his locker and who refused to denounce Trump’s xenophobic anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric when pressed by reporters.
Brady is idolized as a great leader not just because of his on-the-field accomplishments (of which he has many), but also because, he embodies the ideal of white male omnipotence at the heart of Trump’s white nationalism. Yet, he concurrently represents a way of being a white American that pretends one can remain neutral about Trump’s white nationalism and broader issues of racial (in)justice. It is precisely this willful ignorance of contemporary American racial realities as much as his five Super Bowl rings that enables Brady to be imagined as an ideal leader in the conservative white imagination. This lionization of Brady as a great leader evinces how white racial ignorance is enabled and white racial innocence protected through the narratives that produce and nourish NFL fandom. It’s why alt-right leader and avowed white nationalist, Richard Spencer, labeled Brady “an Aryan avatar” and claimed the Patriots’ historic comeback in SB LI as a victory “for Trump, the #AltRight, and White America” through a series of joyous Super Bowl Sunday tweets just months after Trump took office (Chabba, 2017).
Thus, as we approach the rematch between the Rams and the Patriots in Super Bowl LIII, the fallout from Trump’s government shutdown, further militarization of domestic spaces, and other constituents of the realizing dystopia, it’s important to emphasize the essential nature of white nationalist politics in and through the NFL. Super Bowl LIII is more than just an isolated sporting event that celebrates masculinity, racial politics, and capitalism. Football, post 9/11 superpatriotism, the mainstreaming of white nationalism over the last few decades (https://www.amazon.com/Blood-Politics-Nationalist-Movement-Mainstream/dp/B0046LUIBU), and Trump’s brand of white nationalism today are not anomalous events happening in silos. They are a more calculated and systemic push toward the continued nationalization of white masculine militarism, the political expression stemming from the contradiction of white masculine impotence. Therefore, we must continue to disentangle the sporting politic so that we may better understand the cultural tools through which white nationalism is cultivated as well as understanding and naming the white elites who seek to use these tools to further their own political program. Because only then can we be in a position to counter the corrosive culture of white nationalism.
Anthony Weems is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Division of Sport Management at Texas A&M University. His research interests revolve around the social structure of sport and sporting organizations and the roles sport plays in broader social and cultural contexts.
Kyle Kusz is an Associate Professor at the University of Rhode Island and the author of Revolt of The White Athlete (Peter Lang, 2007). His research critically examines how discourses involving sport function as political terrains where struggles take place over what ideas race, gender, class, and nation will form public common sense at various times in history.
When I, Masoud Kamali, arrived to Sweden as a political refugee from Iran in 1987, I had heard a lot about Sweden. While serving time as a political prisoner in Iran, one of my first images of Sweden was came from an article that I had read in the Iranian Iran’s major newspaper, Keyhan. when I was in jail in Iran in late 1970s. It was about the Swedish Sweden’s charismatic Prime Minister Olof Palme. The article contained a picture of Palme walking his bicycle on the grounds of Stockholm’s famous Citadel and gathering money for the Sandinista movement in Nicaragua. As a leftist believing in a socialist revolution at that time, my prison-mates and I were very impressed by a country in which the Prime Minister dared openly support a leftist/Marxist movement.
At the time that Palme was assassinated in 1986, I had been arrested and jailed in Turkey for trying to leave the country illegally, since I did not have a valid passport and visa. I remember that I could not control my tears since he had become a symbol of democracy and solidarity for me. Though Palme was remarkable for many reasons, his anti-Vietnam war campaign and strong opposition to Apartheid in South Africa were among his impressive political stances.
A few years later in 1989, I began studying Sociology at the University of Linköping in Sweden. Initially and for the first time, I felt that I had another identity instead of just being a “refugee.” Given my student status, I envisioned that my peers with Swedish backgrounds and I would be treated as equals. However, I would quickly learn that (GWF) Hegel was wrong; the abstract could not be understandable if it turns into concrete human action. On the contrary, in many cases quite the opposite is true. Abstract declarations of “Human Rights” and “equality of human beings” propagated by the Swedish government become meaningless when actualized as concrete action. I was not welcome to my Swedish classmate’s “after work” gatherings and to other “student activities.” I realized very soon that even questions such as “Do you like Sweden?” or “Are you happy to be in Sweden?,” were not neutral inquiries and should not be answered in accordance with your actual feelings and genuine sentiments. Such questions are master narrative scripts to be answered subserviently with responses like “Absolutely” (as in “Yes, sir boss!”) in order to “fit in” not as part of a Swedish group but rather in the token role of an “immigrant” who is a symbol of Swedish generosity and solidarity.
In other words, in a (Emile) Durkheimian manner, “if you will be integrated, you should accept your place in society.” Comments such as “You are coming from another culture” and “our cultures are so different” should be accepted without any objection, clarification, or nuance. In lectures on theories of “modernity,” when my professor pointed to me as an example of “those coming from non-modern or traditional societies,” I was not supposed to say anything about centuries of modernization and modern revolutions in Iran. By the way, this is a topic that I eventually explored in my book Revolutionary Iran published by Routledge. I felt that I had to be quiet and even show approval for being “considered a fact” that proved “Western modernization theory.” Against this arrogant and fake ‘fact’ constructed in European (post)colonial academic circles, I published another book on the subject, titled Multiple Modernities, Civil Society, and Islam (Liverpool University Press 2006). I hoped to contribute to opening the narrow imperialist and colonial eyes of West-centric academics.
“To Think Freely is Great, but to Think Rightly is Greater”
I realized very soon that there is a “double morality” or “double standard” in Sweden: a private domain and a public domain. However, for any individual to “fit in” society the public domain is much more important. This means that what you think is not important and should not be expressed publicly, or you will be held accountable or even harmed by failing to “think rightly.” This quote—“To think freely is great, but to think rightly is greater,”—by eighteenth century jurist Thomas Thorild is prominently engraved in gold at the entrance of the Grand Auditorium of Uppsala University’s Main Administration Building. Though intended in theory as a quote that promotes social justice, in practice it discourages people from thinking and speaking candidly and honestly because if you do not “think rightly” you will be labelled and sanctioned as being “deviant.”
I have experienced the negative sanctions of “thinking freely” and, worse than that, of communicating my free and honest thoughts publicly in Swedish journalistic and other media outlets. Thinking freely is not a problem as long as you keep your thoughts to yourself or only express them in a very private circle; but “thinking freely” and publicly is strictly taboo. I realized very soon that I had to adjust my thoughts to the tyranny of thinking rightly, which in some cases forced me to “lie.” I tried to convince myself that such “lies” were necessary in order to make parts of my free-thinking public. One of my earliest experiences of “thinking rightly” in Sweden went back to early 1990s. While completing my Master’s degree in Sociology at Uppsala University in 1993, I lived in a dormitory and shared a kitchen with 12 other students. During a dinner in the kitchen as the Swedish Parliamentary Elections were approaching, I asked one of my Swedish friends for which party he was going to vote. He tried to reformulate my inquiry, change the subject and avoid answering my question. When I asked my other dorm mates, they did the same. I felt ignorant and tried to understand why in a democratic society like Sweden, people do not openly discuss their democratic political positions and beliefs. I received several different, but unconvincing, answers. Several years later as I began academic research and writing about white racism and integration in Sweden, many Swedish colleagues and acquaintances would often say to me, “You say what you think” or “You are not afraid of saying what you think.” This repetitive observation was a bit confusing at the beginning. Why were Swedes stating the obvious? I thought that in a democracy you should not be afraid of saying what you think.
When I finished my doctoral education and received my PhD in Sociology from Uppsala University (the “Harvard” of Sweden), I started participating in the public debate on white racism in Swedish media. Experience had taught me that instead of speaking about “racism” in Sweden, you should speak about “integration.” Therefore, I tried to find a compromise by focusing upon “ethnic discrimination” when both conducting research and talking about the experiences of People of Color in Sweden. In other words, I tried to adjust myself to Swedish public norms, by following the custom of “do not say what you think” but adjust yourself to what you are expected to say. Since I was a frequent analyst in Swedish media and often making comments about migration and integration, politicians started contacting me and inviting me in their “inner circles.” As I became a social analyst of importance with expertise on issues of diversity and inclusion, politicians and political parties sought me for their own political agendas. My early political contacts with three Swedish Integration Ministers and other important politicians convinced me that in Sweden racism was “a non-issue” that one should never mention or discuss.
Early Scientific Racism: Swedish Origins
Reading the history of white racism in Sweden made me more concerned about the contemporary denial of racism. Sweden is a country in which one of the earliest institutes of “scientific racism,” namely “The State Institute for Racial Biology” was established in 1922 in Uppsala. The establishment of the institute was a legacy result of the Swedish botanist Carl von Linnaeus’ “Theory of Races” that was elaborated in his book, Systema Naturae, published in 1735. Linnaeus divided human beings into a race-hierarchy based on the color of their skin and their hair. Whites were, of course, the best race and were attributed with the best moral properties in contrast to “blacks,” “yellows,” and “reds,” who were placed under whites’ supremacy. The Institute survived even World War II and changed its name to the “Medical Biological Research Center” in 1958.
This Swedish racist history has also influenced the question of migration. The famous Swedish social democratic inquiry into the “Crisis in the Population Question” was co-authored by Gunnar Myrdal, along with his wife Alva Myrdal, because of concerns about the shortage of the working population in Sweden during the early 1930s. This book suggested that lack the same “qualities” as Swedes. This is the same Gunnar Myrdal who was a famous sociologist very that was very critical of racial segregation in the United States and who criticized the disconnect between US ideals about equality and the inhumane treatment of Black Americans in his famous book, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. In contrast to what he suggested for the U.S., Myrdal claimed that Sweden should introduce policies for Swedes to give birth to more (white) “Swedish children” instead of allowing immigration. Notwithstanding such racist attitudes, the policy was not successful and after World War II the country was forced to actively invite migrant workers to Sweden. However, the migrants were considered “guest workers” who were supposed to return home when Sweden did not need them anymore.
Several years later and after a public debate on the question of “the failed Swedish integration policies,” I was appointed by the Swedish government as the head of a governmental inquiry called The Governmental Inquiry into Power, integration and Structural Discrimination in early 2004. Though an honorable, important, and well-intended appointment, as the saying goes, “Good intentions pave the road to Hell!” One Swedish professor who I assumed was my friend warned me:
You have not a clue who you are going to fight against, there are hidden powers in this country; nothing is going to be the same for you as it was before the investigation; you will not even be able to get a job in this country, they are everywhere and very influential.
Since I saw my fight against Swedish racism as an inseparable part of my struggle for social justice, and as a former human and civil rights revolutionary who participated in the Iranian Revolution of 1979, I convinced myself that heading a governmental investigation regarding racialized power inequities was the right thing to do. I thought that people have lost their lives in struggles for humanity and many are losing their hopes and dignity because of the existence of racism in the world in general and in Sweden in particular. Though only one individual on a global battle field, I was determined to do whatever I could to change the racist institutions and structures in Sweden. I have to admit though that I underestimated the huge resistance to the investigation and the role of powerful institutions, entities, and persons in opposing me and my investigation.
Once I accepted the position of Chief Investigator for a research-based governmental inquiry into racism and discrimination in Sweden, my future life and professional career were forced down that road paved to Hell. I was misrepresented as a trouble maker who “calls gentle Swedes” racists and characterizes the solidarity based Swedish society as a racially biased society. A few days after my appointment as the Chief Investigator, more than 70 Swedish professors and academics led by a leading professor at Gothenburg University wrote a petition to the government and attacked the Minister of Integration for “devaluating the Swedish investigation system” with the appointment of me (Masoud Kamali) as a major governmental investigator. They wrote that “the Swedish governmental investigation system has, prior to Kamali’s appointment, had an excellent scientific quality, which now is at risk of destruction.” In order to defend my scientific and human dignity against such racist attacks, I participated in a debate with the leading professor on Swedish Radio where I said the following:
I received my entire academic training in Sweden and in Swedish universities and if there is any problem with my academic training and my academic merits, the same critics should logically be directed towards the leading professor and other Swedish professors who signed the petition.
The professors did not even take a moment to check where I received my academic education and training. Assuming that my higher education was entirely from Iran and not from Sweden, they accused me of not being as “good an academician” as they (Swedish whites) were.
In an interview when I mentioned the role of “The State Institute of Racial Biology” and the racist theories of Linneaus for perpetuating racist ideology in Sweden as well as their consequences for institutional discrimination against people with immigrant and/or minority backgrounds, I received a huge number of threatening letters and phone calls telling me to leave the country if I did not like it. I was familiar with such racist attacks whenever I was in the Swedish news media spotlight, but the extent of the attacks after the investigation far exceeded the attacks before I led the investigation.
The attacks, however, did not come only from openly racist groups, but also from academicians, politicians and even the Social Democratic Party, which had appointed me as the investigator. I was supposed to “be kind” to the governing party, the Social Democrats. It was a period of huge pressure on me from different political parties and groups who sought to influence the investigation. Empirical findings from the first report of the investigation that was titled “Beyond Us and Them” emphasized the need to change the focus of the problems of integration from “the others” to problematical Swedish institutional arrangements and structures. This was what Gunnar Myrdal had suggested for the United States, but not for Sweden. The new Integration Minister, Jens Orbeck, publicly declared that “I am not sharing Masoud Kamali’s analysis of the problem of integration.” This was followed by many journalists’ and other politicians’ attack on me for “being anti-Swede” and “an immigrant who did not understand the Swedish solidary history.” Though the findings from the governmental investigation were scientific publications written by 130 Swedish experts and international experts in the area, many Swedes, who for many decades presented themselves and their country as champions of democracy and solidarity, did not like my candid reports.
As my leadership of The Governmental Inquiry into Power, Integration, and Structural Discrimination came to an end in 2006, a long campaign of destructive individual and institutional racism against me began. Instead of accepting scientific findings that empirically challenged the essentialist claim of white Swedes and Sweden as the champions of solidarity in the world, powerful people, entities, and institutions scapegoated me as a prime enemy against their imagined Swedish utopia.
Twenty years after the assassination of Olaf Palme, it became crystal clear to me that members of the democracy that I once believed in would invest far more energy and resources into denying harsh inequities than becoming the democracy that Palme stood and died for.
Each year in mid-January, many Americans celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday in service, in protest, or in worship. Marking King’s birthday represents a hard-won political, cultural and moral victory in the U.S.
Yet, it is one that many of those in power voted against establishing the King holiday, including senators Chuck Grassley, Orrin Hatch, John McCain, Richard Shelby, and Johnny Isakson. The New York Times has published a definitive record of the overt, documented racism of the current occupant of the highest elected office. And, it’s no coincidence that the some of the same GOP leaders who opposed establishing the holiday for MLK are among those who defend the president.
It is unavoidably clear that white Americans are not doing their share of educating themselves about racism, a point that Dr. King made more than fifty years ago.
If you’re one of those who wants to educate themselves more, but doesn’t know where to begin, check out Raoul Peck’s award-winning documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” which features some never-before published writing by James Baldwin who had quite a lot to say about race and racism in the U.S.
April 4, 1968, about 6:01pm. We should always remember that time. It has now been 50+ years since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. He was moving conceptually and in his actions in a more radical direction combining antiracist, broader anticlass, and antiwar efforts—which efforts likely had much to do with his assassination. (Photo: Wiki-images)
I remember the day vividly, like it was yesterday, and can still remember the time of day when one of my students at the University of California called me to tell of the terrible event, and I can still remember well my and his extraordinarily distressed emotions as we talked about the shooting. (We did not know Dr. King had died at that time.) He was one of the few African American students then at that university and as one would expect was devastated by the event, as I was too.
The events leading up to Dr. King’s assassination need to be taught everywhere. In late March 1968 Dr. King and other civil rights leaders participated in and supported the local Memphis sanitary works employees, black and white, who were striking for better wages and working condition. (They were also building up coalitions across the various groups of Black civil rights and Black power movements, including a few years earlier between Dr. King and Malcolm X and their supporters.)
Conditions in Memphis, as elsewhere, were very oppressive for workers, in both racial and class terms, as this summary makes clear:
In one incident, black street repairmen received pay for two hours when they were sent home because of bad weather, but white employees were paid for the full day.
We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.
Let us remember him well, and especially his prophetic antiracist, anti-capitalistic, and antiwar messages, on this King holiday, 2019.
While subconsciously reconciling my compartmentalized thwarted and grief stricken emotions regarding the legend Bill Cosby and the convicted rapist Bill Cosby, I noticed something occurring inside of me. I had completely become disoriented in my media-inspired, vicarious attempt to keep track of the detailed salacious, gritty and heart-wrenching stories of sexual assault and harassment women (and some men) have endured while working behind and in front of Tinseltown cameras. I was essentially burned out.
The need to be constantly aware of the latest sexual assault or harassment claim brought on media inspired emotional drowning as my brain swallowed too much (literally) man-made sadness. For too many of us, it is inescapable. We are forced to see the damage and consequential pain brought on by numerous local (almost always male) government officials, state representatives, senators and even president of “this here” United States. There have been so many gloomy stories of abuse and violence finally being brought to the light.
As of late, the confirmation of now Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh has brought a new level of debauchery. His actions alongside the Republican party’s slimy maneuver of trying to not offend registered-Republican white women voters while at the same time standing behind “their man,” have taken the oxygen out of the room of sanity and caused much confusion and euphoria. Silicon Valley, higher education, and even the evangelical church are not immune to these acts of sexist injustice as well.
Sexual violence and harassment allegations have captured the US psyche. They draw one to believe the occurrence of sexual assault and harassment within Hollywood, branches of government, higher education, Silicon Valley, and God knows where else are simple examples of a society founded in white male privilege. It includes patriarchal privilege historically wielded widely by white males, but practiced to some degree by men in every racial-ethnic group. This gendered privilege has placed women at the whim of male physical, economic, academic, legislative and psychological dominance.
Today, the energy and power derived from the anger and frustration over sexual assault and harassment has generated a long overdue spotlight on a sexist system that creates and supports the injustice women have long endured, on the people who support and protect it, on and the darkness that was created to force the silence of the victims. Entrenched threats to the bodies, careers, minds and souls of anybody who publicly acknowledges the acts as highly unjust are easing as survivors seek public and monetary retribution.
Now I know way before the dam was broken with the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., President Donald Trump, comedian Andy Dick, former Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court Roy Moore, actor Ben Affleck, Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., casino magnate Stephen Wynn, director Brett Ratner, news anchor Matt Lauer, Rep. Eric Massa, D-N.Y., filmmaker Paul Haggis, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., and countless others (too many to mention without becoming physically ill), there was President Bill Clinton. Two decades earlier, there was Rep. John Young, D-Texas. And the repressive misogynistic beat goes on and on.
Women from the beginning of time have been subjugated by predominantly privileged white men who have operated as if their possession of a penis allotted them a right –– an unbridled freedom to ogle, sexually harass, grab, assault and rape without counteraction. Men from the birth of our nation have attempted to control every aspect of a woman’s life and body functions. Yet women have risen to be prospering survivors in a male-subjugated landscape. I have witnessed this along the intersectionality of gender and race. As a Black child, I became familiar with the illustrations of Black females in America anointed by non-Blacks with a degree of invisibility and debasement many women who are not of color could not fathom.
Therefore, my pride was understandable as I surfed through the cable news channels on January 20 and watched millions of women around the world energetically march to protest sexual harassment and assault. I began to even chant “Me Too! Me Too!” as my 1- and 4-year-old boys played in the living room.
But after each speech a mounting sense of recollection laced with fear began to creep into my mind. Within the emotional testimonies and speeches performed by the elite in music, television, politics and movies, I heard a theme that spoke of “believing all women.” In the weeks that followed, I observed male commentators and reporters on the more liberal channels pledge their alliance to the Me Too movement without hesitation in the context of high-profile accusations associated with Trump, Moore and comedian Louis C.K. The same feeling emerged when television networks showed video of congressmen and senators such as even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell saying, “I believe the women.”
As a self-proclaimed “woke” Black man, the phrase reverberates abruptly off the pages of Black U.S. history, which creates angst in my soul. So much so that when new allegations surface, I cringe, cross my fingers and toes and pray the accused is not a Black man. Ridiculous? Maybe to those of a lighter hue. But I cannot help but fear the social and psychological repercussions of stories related to Bill Cosby and Russell Simmons to the American psyche. I am NOT saying they are innocent. I am saying I have certain fears.
Evidence of my fear is illustrated on the crying face of the 9-year-old Black boy in a Brooklyn store last week who was accused of sexual assault by a white female patron, now being called online as “Cornerstone Caroline.” She called for police assistance and accused the child of grabbing her backside. The store security’s videotape (thank God there was a tape) proved that her allegations were completely false. When I consider her actions, which I feel are based on black male racial stereotyping, and her sick undertaking to sexualize a 9-year-old little boy, I am reminded of what hangs from the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
The newly constructed museum was brought to life by the nonprofit Equal Justice Institute. The museum opened April 26, 2018 in Montgomery, Ala. to becoming the country’s first memorial to the legacy of enslaved Black people who were victims of white terroristic behavior — lynching. The names of Blacks symbolically hang from the rafters as evidence of a presumption of guilt and consequential violence. The museum gives voice to “strange fruit” hung from southern trees. The 4,000 Black men, women and children were not simply tortured, but savagely lynched, burned and castrated alive, and at times dragged on display for others to be reminded of their place within the white constructed racial hierarchy. White men, women and children who treated the cruelty as attending a circus or county fair, gleefully observed many of these ungodly incidents. If one has the stomach, evidence can be found in historical photos, postcards and newspaper clippings.
Many of the 805 etched steel markers suspended from the rafters of the museum illustrate limitless examples of “believe the [white] women.” Before the Civil War, many statutes were passed by white male politicians to provide a penalty of death or castration for Black men suspected or convicted of raping white women. Many whites believed lynching was necessary to protect the prized possession of a white man — the white female –– from the “human beast” of white-racist imagination, the Black man. Our country’s whites accepted this form of natural law as an appropriate measure to secure not only the sanctity of the white woman, but also the larger system of white racial oppression. The spark that gave fire to the Tulsa (Oklahoma) white race riots of 1921 and the 1923 white massacre of black citizens in Rosewood (Florida) were fueled by white allegations of rape. It has been noted that in 1900, on the floor of the U.S. Senate, the powerful Senator Benjamin Tillman (D-S.C.) stated:
We have never believed him [the Black man] to be equal to the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him.
But for white men, the rules were and continue to be quite different. Historically, white rapists who victimized their female counterparts were likely to receive less severe punishment. For Black men, pure allegations were enough to invoke white mobs to capture the alleged rapists or forcefully break them out of prison or court. The sentiment and ideological perspectives regarding Black male sexuality that prompted these acts continued beyond the days of slavery. Movies such as “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), “Super Fly” (1972), and name your pick of a Tyler Perry movie, all personify and perpetuate fear of Black male sexuality. Regardless, the system that allowed Black men to be accused, tortured and murdered due to “believing the [white] woman,” by way of white mobs or an illegitimate justice system continues.
The infamous wrongful conviction of the Central Park Five in 1990 stands out. Black and Latino teenagers from Harlem were not only accused of raping a white woman in New York City’s Central Park, but also publicly “hung” by the media. The events that occurred after the rape revealed a city and nation’s horrid and sinful side –– a side filled with not only the white fear and false stereotypes of Black males, but a white disdain for those seen as “other.” A call to bring back the death penalty, overzealous police harassment and public attacks of Black men were rampant in the city. In fact, the media, and white people such as then simply millionaire Donald Trump, fed the city the raw meat that often nourishes the white psyche and reaction to Black men. Even after evidence proved the teens innocent, whites like President Trump continue to this day affirming their guilt.
Bob Allen, once a senior Republican, anti-gay legislator in Florida, was convicted in 2007 for attempting to solicit oral sex in a men’s bathroom from an undercover police officer. What was his defense? He said the undercover officer was a large and daunting Black man, therefore he felt he had no choice but to perform any act necessary to survive the encounter. In 1994, Susan Smith of Union, S.C., drowned her two children by rolling her car into a lake because a man she was dating in an extramarital affair did not want kids. She told police her children were carjacked by a Black man, only to confess nine days later. As Time magazine put it:
Susan Smith knew what a kidnapper should look like. He should be a remorseless stranger with a gun. But the essential part of the picture — the touch she must have counted on to arouse the primal sympathies of her neighbors and to cut short any doubt — was his race. The suspect had to be a black man. Better still, a black man in a knit cap, a bit of hip-hop wardrobe that can be as menacing in some minds as a buccaneer’s eye patch. Wasn’t that everyone’s most familiar image of the murderous criminal?
In 2008, Thomas McGowan, a Black man, was released after spending nearly 23 years in Texas prison for rape and burglary. With help from the Innocence Project, some DNA indicated he was wrongly convicted. In March 2017, the white Texas native Breana Harmon, 18, reported she was abducted by three Black men and raped. Two weeks later, she confessed to lying to authorities and was offered a sentence of probation and ordered to pay $10,000. In 2007, the white female Carolyn Bryant Donham recanted parts of her 1955 accusations of sexual harassment that led to the abduction and ghastly murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy visiting family in Mississippi.
You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go.
He meant Black men. I could provide much more, but you could lose your way navigating the historical and contemporary injustice pertaining to Black men and the concept, “believe all the women.”
I know those women survivors and the empathetic allied parties to the Me Too movement will probably receive my feelings badly. And I get it. These survivors have been forced into darkness and silence for far too long and the newly created space to tell one’s hard truths is roaring like a necessary tidal wave. However, after the proverbial dust settles, and the fiery speeches of condemnation begin to wither, maybe our country will begin to make space for honest conversations from all sides of the issue where we can begin to apply specific contextual and situational parameters to realities of sexual abuse and harassment. I hope that we will be able to apply a clear racialized lens to allow those of color to be fully seen and heard. Just maybe we can all one day be on a new page of #MeToo.
Slavery in America–horrific work conditions, physical abuse, and lack of power come to mind; rarely do we consider the rape of black women by white men. White fathers and their sons regularly engaged in sexual violence against enslaved black women, often purchasing them for this purpose. This sexual exploitation was frequently allowed by white parents, if not encouraged. Because this behavior was normalized, and permitted by the U.S. legal system, it is no wonder the rape of enslaved black women was commonplace during slavery. Historians have described the rape of enslaved women by white men as a “routine feature” of most Southern slaveholdings. In When Rape was Legal: The Untold History of Sexual Violence during Slavery, I analyze this routine rape, focusing on the role of white men and women in sustaining oppression.
White masculinity has evolved over time and is shaped by a variety of factors including class, region, and the institution of slavery. In particular, those traits admired in white men were generally those which whites claimed contrasted with enslaved men and women. For example, dominance, independence, honor and sexual prowess served as standards for white masculinity. Identifying as the “master of others,” including being served by enslaved people and ordering them around, was particularly important for the status of wealthy white men in the South. In this sense, sexual violence against enslaved black women offered a legally accessible and socially acceptable way for white men to achieve many of the traits upheld by white society at the time.
White men experienced many social and legal incentives to engage in the rape of enslaved black women. As opposed to viewing this sexual violence as merely the result of sexual desire, demonstrations of power, or racial domination, it is best to understand this rape as an outcome of all of these components working together as part of the identity of white masculinity during this time period.
Many white boys and men were encouraged to engage in sexual violence against enslaved black women through social norms and parental guidance. For instance, a formerly enslaved man, “Bird” Walton described the experience of a woman Ethel Jane, with whom he was enslaved. Walton explained that the master of the household brought his son, Levey, to one of the cabins where,
They both took her [Ethel Jane]-the father showing the son what it was all about—and she couldn’t do nothing ‘bout it.
White women also had a role to play in encouraging their sons to sexually violate enslaved women. In some cases, they would purchase enslaved women for their sons, such as the example Tirrell notes in 1844 of a white mother in Virginia who purchased three attractive mulatto females, and placed them in a cottage near the family mansion, for the exclusive use of an only son—assigning as a reason why she did it, that it would “make Charley steady!”
The term “mulatto” in this passage, which was commonly used in the 1800’s to associate mixed-race individuals with mules, reflects the way enslaved women were dehumanized in the minds of whites and were thus able to be exploited for the benefit of whites without social or legal repercussions. Moreover, this quote reflects the role that some mothers played in creating a context which encouraged white boys and men to engage in sexual violence of enslaved women.
This is not the only role white women played in the sexual violence against enslaved black women. As mothers, but also as wives, white women played an intricate and noteworthy role in sustaining the oppression of black women under slavery. As a group with an intermediate degree of power and status, white women did not have the financial independence or legal power to fully resist their husbands’ behavior without consequences to themselves. However, their position within an intersectional hierarchy often afforded them some power to punish and blame enslaved women who were subjected to rape and sexual violence, or to ignore the violence altogether, as I describe in a previous post and in more detail in the book. White women’s intermediate status and power highlights the way intersectional oppression functions and is sustained, incentivizing various groups to uphold oppression of those beneath them within the hierarchy even if this also requires sustaining their own repressed status.
Today, a legacy of white male entitlement to the bodies of women and the derogatory white racial framing of black women continues. For instance, Brittany Slatton’s research demonstrates the way many white men today still view black women in terms of their sexual value, as exotic and degraded simultaneously, and as an opportunity for white men to explore their sexuality. Peggy Reeves Sanday has also documented the use of gang rapes by men as a male bonding activity on college campuses, practicing the sexual exploitation and violation of women as a means to foster masculinity. These practices are deeply embedded in the foundation of U.S. society, occurring throughout slavery as a regular, socially and legally accepted behavior for white men for hundreds of years.
In addition to shedding light on the routine sexual violence against enslaved black women that is foundational to U.S. society, and the legacy this has left behind in terms of white male entitlement and the derogatory white racial framing of black women today, When Rape was Legal offers theoretical insight into the mechanisms that help sustain intersectional oppression broadly.