Like other sectors of society, sport serves as a site where constructions of race are developed and contested on a regular basis. Many would like to believe that these racialized patterns are restricted to the competitive arena. But the reality is, throughout history, sport has always responded to broader race politics, while simultaneously firing back at the racialized patterns seen off the field.
We see it less now than in decades past. Gone are the Muhammad Ali’s, Jackie Robinson’s, John Carlos’s, and Tommie Smith’s, who through their athletic prime stood consciously as symbols for African American communities prior to and during the Civil Rights Movement. Before them, even the less politically spirited Jesse Owens functioned as a key figure in in the push for racial equality.
Today’s celebrity athletes are more constricted by corporate-driven politics and a less active push for social justice. Now in the twenty-first century, much of society likes to feel we have reached a place where perceptions of race and behavioral racism no longer matter, or only emerge among fringe, extremist groups outside the mainstream.
Public response to talented black men
But as we saw nearly two weeks ago just after the Seattle Seahawks defeated the San Francisco 49ers to advance to the NFL’s Super Bowl, racism continues to interact with sport very systemically, though now, in less obvious form. In that contest’s final play, Seattle cornerback, Richard Sherman deflected a pass intended for San Francisco wide-receiver Michael Crabtree, with whom Sherman had developed a mild rivalry. Both Sherman and Crabtree are African American.
Sherman’s athletic feat preserved Seattle’s win, leading to an on-field post-game interview in which an animated Sherman asserted his status as the League’s top cornerback, while verbally deriding Crabtree, and doing so while staring angrily into the camera.
No doubt Sherman provided a feisty and different kind of interview, but considering some of the outrageous, often times discriminatory things athletes and sports managers have said very publicly over the years, Sherman’s words and method of expressing them were perhaps atypical, definitely emotional, but hardly threatening.
Still, the interview generated extensive media attention, and a significant backlash from individuals through social media where Sherman was repeatedly labeled in deleterious ways. It is here where we see how racism has shifted in contemporary society and where we can reflect upon Sherman’s experience as an athlete beyond sport.
Again, the bulk of American sports fans, and Americans in general, like to think that racism is no longer a significant social problem. Moreover, most members of society like to present themselves as supportive of a color-blind, postracial culture that no longer needs to consider race in in everyday interactions, let alone in public policy.
Unfortunately a significant portion of society is still resistant to talented, confident, intelligent, outspoken, and as Kevin Beckford and Greg Howard say, multidimensional black men. In turn those societal members who harbor racist attitudes must find ways to express their discriminatory thoughts in a manner that protects them from being called a racist.
Coded Racism in Contemporary Society
Enter the label, or code word, “thug.” Code words are words that at their base have nothing to do with perceptions of race, but within a particular social context hold strong racial undertones and reify racist stereotypes.
In describing African Americans, code words that too often enter the lexicon of mainstream media include, “inner city,” “welfare queen,” and especially for males, “thug.” It is hardly surprising then, that the day after Seattle’s victory and Sherman’s rant, “people said thug on TV more often than on any other day in the past three years,” and that Sherman was an overt target across social media, repeatedly called a thug, along with overt racial slurs.
This is a far too common way that racism operates in contemporary society – hidden within seemingly objective vernacular that in reality carries distinct racial bias. A highly intellectual individual who graduated from Stanford University and is pursuing a postgraduate degree, Sherman asserts, thug “is the accepted way of calling somebody the N-word nowadays.” More from Sherman:
“The backlash surprised me, because I think the support came after the backlash. I was a little surprised, because we’re talking about football here. A lot of people took it further than football. And I guess some people showed how far we’ve really come in this day and age. And it was kind of profound, what happened. Because I was on a football field showing passion. Maybe it was misdirected, maybe it was immature, maybe things could have been worded better. But this was on a football field — I wasn’t committing any crimes or doing anything illegal; I was showing passion after a football game.” [emphasis added]
Sherman is spot on in his analysis. To this end, the way that Sherman has been attacked is not a phenomenon unique to the sporting world or the United States.
In Auckland, New Zealand where I work, many of the Maori and Pacific students with whom I conduct research have referred to this kind of discrimination as “soft,” “indirect,” and “civilized” racism, noting that racist peers refrain from using explicit racial epithets to demean them.
Instead racism is enacted – among other ways – by negating Maori and Pacific hard work and talent, and relegating their academic achievements to preferential treatment. Hence, the racialized insults cast upon ethnic minority students are coded within a kind of discourse that protects the racist perpetrator.
In other words, code words enable majority group members to call Maori students, “dumb Maori’s,” and perpetuate racism without actually using those inflammatory words.
Worldwide, ethnic minorities are keenly aware of the code words and nuanced ways that everyday racism keeps us pushed to the periphery. It should not take the unfair treatment of a celebrity athlete of color to uncover the cloaked nature of contemporary racism.