Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Driving While Black, and Life in Post-Racial (sic) America

W'sup Sabine County Sheriff? My bad for scootin' through there and bein' black at the same time. Didnt mean to bother you and the Forest Services (or Alpo, the kindly drug mutt)! Next time, I won't not speed or pass the paper bag test ...

The March 17, 2009 incident involving the Dallas Police and Ryan Moats is a counterpunch to the suggestion – tantalizing, while also mind-numbingly inane – that we are now in a “Post-Racial America.”

Watching the incident unfold (video-documented here and analyzed well in a number of blogs and newspapers, including Dave Zirin on his 3/30 HuffingtonPost.com missive) has incited within me a bilious mixture of disgust, regret, and extreme disappointment.

Many people who know me well know that I have lost both of my parents. What they do not know was that I was not at either one of their bedsides when they passed away. Both times, I was in transit, rushing cautiously but speedily to be at their sides, all for naught. When my father passed away, I received word that he was dying, and I made the three and a half hour drive from Shreveport to Lafayette only to arrive 30 minutes too late. When my mother passed away, the drive was across Biloxi to get to her, again, arriving minutes late. I don’t recall the content of those drives, whether I braked appropriately, signaled each time, came to complete stops, though I am reasonably sure I did, as I am a careful driver. And furthermore, were I to have been pulled over, I hope that I would have been as patient and as tolerable as Moats appeared to be. Truly, his demeanor throughout the entire horrifying incident is what makes this case as disgusting a case of police misbehavior on record (the many, many incidents of police brutality and murder on record, notwithstanding). I truly feel for Mr. Moats and his family, and wish to express my regrets for their loss.

For all the talk about America entering a new era – a post-racial era – given the election of Barack Obama as president, incidents like this remind us all too starkly that while a Black leader is now calling the shots, many Black people in this country face a paralyzing fear of getting shot at by police officers who abuse their authority and harbor hatred for Black people. Ryan Moats, and the unseen individuals who every day are haunted by the specter of institutionalized racism, are reminded time and time again that their race – not the content of their character – determines their place in the social order of America. Though I am a career-long educator and committed advocate of social justice, hopeful that America will live up to the words of the Declaration of Independence, episodes like this jar my sensibility to the point that I am certain that the only unalienable right I have is to remain silent.

Mr. Moats had every reason to be angry, to plead his case at a much higher decibel level, and finally, to challenge the officer – a little man with a big syndrome and a bone to be picked at Mr. Moats’ expense. And yet we all know, were that to have occurred, I might be writing today about two deaths rather than one, and in six to twelve months, riots would have ensued after this officer – after a paid suspension, of course – was exonerated and walked scot-free. I don’t care that the officer has apologized – it was contrived, expedient for his pending civil case and disciplinary hearings, and would not have happened if Moats didn’t tote the ball for the Texans.
Compounding the frustration I feel is the fact that the officer’s harassment of Mr. Moats discourages not only the public’s trust in officers of the law, but has to be discouraging, too, for other competent police officers across the country who risk their lives, day in and day out, to protect and to serve. While the case of Ryan Moats is being publicly debated, consider also that just a few weekends ago, four police officers were killed after a routine traffic stop involving an individual (a young black man, who was also killed after the incident) with an extensive criminal history (AP report). These men gave their lives protecting the people of Oakland and were met with a fate that is tragic and undeserved. I am truly saddened for their family’s losses, as well, as none of them were able to be at the sides of these men as they passed away.

One ill, in this case, feeds an alternating illness. Police officers in Oakland were already maligned after public outcry over the New Year’s Day shooting of Oscar Grant on a BART/S train platform -- a case which has drawn murder charges for a police officer currently on suspension. Now we have learned that about 20 onlookers at the scene of the shooting where the four police officers were slain actually lingered and taunted the police officers (AP report). It’s a Moebius Strip, which has neither a beginning nor an end – incompetent, racist police officers harass black citizens, causing black citizens to lose trust in and become fearful of all police forces. Black citizens become increasingly distrusting, leading to, at best, the “No Snitching” campaign, and at worst, to police becoming targets of violence. Whatever the case, there is nothing “post-racial” about this dynamic.

To close, I have long been a critic of the dominant sports media in America, and days after the Moats incident, there is little analysis or investigation into the incident on the major providers of content (ESPN.com, SI.com, Yahoo!Sports, and the like). They’ve, of course, provided video of Moats accepting the officer’s apology – as if to say, “don’t worry, everyone, it’s all okay now. No need to get racial.” The dominant sports media is also curiously giving as much coverage to an earlier incident involving this officer of the law, noting that the same officer had pulled over Zach Thomas’ (another NFL player) wife and arrested her after a routine traffic stop – as if to say, “See, everyone? He doesn’t just pick on black people.” As usual, the blogosphere is leading the way, and within hours of the incident, bloggers had posted videos of the incident and culled information from his MySpace.com page in which allegedly wishes to assault a young woman he’d pulled over, but recoils because her 7-year old daughter was watching. Clearly, whether his motives were racist or not, this is someone who has long exhibited the signs of incompetence and emotional instability that should have had him removed from the beat a long time ago.

But perception is everything. Whether or not the officer’s intentions were to display a deep-seated urge to dominate a black man, borne of his frustration and angst over a seemingly well-to-do black man standing up to him, or not, that is how many will perceive it. And his actions not only destroyed trust, but he has endangered the lives and made the work of his fellow officers more difficult. And he has disheartened virtually everyone else in the process, including me.

And maybe the silver lining is that he has, for once and for all, destroyed this whole “Post-Racial America” fallacy for good, and we can get back to broaching a discussion about racial inequality in America that will ultimately benefit us all.

Code Inspector or Architect?: The Role of the Social Critic

Scoop Jackson -- he plays the role of a social critic and he rolls like a social critic.
Stephen A. is only a jackass that plays a social critic on television.

“Se dice bisonte, no bufalo (It’s called bison, not buffalo).” – Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Recently, a friend of mine and regular reader posed a question to me that I found intriguing because a) it’s a good question, one I often am asked, and its proof that readers are engaging my compositions critically, and b) it is proof that someone out there is reading!!!

The question, and I’ll paraphrase, went as such:

In your writing, you often explore racial themes in sports, but I don’t always see these situations as racially motivated or racist in nature. Why do you always write about racial problems?

Human beings, both through instinct and learned behavior, inherently search for meaning in their lives and in their surroundings. For some, this is a task that is attached, inextricably and directly, to one’s material existence, and is a simple function of making it from one day to the next. For a decreasing number of people in contemporary American society (due largely to the shrinking middle class, the lack of focus on critical thinking in public education, and a seismic shift to the bad in civic engagement) this also involves posing difficult questions about one’s environs, with intent to solve those problems. This group is composed, for example, of medical practitioners who not only treat disease, but inquire and research how those diseases originate and how to prevent them. It includes educators who not only teach children, but research more effective ways to inspire children and take their lives and experiences out of the classroom and integrate them into the learning experience. It also includes philosophers who not only record and examine, like the historian and the anthropologist, but deliberate about the best way forward.

Social critics do just that. They examine tangible societal elements (otherwise known as “culture”) and attempt to make sense of them. What do these elements tell us about ourselves? What do they reveal about our ways of seeing the world? In what ways might we make improvements and make our communities better places to live and our experiences generally more satisfying? Undeniably, social critics are arbiters of taste, often instructing the masses to enjoy or not enjoy something (think movie and food critics, book reviewers, theologians, and the like). The social critic, generally, is someone who is trained and credentialed in the area they offer criticism, and should offer that criticism for the express purpose of societal advancement. Otherwise, it is charlatanry or public relations.

By the above definition, I aspire to provide social criticism, particularly about the intersections between race, culture, and sport in contemporary society. I am uniquely, if not peculiarly, qualified to be a critic on this subject, namely because of a number of experiences and credentials that I have worked hard and am incredibly fortunate to have earned. I am a former college athlete with a Ph.D. in discourse studies, I’ve worked in higher ed for 10 years in athletics departments and as a faculty member, and I’ve researched issues in contemporary American sport extensively, publishing essays in several journals. My hope is that after reading one of my articles that the reader is provoked to consider a perspective that she or he may never have considered before. If the reader doesn’t agree with me, that’s okay. I write primarily to inform and to engage; persuasion is a secondary and often unintentional aim.

I also engage in social criticism which focuses on race and culture because those are the tools I have. If you’ve ever read good sportswriting, then you’ll know that sportswriters all have different tools. John Updike’s “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” is an essay about Ted Williams’ last game, and in it, there is as much description of the fans and the environs as there is about Williams. Updike’s lyrical prose, wrought with evocative language and descriptors is a far cry from the straight-ahead investigatory sports writing of Peter King or the tongue-in-cheek, mock-seriousness of Rick Reilly, who often uses sport criticism to reveal absurdity and foible in contemporary American life.

Me? I refuse to see sport as the great panacea it is often cast as for commercial reasons. Sport is not, as the advertisements on NBC and ESPN would have us believe, a world devoid of racism, cultural clashes, sexism, and segregation. Unlike Howard Cosell’s erroneous claim that "Rule Number One of the 'Jockocracy' is that (athletics) and politics should never mix," I believe that it is not we who mix them, but that they are mixed in and of themselves. Sports in America happen on American soil, into which is embedded and inscribed a history of complex, debilitating, and pernicious racial segregation. Therefore, when I analyze an issue of racial or cultural disparity or inequality in contemporary sport, I am not making the issue racial, I’m simply attempting to interpret why – historically, socially, and otherwise – those racial or cultural inequalities exist.

Michael Jordan (even though he wasn’t named an executive after helping re-brand the Wizards), Tiger Woods (even though he was called a chicken eatin’ Sambo by Fuzzy Zoeller), and LeBron James (even though he was cast as King Kong on the cover of Vogue) might choose to avoid using their platform to more thought-provokingly address discussions about race, and that is certainly their prerogative. I choose to act as if sport is not immune to racism, and I cite extensive examples to ground my claims.

Alas, readers may not see it my way, and as I noted earlier, that’s okay. I much less often focus on gender discrimination or issues of sexuality in sport, as these are not tools in my toolkit. Nor am I a rabid fire-breathing sort who can tell you why only three of the six potential first-round draft picks that my favorite team is considering will help them win a championship in the next three years. I’m interested in race and culture, and see the world through those frames, including sport.

In the end, I am not the architect whose design makes or does not make racism and cultural inequality a part of American sport. I am a code inspector who is able, with the tools of my training, to analyze the structure of the building, if it is or is not properly maintained, diagnose which parts of it are adequately fortified and which need repair, and hopefully make the home a better place to live.