Playing (anti-)blackness: Expanding understandings of racism in sport

—Stanley I. Thangaraj

dengThe National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Atlanta Hawks entered the 2015 playoff run as the number one seed in the Eastern Conference, and with one of the best records in franchise history. Even with injuries, to key defender Thabo Sefolosha, role player Demarre Carroll, and bull’s eye shooter Kyle Korver, the Hawks’ efficient offensive attack and stifling defense propelled them to the Eastern Conference finals. Though the Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Hawks, there was much to rejoice for the Hawks after a very successful season of winning streaks. With their rewarding season, however, came a type of forgetting, or even worse, a limited understanding of race. As the Hawks did well, the racial violence within sport became an invisible background to their stories of sporting success. In this essay, I will demonstrate how narrow versions of blackness (as seen in the case of Hawks General Manager Danny Ferry and Civil Rights icon Andy Young) marginalize the black migrant, queer, and trans person which further de-politicizes and de-legitimates anti-racism campaigns.

During the recruitment period in the summer of 2014, General Manager of the Hawks, Danny Ferry was on a conference call with other team executives to discuss potential free agents. Ferry, a white male and former NBA and Duke University player, looked through his data on South Sudanese American player Luol Deng, and stated that Deng “has a little African in him.” With regard to the inflammatory comment, Ferry admitted to perusing through various sources of material gathered on Luol Deng and added, “He’s like a guy who would have a nice store out front and sell you counterfeit stuff out of the back.”

Danny Ferry’s comments remind us how the anti-black racism in larger American society seeps and bleeds into the very fabric of sport. The presence of black athletes in the NBA does not make mainstream American sport “post-racial.” These comments and the events that followed them not only demonstrate the presence of racism but also the containing of blackness as identity and politics. In present-day U.S. society, we must carefully evaluate the immediate history of anti-black violence and interrogate it, if we seek to fully understand the ways in which blackness is contained.

The loaded and vile evaluations of Luol Deng resulted in Danny Ferry taking a leave of absence. Many individuals came to the support of Danny Ferry. The support, as I will argue further, gives us a problematic understanding of blackness that is out of touch with the Black Lives Matter movement and the trans women color organizing. Organizations like the Audre Lorde Project link anti-black racism to xenophobia, anti-immigrant practices, and U.S. imperialism. We do not yet fully see this expansive social justice campaign in sport. Instead, after the leak of Ferry’s comments, Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer (who was named 2015 “coach of the year”) iterated that it was the genius of Danny Ferry that played a part in the Hawks franchise’s success. This affirmation of Ferry as a professional genius and not a racist—unlike former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling who was pushed out by the league for his racist comments about black people sitting in his seats—is part of a new terrain of expressing race that is simplistic in its compilation of blackness and in privileging of whiteness. As Luol Deng was African, he was somehow outside the respectable bounds of care and thus not able or allowed to speak against racism. Certain types of representations of native-born blackness become iconic, while the black migrant Other is seen as duplicitous, dodgy, and untrustworthy.

To both my shock and expectations, former Atlanta mayor and civil rights legend Andy Young, a leader in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, came to the side of Danny Ferry. According to ESPN staff writer Kevin Arnovitz, when asked whether Ferry should lose his job, Young responded, “Hell no.” Young said that had he been the decision-maker in the Hawks executive offices, he would have encouraged Ferry to stay on. He added that he doesn’t believe Ferry is a racist. To make matters even more complicated, he substituted himself into this equation to free Ferry of any blame: “No more than I am,” Young told the Atlanta station. “That’s a word that you cannot define, ‘You are a racist.’ You can’t grow up white in America without having some problems. You can’t grow up black in America without having some subtle feelings.”

Andy Young’s comments, although disheartening in their disregard for the harrowing experiences of racial violence, should not be seen as exceptional. Rather, it is part and parcel of the projection of African American identity through which certain nefarious alliances are made between black and white elites. Accordingly, a version of blackness is created through Young comments; it is a narrow, constricted, and limited understanding of blackness that elides and dismisses entire groups of people. This version of blackness contains threads of xenophobia that justify racist acts against immigrant black individuals like Luol Deng.

I believe Young’s support of Ferry keeping his job is tied to a clearly bounded blackness with specific national contours. Deng’s refugee status and African identity underwhelmed claims to blackness and anti-black racism. In the process of constructing what black is by stating who is not—in this case, Luol Deng, we see the parameters of blackness and ideas of respectability come to the surface. By not condemning Ferry’s statements and supporting his dismissal, Andy Young manufactures and engrains versions of blackness that make the victim of racism the middle-class, native-born, heterosexual, Christian African American man.

Not seeing Ferry’s racial statements as problematic, Young defines blackness and subsequent experiences of racism in limiting ways that fails to account for the heterogeneity and contradictions within blackness. The overemphasis on the black Atlantic is prevalent in how we think about race, racism, and activism. Roderick Ferguson, in his chapter in Strange Affinities, asks us to imagine a blackness that complicates our understandings of Africa and accounts for various diasporic African populations on U.S. shores. Instead of centering western Africa, he asks for black studies to include work on east Africans in the United States. For example, there are large Ethiopian, Sudanese, and Somalian communities in Atlanta. In fact, the Lost Boys of Sudan (the young Sudanese who fled across nations and refugee camps at the height of the civil war in 1980s Sudan) have a strong community in Metro Atlanta and there is a large African refugee community in the Atlanta suburb of Clarkston (see the fabulous book Outcasts United by Warren St. John).

When Andy Young dismisses the problematic discourse that ostracizes black refugee and immigrant bodies, this might be part of a larger societal discourse of blackness that does not attend to interconnected issues of racism, immigration reform, poor black communities, rising xenophobia, and the entrenchment of Islamophobia (see Junaid Rana’s Terrifying Muslims and Ahmed Afzal’s Lone Star Muslims). In many ways, his encapsulated and static understanding of race is easily worked into the anti-immigrant logic that sees immigrants, especially African immigrants, as non-subjects and not within the discourse of race and racial justice within the United States. As a result, the broken leg sustained by Hawks Afro-French player Thabo Sefolosha is not attended to by persons like Andy Young. Although the details have not surfaced as to how Sefolosha broke his leg in the encounter with police, Young’s conceptualization of blackness already projects Sefolosha outside the logic of racial communities and care.

To go back in time and come back to the present, the blackness that was central to the Civil Rights Movement could not and did not always accommodate blackness in radical ways. The mainstreaming versions of the Civil Rights Movement struggled and failed to attend to LGBTQI and immigration matters in the movement. Andy Young’s version of blackness and respective productions of social justice are therefore not expansive. Luol Deng did not fit enough to the middle-classed, light-skinned, and American-centered version of blackness. Young’s version of blackness was not as expansive as the Pan-African claims by Marcus Garvey, Audre Lorde, and many other scholars and activists. As we have increasing numbers of African players in the NBA and other professional sports, how will blackness account for the far reach and radical possibilities that move beyond our shores?

Andy Young’s support of Danny Ferry plays into the xenophobia that governs how we think about U.S. identity and African American identity. There are many examples of how the histories of Africans, African diaspora communities, and African Americans have not always led to collaborative work. There are instances of tension between these groups, but “blackness” must be an open concept in order to create true change.

As a high school student in Atlanta, I came across the contradictions and entrenchments within blackness. One morning, in 1990, the students and teachers arrived to find anti-black racist graffiti sprayed against the walls at Druid Hills High School in Atlanta. This deeply affected the souls of my African American classmates and a few students of color. We had an African student at our school and he was an exceptional soccer player. Despite the racist happenings at my school, on many occasions, the African student heard racialized comments from African American young men stating that he should go back to the “jungle,” “take care of the goats,” and other such matters. Instead of building a coalition with what the Civil Rights Movement called “Pan-African” connection through an expansive concept of blackness, there continues to be black bleeding, but in isolation and silence. Africans were outside the scope of respectability based on certain bodily comportments, phenotype, name, accent, smell, and desires that defined blackness in Atlanta. This logic, I believe, is evident in Andy Young’s support of Danny Ferry. In the process, the Atlanta Hawks can use the iconicity of Andy Young and his blackness to leverage support and wash away the racist structures within Atlanta Hawks management. Thus, we have to ask: Why is there silence regarding Sefolosha’s broken leg? What does that silence tell us about Black Lives Matter when it took place during an encounter with New York police?

When we continue to figure violence only in terms of those people who we think are embodiments of the best of our community, we fail to see the true reach of racism. We fall into the trap of recognizing only certain persons as respectably human and worthy of attention. What does respectability have to do with that? Why should it be a concern? When respectability becomes the crux of why we care about certain deaths and bodies over others, as evident in Lisa Cacho’s wonderful book Social Death, we account for the horrific murder of the nine people at the historic AME church in Charleston. This tragic event has spaces for empathy as the dead included teachers, professionals, and respectable church-going people.

As we mourn the deaths of the nine people in Charleston, South Carolina, we have failed to collaborate to interrogate the haunting and continued silence concerning the killings of trans women of color. So many black trans women have been murdered since the death of Eric Garner and Mike Brown. Yet, the campaign to combat anti-black racism generally does not account for these persons. Trans women of color, especially, are marginalized, feel the wrath of poverty intimately, daily encounter the police state and racial profiling, and have little resources for survival. As organizations like the Audre Lorde Project and various others open up the category of blackness, the same must be true in all aspects of society, including sporting cultures. At the ESPY awards for sporting figures, Caitlyn Jenner received the Arthur Ashe Award for courage and service. There was great applause and a superficial demonstration of unity. Although this moment brought much-needed visibility to the anti-trans violence, it continued to drown out the activism of Kye Allums, a trans man of color who has been a fierce social justice advocate with sporting cultures for the last 5 years.

Furthermore, with the continued violence against poor African American women, will Andrew Young and the misogyny of the civil rights leadership corps account for the everyday struggle of poor black women? Will this blackness accommodate the young black homeless women like the ones described in anthropologist Aimee Cox’s Shapeshifters and Between Good and Ghetto by sociologist Nikki Jones? If not, then what we have is similar to the blackness that South Asian American athletes consume and appropriate in my book, Desi Hoop Dreams. It is a blackness that is sellable in the larger marketplace but devoid of fierce political fires. Yet, some South Asian American men consume cultural blackness as a way to critique U.S. society and the racial stratification of immigrants. There are other possibilities and openings for blackness that Andy Young and the larger Black Lives Matter movement must attend to in order to create a society for all.

We see how the politics of respectability plays out with regard to organizing against anti-black racism. Racism is expansive, fluid, and recruits a wide spectrum of black victims, yet the responses can be shallow, myopic, and limiting. Racism has always been tied to stratification, capitalism, sexism, homophobia, poverty, and imperialism. Blackness as a point of identification and as a compass for change must not have gatekeepers but infinite openings that make the category a vision and praxis for a just tomorrow.

Stanley I. Thangaraj is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at City College of New York and the author of Desi Hoop Dreams: Pickup Basketball and the Making of Asian American Masculinity (NYU Press, 2015).

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