By Kate Aguilar
This is one of two new posts today exploring race in the NFL. This article explores race, culture, and Blackness, looking at narratives surrounding Cam Newton. Andrew McGregor’s piece looks at Whiteness, considering Peyton Manning as a Great White Hopes. Read in tandem, we hope they offer context that helps frame the narratives surrounding this weekend’s Super Bowl matchup between Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos and Cam Newton’s Carolina Panthers.
If you spend any time on Facebook, as many of us do, you may have run across the following video provocatively titled, “We’re Doing Something Wrong.” The video shows young children – probably age five or six – of different races, ethnicities, and perhaps from various countries answering questions about a doll’s character. In most cases, the children are given two dolls to choose from – one dark-skinned and the other light-skinned – when answering questions like “Which doll is the nice doll (or bad doll)?” A White child identifies the dark-skinned doll as “bad” because it is “way darker,” but, perhaps surprising to some, Black and Brown children also identify the dark-skinned doll as ugly or bad because “she [or he] is Black.” They do so even after identifying themselves as looking most like the dark-skinned doll. This study mirrors a famous 1940s experiment known as “the doll test,” in which Dr. Kenneth and Mamie Clark used this technique to study the development of a child’s self-esteem. Dr. Clark’s testimony, of which this study was a small part, would help determine the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, which struck down (at least legally) separate but equal education.
Beginning with this study may seem odd when considering the “discussion” surrounding Carolina Panthers’ quarterback Cam Newton, and yet 70 years later the conversation on Newton similarly evokes a desire to connect Blackness, culture, and character. Newton has long drawn condemnation for his celebration on the field, including his trademark Superman salute and “dabbin’” (or a type of swagger after scoring). On January 27, however, he ignited a media firestorm when he answered a question on why he appeared to be a “lightning rod” for such criticism. He responded, “I said it since day one: I’m an African-American quarterback that may scare a lot of people because they haven’t seen nothing that they can compare me to… And it’s like, here I am, I’m doing exactly what I want to do, how I want to do it, and when I look in the mirror, it’s me…” It took mere hours for the court of public opinion to weigh in, and the response was as polarizing as Newton himself. Some applauded him for living “authentically” while others called him to task for playing the “race card.”
There have been many thoughtful articles/radio segments on the response to Newton, a few of which I have linked into this post or included below. Most take on the historical significance of the Black quarterback and why the public’s concern with his “style” arguably pertains to deeper questions of Black leadership on and off the field. They touch on how Black people, historically and today, have been/are expected to adhere to certain behavioral standards – what historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham famously called “the politics of respectability” – and how even when Whites behave similarly, Blacks are more often called out and disciplined for such actions. USA Today sports columnist Nancy Armour, for example, talks of how many White players in the league, including beloved White Green Bay Packers’ quarterback Aaron Rodgers, celebrate after a touchdown, and yet according to a 2012 study entitled The Hubris Penalty: Biased Responses to “Celebration” Displays of Black Football Players, Black players received “91 % of the unsportsmanlike conduct penalties called after touchdowns that year,” although they make up only 65 percent of the NFL.
As a historian of race and sport, I, of course, spent the days following the press conference devouring every angle of this coverage. I found myself bristling when (presumably well-intentioned) sports analysts described how Newton’s response “made it a race issue.” Although one particular ESPN analyst didn’t “blame” him for doing so, his language nonetheless played up and upon the misperception of the “race card,” which places Blacks (and other non-Whites) in the role of aggressor. The term “playing the race card” suggests Blacks focus on their race not because it is an issue but to take away rights (attention, funding, etc.) from Whites. This obscures the fact that Blacks did not create the racial stratification in this country and that Whiteness itself is a race. Both Blackness and Whiteness are social constructions that order past and present cultural, economic, and political hierarchies. Blackness in the context of the United States was written into law in the late seventeenth century to determine a Black person’s enslavement and the enslavement of a Black woman’s child. It was codified by those who could access Whiteness during this period to uphold a social, political, and economic structure centered on White supremacy, a structure that relied on Black labor.
Perhaps most interesting about the media firestorm is what such language reveals about Newton, and sport more broadly, as a window into exploring these larger racial, cultural, and political frameworks and how they intersect. Cam Newton, like that of the more recent “doll test,” is a compelling case study not simply because he shows that race still matters – people wouldn’t be so up in arms about his press conference and his success if it didn’t – but because, unlike “the doll test,” in defining himself for himself and not based on others’ perceptions, he shows how sport and the objects of our affection (or disdain) – the athletes themselves – have the potential to change the conversation.
I am not the only one who thinks this, or who is writing about it. What the court of public opinion has yet to comment on is that Newton also offers us a chance to refine our understanding of race and culture, two things often linked with little or no historical context. There may be no better illustration of this, in this case, than the opinion of former professional safety Ryan Clark. On January 28, Clark went on ESPN’s “Mike & Mike Radio Show” and proclaimed Newton was “wrong.” It wasn’t racism at work but culture that determined popular perceptions of him. “He’s not disliked because he’s Brown-skinned,” Clark explained. “He’s disliked because he’s culturally hard to understand for most people… Russell Wilson is a Brown quarterback but his culture is easier to understand… Russell Wilson doesn’t have the Hip Hop culture.” In trying to make it a conversation about “cultural differences,” Clark, like the ESPN radio analyst who said Newton made it a race issue, divorced race from culture and both from historical context, obscuring, as cultural theorist Stuart Hall has explained, how identities are formed through the “continuous play of history, culture, and power.” If we define “culture” as “a body of beliefs and values, socially acquired and patterned, that serve an organized group (‘a society’) as guides of and for behavior,” it is impossible to separate learned behavior from historical context and social structure. Culture, or the values of an organized group, does not exist separate from a racial hierarchy that informs how such groups are organized. Black culture cannot fully exist separate from White cultural practices as they each, in part, define themselves against and through the other.
This is not to say, certainly, that culture, especially Black culture, is merely reactive, as cultural theorist Gloria Anzaldúa so powerfully penned. At the same time, it explains why sport analysts with an understanding of race, culture, and history, like Mike Wilbon of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption and professional NFL cornerback Domonique Foxworth, have drawn upon Civil Rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois’ notion of “double consciousness” over the last couple days. Du Bois’ wrote of how Black people must contend with not only how they see themselves but also how Whites see them, living every day within the duality of being Black and American. In evoking Du Bois, these analysts appreciate or at least acknowledge what Clark does not: Newton is not simply “culturally different,” and thus judged accordingly. His culture is a part of a racial framework in which the “styles” he draws from, like Hip Hop, were born. Hip Hop did not emerge to comment on just anyone’s experience but to speak powerfully and perceptively about correlations between unemployment, crime, and poverty, power and access as they pertain to and are filtered through constructions of race, color, and class.
Clark’s assessment of race and culture is so problematic because it ignores how institutional racism functions and further contributes to its invisibility. It allows someone to say, “See, I don’t dislike Cam because he is Black; I dislike him because he’s a thug,” without having to account for how this word has been filtered through misconceptions of Blackness and culture that unequally and unfairly determine a certain group’s character. Yes, certain cultural practices – as cultural theorist Ta-Nehisi Coates has so eloquently written about with regards to the “culture of poverty”- are not exclusive to Black people. There are elements of “street culture,” he has explained, that anyone can and often will tap into if they are raised in this environment. Still, the fact that more Blacks live in poverty and that poverty for African Americans looks different than that for most Whites, in which there is a spatial organization and concentration to Black poverty determined by “systemic discrimination and modern zoning laws,” shows how intimately race and culture – and our misconceptions of them – are intertwined. (The same argument can be made for the use of the word “thug,” which while leveled at Whites occasionally is disproportionately used to condemn the actions of Black males.)
It is in this space that Newton’s press conference offers the opportunity for a more nuanced conversation of both race and culture, even if journalists and sports analysts like Clark have yet to follow suit. Clark says that Newton bothers some because he is culturally, not necessarily racially, “different.” Yet, in defining Russell Wilson as “not Hip Hop,” an art form born in lower income Black and Brown communities, because he prays to/talks about God, shows just how much the language of the White middle class (and rhetoric of the New Right) matters to the conversation he is having.
Let me explain it another way. As a professor of African American Studies, I always devote a lesson to the deconstruction of the term “White privilege.” I do so regardless of how many students in the class identify as White, and each semester, without fail, I have someone who says they do not believe it exists. I then challenge my students to define Black culture for me. To which many try enthusiastically while describing how Black people dress, or worship, or what music they like. I then challenge my students to define White culture. Most often, this question is punctuated by a long silence.
It is in this moment that a light bulb often turns on. For in its ability to escape definition, students are able to recognize the privilege afforded to Whiteness to also escape criticism and condemnation. For if we don’t know what White culture is, let alone see Whiteness as a racial construction, it is impossible to misperceive Whites’ “bad behavior” as a cultural problem. Instead, it becomes a class problem or an individual problem. Whites who misbehave do so because they come from the wrong side of the tracks or bad parents (etc.) not because they are made that way, which is the common misperception of Black cultural practices. This misconception of race, culture, and character assumes there is something inherently different and thereby potentially deviant about Blackness. Of course, this view could not exist without certain standards (and often superior views) of Whiteness. As cultural critic Wahneema Lubiano much more powerfully explains, “Central to the existence of racism is the politics of its denial.”
The denial of Whiteness allows for some who benefit from it to claim colorblindness (http://www.amazon.com/Dog-Whistle-Politics-Appeals-Reinvented/dp/019022925X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1454435727&sr=8-1&keywords=dog+whistle+politics). Put another way, the description of Newton as “Hip Hop” implicitly connects him to certain Black and Latino communities historically, to a language of the streets. The politics of denial, however, or the separation of race from culture in this context ignores the racial politics of the South Bronx in the 1970s, which shaped the language of Hip Hop. Race and color were not aberrations to but deeply embedded in the politics of this environment, in the reasons for and behind White flight, mass unemployment, poverty, and “benign neglect.”
“The doll test” and Clark’s comments show how these misconceptions are often transmitted subconsciously. In a well-intentioned article on Newton’s influence this week, Washington Post’s Cindy Boren applauds him for being his own man, a new style of quarterback breaking from the “cerebral” style of White quarterback greats like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Boren, I’m sure, meant no harm in defining Manning and Brady in contrast to Newton as “cerebral,” as radio host Colin Cowherd previously did with Bill Belichick and football in contrast to Dominican baseball players. As Clark does, though, she contributes to a belief in Black behavior as a deviation, something that breaks from and is lesser than a White standard. In this case, it furthers the misconception of White quarterbacks – and White people more broadly – as more calculated and intelligent and Blacks, especially Black men, as more intuitive and therefore less rational, a reason for their longstanding absence in the quarterback position.
The irony, here, is that Newton actually does something incredibly astute in acknowledging his Blackness, in owning it. He not only increases his cultural capital by making himself the topic of conversation but does so in a way that calls into question his (and thereby Blackness’) relationship to Whiteness. I am Black and that may scare YOU, he says. I recognize, in other words, that my Blackness is read against and through your Whiteness. Unlike those in the “doll study,” when offered a choice between defining himself as “good” or “bad” or “ugly,” he chooses none. In doing so, he rips out of the traditional categorizations afforded Black men and challenges those in and out of sport to do the same. He forces us all to step back and assess our own racial privilege. He offers an entirely different game plan which has the potential to change not only how we view him and the position of quarterback in the twenty-first century but how we objectify race, culture, and character moving forward. He may just be Superman after all.
Kate Aguilar is a Ph.D. candidate in History at the University of Connecticut where she studies racial formation, gender, sport, and political culture in the post-1945 U.S. Taking as a lens the University of Miami’s football team, the Hurricanes, her dissertation analyzes the central place of the sport and the city to the 1980s development of the New Right; a focus that makes evident the significance of the Global South and the diverse racial, national, and transnational histories of South Florida and the Caribbean to Ronald Reagan’s particular brand of conservatism and the masculine national identity it fostered. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Suggested Further Reading:
For more on the “discussion” surrounding Cam Newton, see:
Dave Zirin, “Cam Newton: The Bridge to Somewhere,” The Nation, 29 Jan. 2016.
Jeff Gulick, “Cam Newton: ‘I’m an African-American QB that may scare a lot of people’ with unique skills,” USA Today Sports, 27 Jan. 2016.
Tim Keown, “The joy of Cam Newton: How a polarizing QB made (great) football fun,” ESPN, 24 Jan. 2016.
For more on the significance of the Black quarterback, listen to Bomani Jones, “The Right Time with Bomani Jones” on ESPN Radio archived as a podcast.
For more on race, sport, and Black (male) intellect, see:
Phil Petrie, “The NFL Sacks the Black Quarterback,” in David K. Wiggins and Patrick B. Miller, The Unlevel Playing Field: A Documentary History of the African American Experience in Sport, (University of Illinois Press April 4, 2005), p. 323-