“Some believe that black freedom – economic, political, and otherwise – threatens the freedom of white people.” Dr. Eddie Glaude Jr., Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul.
To the chagrin of my wife, I relish scrolling through my Twitter news feed to get my fill of some of the conversations within that sphere. Like so many people this week, I was a bit mystified by Terry Crews’ recent tweets regarding the Black Lives Matter movement. In May I read about Brandon Tatum, the Black ex-Tucson police officer who argues against the existence of white privilege, ostensibly, because in his view he achieved success in life on par with his white peers. In the least, both Crews and Tatum illustrate what many Black people already know, but what may not be clear to those outside our community: We all do not think alike. And, here is another thing many Black people also know: We have seen the dynamic in which a Black person reaches a measure of success and later turns a blind eye to the reality of racism to protect their social position. For example, Jackie Robinson’s congressional testimony was weaponized against Paul Robeson by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1949 – in fact, in front of a Communist fearing American society hell-bent on destroying lives by demanding loyalty of those who dared to dissent. While Robinson would later speak out against racism, his testimony in 1949 illustrates how social acceptability measured by economic success blurs the perspective of racism. For some, the bottom line is that Black freedom within a white framework is viewed as a threat by white people and some Black people will seek to alleviate the threat by campaigning against Black freedom. I have asserted that an archetype exists – what I call a Soldier-Athlete archetype – within which Black and white masculinity operates. Within this paradigm Black athletes and Black military members employ various tactics in order to operate along a spectrum of ideal masculinity which is often perilous; individual success can be and often is transitory. Let’s take some time to unpack some of this and talk about Crews and Tatum.
I offer Dr. Glaude’s profound quote as a point of entry here: “White fear isn’t just limited to white people. As a political emotion, white fear is expressed across and within different groups – even among black people.” The tactics used by Black men to achieve success within the racialized public sphere that is professional athletics – which can also include any space that is predominately white-oriented – is often decidedly asymmetrical. This is particularly true if the individual also aspires to balance a public image to maintain a non-political, non-threatening persona. Think about it. There are many examples of the “model” Black man: Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson are a few iconic figures who come to mind. These men are contrasted with those who were once deemed acceptable and then, subsequently, vilified for speaking out, like Robeson, Muhammad Ali, and now Colin Kaepernick. At the core of the asymmetry within the Soldier-Athlete archetype is the individual tension to achieve an ideal – an ostensibly white ideal – by eschewing individual blackness to varying degrees. I do want to pause here to say that it would be reductive to conclude that possessing attributes of whiteness equals achieving success while being associated with blackness equals being unsuccessful. No! Though, it is true that the meaning of success for Black people in American society has evolved more recently. At this moment what it means to be successful more often means finding a balance between living individual values while also expanding once restrictive frameworks. Notwithstanding, there are still far too many racialized spaces that illustrate the asymmetry within the Soldier-Athlete archetype.
Dr. Glaude’s depiction of white fear shows why Black success and associated Black political and social capital are threatening to those who hold on the perspective that “the game” should remain the same. Enter now Crews and Tatum, who feel they are living their values by protecting the very system of belief that also oppresses them and those who look like them. Hollywood, like so many other spaces in America, is a racialized space where achievement shines a light on Black asymmetry and duality. Crews is a commodified product within a space that fetishizes Black bodies. So, achieving his success required, in large part, kissing the ring finger of a fundamental result of white privilege: He sought approval first from a white-dominated Hollywood power structure and rode the wave of crossover success – translated as white acceptance. When he tweeted, “We must ensure #blacklivesmatter doesn’t morph into #blacklivesbetter,” he racialized his spiritual perspectives to protect the system that made him, paralleling the Robinson/Robeson example from 1949. Aligning calls for equity and justice with racial superiority only makes sense for those who want to protect current racialized structures. Similarly, Tatum, in his “Open Letter,” attempted to counter the rationality of white privilege by arguing,
“Like, you can get a mortgage loan that I can’t get.
Hmm. I got a loan—at a great rate, by the way—and I got the house. Why would a banker not give a loan to someone who met the loan requirements? He doesn’t want to make money? I’ve never heard of such a banker.
Or, how about this: You can enter a store and not be looked upon with suspicion, but I—a black person—cannot. Except…that has never happened to me.”
Clearly, his logic – which obviously falls within the conservative narrative – negates the lived experiences of other Black people by advancing himself as the exemplar of overcoming the barriers to success, thereby playing the game well. The problem, however, is that our public knowledge of the Black experience is built not just on the individual experience of a few “exceptional” Blacks but on data that illustrates a far more dire picture of our experience in America with regard to access to wealth and to political and social power. To disprove what our collective lived experiences as well as conclusions from collected data by stating “it never happened to me” falls short of logical analysis. Both Crews and Tatum have chosen to believe – at the expense of the lived experiences of those who look like them – to protect the image of the white archetype by emulation and the illusion of assimilation. To both Crews and Tatum: Equity and justice are not about whether one or even 100 succeed. Nor is the opposite of equity and justice about “everyone receives a trophy.” Nonetheless, I do consider it a moral imperative to speak out against the wealth divide built over generations of advantage; to identify and call into question the psychological space that affords policing of Black bodies; and to rail against perspectives that form the foundation of cultural hegemony.