Every few weeks or so we have this conversation. There seems no better time to have it again than now, on the heels of college football bowl games that included athletes who have been accused of acts of violence against women. These are certainly not the first cases, but they shine a light on a perplexing phenomenon: the unconditional love of the Black male body, at least as long as he can throw, run, catch, dunk and score in an athletic contest.
For centuries, as is well documented by Angela Davis, Orlando Patterson, and many others, Black men have been lynched, perhaps as many as 50,000, for allegedly violating the gender-sexuality-race intersection, that is; for the accusation, almost always false, of raping a White woman.
Let us be clear: under no circumstances should a Black man, or any man, be lynched for rape. Lynching is not an appropriate punishment for any crime. Furthermore, as much of our research demonstrates, we care deeply about the rights of the wrongfully accused and convicted and have worked tirelessly to bring attention to those serving long sentences for crimes they did not commit, most often the wrongful conviction is of a Black man who was accused of raping a white woman.
We have extensively researched this miscarriage of justice hence, we get it.
This intersection has a long and very complex history that continues to ruin Black men’s lives even today.
That being said, we find it perplexing that within this context of the hyper policing of Black male bodies as they intersect with White women’s sexuality, a special case of unconditional love is reserved for Black male athletes.
And, not just by Black people but especially by White men: coaches, athletic directors, boosters, teammates, sheriffs, judges and fans.
During the last days of 2016 and the first days of 2017, several college football teams faced scrutiny for their protection of Black men accused of heinous crimes, including 12 football players at the University of Minnesota who are accused of gang-raping a woman in October and a player at the University of Oklahoma, Joe Mixon, who is seen on video punching a woman in the face, leaving her unconscious. In both cases, the perpetrators of violence are Black and the victims are White.
It’s not at all surprising to us that athletes who are accused of, caught on tape, and even convicted of abusing women are defended, by both men and women, get to keep their jobs, and continue to be revered…names like Jameis Winston, Ray Rice, OJ Simpson and so many others make that case for us. But what we find intriguing is the extension of that unconditional love when the crime involves the rape of a white woman by a Black male athlete.
Clearly that love does not extend to the more than 500 cases of Black men exonerated after spending decades in prison for the rape of a white women they did not commit.
Orlando Patterson argued in Rituals of Blood that the lynching of Black men was in large part a reaction of fear that Whites had of Black male bodies and especially of Black men’s sexuality.
Yet, when powerful, physically imposing Black men who play football or basketball engage in the same behavior, White men not only turn a blind eye, but in fact go to great lengths to defend the Black man, by paying for top lawyers, by hiding evidence, and even by extolling their right to a second chance as Brent Mussberger did during the broadcast of the 2017 Sugar Bowl when Joe Mixon led his team to victory.
In general, violence perpetrated against women is rarely taken seriously, regardless of the race of the victim.
But, that being said, how can we explain this unconditional love in the context of hundreds of years of lynchings?
One explanation could be that the love of so many White men (and women) have for famous athletes transcends their sense of justice. But we argue that it is deeper than that; this unconditional love that White men extend to Black male athletes must be analyzed using Patterson’s lens: Black male bodies are revered when their power is limited to the one place where Black men are allowed to excel: the athletic field, as Earl Smith argues in Race, Sport and the American Dream. As long as Black men are segregated to this singular place, as athletes, not as owners or coaches or anyone with any real power, then they are extended an unconditional love, even when they transgress the sacred space of White women’s sexuality. In this sense, their expression of power, even when used to abuse White women, is not threatening to White men, it does not threaten White men’s roles as leaders in business, entertainment, politics, the economy or even in sports. Therefore these Black men’s bodies not only need not be policed, but they can continue to be worshipped.
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