Racism, Media and the 2008 Election

In his most recent column for Recoil Magazine, Jeff Smith looks at the role of race in the 2008 presidential election.


“I won’t play for the S.O.B.,” was what Ernie Davis said when he found out he was drafted by the Washington Redskins football team in the early 1960s. Davis is the subject of a new Hollywood film called The Express, a film that takes an interesting look at how much racism affected Black athletes in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Davis played college football at Syracuse University, in part, because he was recruited by another great running back named Jim Brown. Brown’s character is featured in the film and is pegged as somewhat of an agitator, but the film never honestly represents how much the struggle for equality motivated Brown or other Black athletes throughout their careers.

At the same time, The Express does a good job of representing the difficulties that Black athletes faced when playing sports in any part of the country. Ernie Davis was one of three black players on the Syracuse teams of 1959-1961 and became the first Black player to win the Heisman Trophy in 1961. The film primarily deals with the 1959 season when Syracuse won the national championship and depicts the racial hatred that was directed towards the team. When the team visited West Virginia to play a game they were met by an angry crowd that threw food and glass soda bottles at them. Even more disturbing was when Davis was tackled, the opposing team would jump on him and punch him while on the ground. This all happened while the referees watched and did nothing to stop such a brutal display. This type of treatment met the team no matter where they traveled, but the worst experience depicted in the film was when Syracuse traveled to Texas to play for the national championship.

Syracuse was ranked number one in the country and played Texas for the national title. When the team arrived to the hotel they had booked for the players, Davis and his fellow black teammates were prevented from entering. They had to sleep in the bellhop quarters in the basement. During the game, the Texas players would also abuse Davis after being tackled and at times would hit him after the play was over. Davis and Syracuse went on to win and Davis was named the MVP of the game. However, since the MVP award ceremony was scheduled at a local country club, a club that prohibited Blacks from entering, the team decided to have the ceremony at a local bar.

While the film does depict some of the racist tactics used against Black people during the Civil Rights era, it fails to provide a clear context for the racist assaults and never really comes to terms with institutional racism. The end of the film leaves one with the feeling that Ernie Davis was able to overcome racial prejudice, so we should be happy and just move on. And this is the failure of the film and so much of the current discussion about racism, because it doesn’t address the larger problem of institutional racism that would more accurately be called White Supremacy. White Supremacy is the belief that White, Euro-Americans are a superior race and is so much a part of our thinking and institutions that we are often not even aware of it.

For example, why is it that in the US there is a double standard for drug offenses that affect White drug offenders differently than Black or Latino drug offenders? White drug offenders are more likely to use or sell cocaine, since it is a more expensive drug, while Blacks and Latinos are arrested more often for the less expensive drug, crack. They are both illegal drugs, but the sentencing for crack use is much worse in the US than it is for cocaine. According to The Sentencing Project the average sentence for powder cocaine in the US is 14 months in jail, while the average for crack cocaine is 65 months. It seems that the main reason for such a disparity in the sentencing patterns for these drug offenses is that the judicial system practices policies that are inherently racist by favoring White drug offenders of minority offenders.

A more recent and local example of how White Supremacy is hidden in the decisions of institutions was reflected in September of this year when The Grand Rapids Press chose to distribute an anti-Islam DVD to all its subscribers in their Sunday edition of the paper. A group with far right connections, called the Clarion Fund, paid The Grand Rapids Press to distribute the DVD that tried to depict those who practice Islam as fanatical terrorists. When confronted by the Muslim community about this decision, the editor of the Press, Mike Lloyd, said that since the DVD states up front that not all Muslim are terrorists that demonstrated to him that the DVD was “balanced.” Such a response only reflects Mike Lloyd’s privilege as a White male working at an institution that is the beneficiary of and promotes White Supremacy. That the editor of the only major daily newspaper in Grand Rapids thinks that one statement in a DVD negates the realities that those who practice Islam faces shows how privileged he is. The fact is that both the US government policy and major media representation of Islam has for decades, but more vehemently since 9/11, has depicted Muslims as fanatical terrorists. This negative depiction has translated into discrimination and violent hate crimes against American Muslims. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) reported last year a rise in both workplace discrimination and air transportation profiling of Muslims. In addition, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee also documented an increase of anti-Arab discrimination between 2003-2007 in a recent report. Now it must be said that not all Muslims are Arab and not all Arabs are Muslims, but the reality is that many White Americans do not understand those distinctions.

Maybe one other way to talk about racism and White Supremacy in this country is the racial dynamics at play during the presidential race. There has definitely been plenty of negative racial comments that have been directed at Barack Obama and even some of the recent polling has reflected that for up to 25% of the population they have admitted that they would have a hard time voting for a Black person for President. This means that 75% of those polled are in favor of voting for a Black President, but polling can be quite deceiving. Remember what the polls were showing on how Michigan would vote for Proposal 2 in 2006? Most polling showed that about 60% of those voting in Michigan would vote against the proposal to eliminate affirmative action in the state. Well, we all know that this proposal passed because many people were not willing to say publicly that they were against affirmative action, but could vote privately for Proposal 2. Both Granholm and DeVos campaigned against Proposal 2 and since Granholm won, you might have concluded that Proposal 2 would have been defeated. The fact is that more people voted in favor of eliminating affirmative action in Michigan, which would have included some of those who voted for a White female for governor.

I was at a forum that GVSU held in early October entitled “Does Race Matter?” The discussion was framed in the context of the 2008 Presidential race, yet what several of the panelists said was that the real problem wasn’t this vague notion of racism, it was White Supremacy. Four of the five panelists said that of course, race is relevant in this years’ election cycle, but the discussion around race has mostly been about the character of Barack Obama and not institutional racism in the United States. Look at how the news media presented the comments of Rev. Wright, Obama’s former pastor who did nothing more than point out the White Supremacist history of this country. The news media called him anti-American and Obama had to distance himself from Rev. Wright, because he understands that White Americans don’t want to be challenged on the history of White Supremacy in this country, especially if he wants to be elected. Other media commentators have pointed out that Obama is different from Rev. Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson because he does not, in the words of George Will, “have an investment in a traditional and, I believe, utterly exhausted narrative about race relations in the US.” In other words, Barack doesn’t seem too Black because he doesn’t make it a point to constantly remind the public of the harsh realties of racism in America.

In some ways, Barack Obama is appealing to White, liberal voters because he does not come across as having a grudge against White people. Black Agenda Report editor Glen Ford said the following recently about this dynamic:

“Barack Obama does not carry our burden, in addition to other burdens. He in fact promises to lift white people as a whole’s burden, the burden of having to listen to these very specific and historical black complaints, to deal with the legacies of slavery. That is his promise to them.”

Having pointed this out, what I think would be a mistake for those of us who care about racial justice in this country is to assume that if Barack Obama is elected the next president of the United States that racial justice will be central to his administration. I am of the belief that it is not going to be central to his administration, since I think that the US government has never been interested in racial equality. The only reason that there are any rights for Blacks, Latinos, Asians, Arab or Native Americans in this country is because those populations have fought to gain those rights. They were never a gift from above. There have been White allies to these movements for racial justice and equality and that, I believe, is our task…. to be allies in this struggle and not be content with just voting for a Black president.

In the words of the great abolitionist Frederick Douglas,

“If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will.”

My question to all of us is, what will you do for racial justice after the elections?

Jeff Smith is a regular contributor to http://www.mediamouse.org. He can be reached at jsmith [ – @ – ] mediamouse.org.

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