A National Pastime: Antiblack Racism and Moral Panics
By David J. Leonard
America is a nation bound together by moral panics; in the absence of an actual moral center or a compass of justice, we find power in collective outrage in the absence of self-reflection. And race or antiblackness is often what anchors these fits of moralism.
It is an expert at racial moral panics, a truly exceptional world power when it comes to moral posturing, collective outrage, and the resulting finger pointing. From the culture wars of the 1980s to debates regarding hip-hop into the 1990s, from discourses around “black homophobia” and “black on black crime,” and far deeper into history, moral panics are often wrapped up discourses of blackness. James Baldwin spoke of this quintessential American tradition in 1960: “I think if one examines the myths which have proliferated in this country concerning the Negro.” Accordingly “beneath these myths a kind of sleeping terror of some condition which we refuse to imagine. In a way, if the Negro were not here, we might be forced to deal within ourselves and our own personalities, with all those vices, all those conundrums, and all those mysteries with which we have invested the Negro race” (quoted by Bouie)
Writing about the 1980s and the demonization of “welfare queens,” George Lipsitz (1995) identifies this history as one where “Americans produce largely cultural explanations for structural problems.” With a long history of scapegoating and locating moral imperatives and cultural impurities through bodies of color, it should come as no surprise that the release of video footage of then Ravens Running Back Ray Rice striking his then girlfriend Janay Palmer has sent America, from The Capital to the American media landscape, from NFL stadiums to Starbucks, into a perpetual state of moral outrage.
The effort to reduce social ills to individual failures, to individual pathologies, and cultural dysfunctions comes through a centering of blackness within these discourses. “What is forbidden in American culture often seems to be projected outward onto the outsider or scapegoat,” writes James (1996). “Blackness has come to represent sex and violence in the national psyche. Although they gain notoriety as the most infamous perpetrators of unrestrained criminality, African Americans are given little recognition in media, crime reports or social crusades as being victims.” The refusal to see or hear Janay Palmer, Kasandra Perkins and countless more makes this all too clear.
Directed at Rice (and several other players), and Roger Goodell for failing to properly control, discipline, and punish the NFL’s “out-of-control,” the moral panic feels less and less about intimate partner violence (IPV), hyper masculinity, a culture of violence, misogyny, or patriarchy, but instead yet another moment to locate social ills within the bodies of black men. Blackness, especially in the sporting world, is “legible” (Neal 2014) only as signifiers of dysfunctional, danger, criminality, and corruption. This has been the case with IPV, and equally evident in the aftermath of Adrian Peterson’s arrest. According to Jamelle Bouie, “It’s reminiscent of other conversations around broad-based behaviors or beliefs that become pathological and purely “black” when displayed by black Americans in elevated numbers.”
As black bodies are ubiquitously imagined as essentially disruptive, uncontrollable, as a source of “cultural degeneracy” the problem of IPV becomes not an American problem and not even one belonging to the NFL — but a problem of blackness. Blackness exists as “a problematic sign and ontological position” (Williams 1998, p. 140). The outrage resulting from Ray Rice reflects the logics of anti-black racism, perpetuating a culture that sees blackness as the problem, one that needs to be contained, purified, controlled, punished, and ultimately eliminated.
The outrage has little to do with the pervasive and endemic problem of IPV within the NFL and society as a whole. In a nation where 1 in 3 women report having experienced IPV, where 1 in 5 men admit to having committed violence against a partner, one has to wonder why now, why did Ray Rice prompt a national soul searching regarding the problem of IPV? In a nation, where the media and the court system routinely rationalize the prevalence of IPV through victim blaming and excuse making, forgive me if I ain’t buying this feigned outrage. The political power structure, particularly the GOP, should have a seat; they should delete their press releases and their demands for “zero tolerance” and simply look in the mirror. From its foot dragging with the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act to its budgetary PRIORITIES, it is clear that the political structure is perfectly fine with domestic violence. Combatting violence against women is not a priority, at least if it requires more than a press conference. In 2013, the National Domestic Violence Hotline was unable to answer “77,000 calls due to lack of resources.” And this isn’t the only example of how the GOP, and the Congress as a whole, has no moral standing with respect to IPV.
“The Republican romance with gun rights has proved deadly. More than 60 percent of women killed by a firearm in 2010 were murdered by a current or former intimate partner. The presence of a firearm during a domestic violence incident increases the likelihood of a homicide by an astonishing 500 percent, writes Katie McDonough. “The Republican-led assault on reproductive freedom has major implications for victims of domestic violence. Republican resistance to mandatory paid leave policies means that women who need time off to leave an abusive relationship or are hospitalized after a domestic violence incident can lose their jobs for missing work.” Congress and their friends at the NRA, like the NFL, is reflective of a culture of domestic violence and a complicit actor in the daily injustices experienced by all too many women and children in this society. In a nation where judges and police officers (“family violence is two to four times higher in the law-enforcement community than in the general population”) engage brutal acts of violence against women with impunity, where ESPN and other sports media, routinely mock and reduce women to dehumanized objects of consumption and ridicule, it is hard to believe in this feigned and surely short-lived outrage about Domestic Violence (DV).
The rampant hypocrisy, the racist moralism, and the scapegoating are equally evident in the types of “solutions” being proposed. In the face of rightful, even when misplaced, outrage, the NFL created a VP position in charge of “social responsibility” (to be filled by Anna Isaacson, the league’s current VP of community affairs and philanthropy) and hired three domestic advisors (Lisa Friel, Jane Randel and Rita Smith). Goodell, the benevolent white father figure whose primary responsibility was disciplining the league’s “unruly” black bodies had failed. In this context, 4 white women have replaced him. The focus on punishment, the embracing of the language of mass incarceration, and the moral posturing should give us pause in that the logics, tropes, and policies that have compelled mass incarceration are the center of the NFL’s reclamation project. The focus on individual accountability (which needs to be part of the process) at the expense of collective transformation and societal cultural change, the concern with response rather than dealing with root causes highlights the systemic failures to truly address intimate partner violence.
At its core, the post-Ray Rice discourse is not about IPV; it is not about concern for Janay Palmer or collectively saying #blackwomenslivesmatter or #womendeservejustice. It is about racial paternalism and the historic efforts to imagine sports not as exploitation, big business, profits, and a health risk, but one of disciplinarity and moralism. Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson put these narrative rationalizations in question, resulting in panic and further reimagination of sport as a source of good. According to King and Springwood (2005), “Perhaps such public concerns and panics are best understood as a form of racial paternalism in which white America struggles to come to terms with its (exploitative) enjoyment of the African American athlete by advancing a linkage between the ostensibly moral and disciplinary space of … big time sports.”
The selective outrage at players within the NFL (and the league for not controlling them) and not Major League Baseball or Hollywood (Charlie Sheen) or mainstream music industry, or the police, or the military, or every American institution is revealing. The silence regarding Hope Solo, who stands accused of domestic violence, playing for the U.S. National Team is telling: whiteness matters.
So is the lack of moral outrage for Renisha McBride, Aiyana Jones, Rekia Boyd, and countless others. One has to look no further than Marissa Alexander, who faces 60 years in prison for firing a warning shot against an abusive husband whose history of violence has been well-documented, to understand the nature of today’s moral panic. One has to look no further than at the thousands of women locked up for defending themselves against an abusive and violent partner. America’s (so-called) moral center bends not toward, but away from the arc of justice. It is guided by racism and sexism; its compass is profit before people. We need a new compass not a new policy; a moral center of justice not more of the same: we need a new pastime
David J. Leonard is an associate professor and chair in the department of critical culture, gender and race studies at Washington State University, Pullman, and the author of a forthcoming book on race, media and gun violence. Follow him on Twitter.