Antiblack Racism and Moral Panics

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.

Originally Published at The Black Scholar 

Real Men?: Sports, Slavery, and Sex Trafficking

August 24, 2011 (Originally Published at NewBlackMan: Real Men?: Sports, Slavery, and Sex Trafficking.)

Real Men?: Sports, Slavery, and Sex Trafficking

by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan

In the midst of the NFL lockout, Adrian Peterson joined a chorus of players who were both critical of the league’s owners and commissioner Roger Goodell, describing professional football as akin to “modern-day slavery”:

People kind of laugh at that, but there are people working at regular jobs who get treated the same way, too. With all the money … the owners are trying to get a different percentage, and bring in more money. I understand that; these are business-minded people. Of course this is what they are going to want to do. I understand that; it’s how they got to where they are now. But as players, we have to stand our ground and say, ‘Hey — without us, there’s no football.’ There are so many different perspectives from different players, and obviously we’re not all on the same page — I don’t know. I don’t really see this going to where we’ll be without football for a long time; there’s too much money lost for the owners. Eventually, I feel that we’ll get something done.

Although not the first person to use the slavery analogy, with William C. Rhoden, Larry Johnson, and Warren Sapp all offering this rhetorical comparison, his comments elicited widespread commendation and criticism.  Dave Zirin notes that he was denounced as “ungrateful,” “out of touch,” “an idiot” and, in the darker recesses of the blogosphere, far worse.”   Like much of sports media, the controversy quickly reached a zenith with columnists and fans ultimately focusing on other issues, spectacles, and controversies, although never forgetting his insertion of race into the world of sports.

Recently, however, an ESPN columnist brought a spotlight back onto his comments, celebrating Peterson’s determination to right his rhetorical wrongs.  In “Adrian Peterson continues righting a wrong” Kevin Seifert cites not only Peterson’s efforts to apologize for his “unfortunate analogy,” but his decision to get involved with anti-slavery efforts as part of a larger effort to make amends.  “If some good came of Adrian Peterson’s unfortunate use of analogies this offseason, it’s this: It forced one of the NFL’s highest-profile players into a bond with two of the world’s most prominent advocates for ending human trafficking.”

Citing his involvement with Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher’s DNA Foundation, a group committed to “rais[ing] awareness about child sex slavery, chang[ing] the cultural stereotypes that facilitate this horrific problem, and rehabilitat[ing] innocent victims,” Seifert argues that Peterson missed-used analogy reflected a lack of knowledge about human trafficking.  “As a professional and respectful public figure,” Peterson would never knowingly make such a silly and harmful comparison had he known about the realities of human trafficking and child sex slavery.  At least that seems to be the argument emanating from this piece. “I’ve always believed that Peterson wasn’t making any sort of political statement,” writes Seifert, whose column about Peterson’s comments brought up the real-life circumstances of modern-day slavery.  “There was no reason to think he harbored some previously unexpressed level of insensitivity. Like many of us, he probably just didn’t know that in 2010, 12.3 million people world-wide were in forced or bonded labor. To that end, Peterson jumped at the chance to work with Moore and Kutcher.”

Seifert’s celebration of Peterson’s PSA is questionable given his efforts to cite this as evidence of his efforts to do penance along the path to redemption. At one level, it is unclear if the PSA was in actuality a response to the controversy surrounding the comments (the interview took place in March and the PSA filming taking place shortly thereafter in April).   At another level, and more importantly, Peterson had nothing to apologize for, and therefore his involvement with an organization committed to thwarting modern-day slave sex trafficking has nothing to do with his past comments about the NFL.

The relative silence of the media regarding his PSA, especially in comparison to the ubiquitous level of criticism that he experienced for deploying “the S-word” (Zirin), demonstrates that irrespective of his actions it will be difficult for him to secure redemption in the eyes of mainstream America.  Richard King and I wrote about the precarious path to redemption experienced by many black athletes in wake of controversies in “Lack of Black Opps: Kobe Bryant and the Difficult Path of Redemption” (Journal of Sport and Social Issues).  There we argue,

The media and public fascinations with Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods, and other Black athletes accused of personal and/or criminal transgressions should remind us of what a prominent place race, redemption, and respectability play in sport today. Sport media not only rely on the White racial frame but also play a leading role in its repro­duction. In this frame, Blackness has overdetermined the actions of African American athletes from O. J. Simpson, Mick Tyson, and Barry Bonds to Ron Artest, Shani Davis, and more recently Marion Jones, Michael Vick, Santonio Holmes and Tiger Woods, creating a context in which interpretations and outcomes for Black and White athletes vary greatly. . . . Yet what is clear is in spite of the celebration of the comeback stories of Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant, or even Michael Vick, their Blackness, and the broader signifi­cations associated with their Black bodies contains and limits their public rehabilita­tion. Just as their Blackness continues to confine the meaning of their bodies inside and outside of the sports world, their past “mistakes” and “misfortunes” (as Black men) cannot be outrun, out maneuvered, and even controlled.

In other words, while recognizing the unfairness in demanding redemption from Peterson for comments about exploitation and abuse through a deployed slavery analogy, he faces a difficult challenge given the ways in which race and the associated tropes of the “ungrateful,” and “militant” black athlete governs over Peterson in wake of these comments.  Yet, the specific nature of the PSA itself lends itself toward some sort of redemption.

Peterson appears in a PSA as part of DNA’s “Real Men” campaign, which includes spots from Bradley Cooper (“Real men know to make a meal”), Sean Penn (“Real Men know how to use an Iron”) and Jamie Foxx (“Real Men know how to use the remote.”)  In his PSA, Peterson is sitting in a living room befitting of a member of the aristocracy (or at least the American upper-class).  Confirming his class status and respectability, Peterson simultaneously represents an authentic manhood, able to start a fire by merely rubbing his hands together.  Unlike other men, Peterson embodies a true and enviable manhood, evident in his physical prowess and his economic prowess.  In this regard, his blackness is muted by a desired class- and gender-based identity.

Peterson’s represented identity is an important backdrop for both his purported redemption resulting from his participation in this campaign and the PSA itself.  The narrative argument offered within the campaign is that “real men don’t buy girls,” and that “real men” don’t participate in “child sex slavery.”  Peterson, as a man who can start a fire with his bare hands, and who is economically successful (not to mention someone who make defenders look silly) is already a real man within a hegemonic frame; his stance against sex slavery is but another signifier of a real masculinity, all of which is constructed as important attracting women.  The PSA ends with a young woman asking, “Are you a real man,” followed by a clear reminder: “I prefer a real man.”   At this level, the PSA is disturbing in that it tells viewers to oppose childhood sex slavery because that is what real men do and because women of age find such a stance attractive.

In a world where 12 million people are enslaved and where 2 million children are bought into the global sex trade, it is rather simplistic (and comforting) to reduce this injustice to a faulty masculinity.  Given that sex trafficking, according to the United Nations, involves “127 countries of origin, 98 transit countries and 137 destination countries” it is rather dubious to reduce the problem to a single construction of bad masculinity.

And to be clear, this isn’t just ELSEWHERE, with between 100,000 and 300,000 girls sold into sex slavery yearly, with many more “at risk of being sexually exploited for commercial uses.”  Whether in the U.S. or elsewhere, the existence of child human sex trafficking reflects patriarchy and the dehumanizing ideologies that govern society.

Catherine MacKinnon makes this clear in her analysis of global sex trafficking:

If women were human, would we be a cash crop shipped from Thailand in containers into New York’s brothels? Would we be sexual and reproductive slaves? Would we be bred, worked without pay our whole lives, burned when our dowry money wasn’t enough or when men tired of us, starved as widows when our husbands died (if we survived his funeral pyre)?

She notes further the links between sexual violence, heterosexism, and dominant notions of masculinity

Male dominance is sexual. Meaning: men in particular, if not men alone, sexualize hierarchy… Recent feminist work… on rape, battery, sexual harassment, sexual abuse of children, prostitution, and pornography supports [this]. These practices, taken together, express and actualize the distinctive power of men over women in society; their effective permissibility confirms and extends it.” (In Dunlap)

The links between sex trafficking and patriarchy and misogyny, along with racism, xenophobia, and global geo-politics is further illustrated by comments offered during a NGO forum, which among other things dispels arguments about “bad apples,” individual pathologies, and “real/unreal” men:

Trafficking in persons is a form of racism that is recognized as a contemporary form of slavery and is aggravated by the increase in racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. The demand side in trafficking is created by a globalized market, and a patriarchal notion of sexuality. Trafficking happens within and across borders, largely in conjunction with prostitution (In Agathangelous and Ling).

In other words, “real manhood,” as codified legally, as defined culturally, and as constructed ideologically not only sanctions sexual violence but also promotes its very existence.  Child sex trafficking reflects the logic of hegemonic masculinity.  While comforting to imagine the problem of child sex trafficking as an aberrant and abhorrent masculinity, this injustice has nothing to do with real or a desirable manhood. It is about power, hierarchies, and the systemic dehumanization of women, particularly women of color.

The problem of slavery is real and reflects the systemic and historic manifestations of sexism (along with racism and colonization).  To imagine this as a problem of a faulty masculinity does not work to eradicate the problem. While I certainly applaud the efforts of DNA, and celebrated Peterson’s involvement with a campaign committed to raising awareness about the painful realities of human trafficking, the narrative leads us back to the same place.

Taking a stand against child sex trafficking and other forms of sexual violence reflects a willingness to embrace a feminist ethos, not one of “a real man.”  The struggle against sexual violence, whether it be rape or sex trafficking, should not be about redeeming and celebrating REAL men, Adrian Peterson, Justin Timberlake (who shaves with a chain saw), or anyone else, but challenging the injustices that result from hegemonic patriarchy.  How about we make a PSA about real resistance and real transformation rather than real men!

From NewBlackMan: Real Men?: Sports, Slavery, and Sex Trafficking.