What Happened to Post-Blackness?
Touré, Michael Vick and the Politics of Cultural Racism
by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan
In the current issue of ESPN: The Magazine, Touré, author of the forthcoming Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?: What It Means to Be Black Now, jumps into the discourse about race, Michael Vick, and his larger significance as we enter the 2011 football season. In “What if Michael Vick were white?”, which includes the requisite and troubling picture of Vick “in whiteface” (“Touré says that picture is both inappropriate and undermines his entire premise”), Touré explores how different Vick’s life on and off the field might have been if he wasn’t black.
While acknowledging the advantages of whiteness and the privileges that are generated because of the structures of American racism, Touré decides to focus on how a hypothetical racial transformation would change Vick’s life in other ways. “The problem with the ‘switch the subject’s race to determine if it’s racism’ test runs much deeper than that. It fails to take into account that switching someone’s race changes his entire existence.,” notes Touré. Among others things, he asks “Would a white kid have been introduced to dogfighting at a young age and have it become normalized?” The answer that Touré seems to come up with is no, seemingly arguing that his participation in dog fighting results from his upbringing “in the projects of Newport News, VA” without a father (he also argues that his ability to bankroll a dogfighting enterprise came about because of his class status that resulted from his NFL career, an opportunity that came about because he like “many young black men see sports as the only way out”).
Here, Touré plays into the dominant discourse that links blackness, a culture poverty and presumably hip-hop culture to dogfighting, thereby erasing the larger history of dogfighting. According to Evans, Gauthier and Forsyth (1998) in “Dogfighting: Symbolic expression and validation of masculinity,” dogfighting “represents a symbolic attempts at attaining and maintaining honor and status, which in the (predominantly white, male, working-class) dogfighting subculture, are equated with masculine identity.” Although the popularity of dogfighting has increased within urban communities, particularly amongst young African Americans, over the last fifteen years it remains a sport tied to and emanating from rural white America.
It should not be surprising that six (South Dakota; Wyoming; West Virginia; Nevada; Texas; and Montana) of the seven states with the lowest rankings from the Humane Society are states with sizable white communities (New York is the other state). Given that dogfighting is entrenched and normalized within a myriad of communities, particularly white working-class communities within rural America, it is both factually questionable and troubling to link dogfighting to the black community.
Touré moves on from his argument about a culture of poverty in an effort blame Vick’s family structure for his involvement in dog fighting “Here’s another question: If Vick grew up with the paternal support that white kids are more likely to have (72 percent of black children are born to unwed mothers compared with 29 percent of white children), would he have been involved in dogfighting?” Having already taken this argument apart in regards to Colin Cowherd’s recycling of the Moynihan Report, let me recycle some of my own words:
The idea that 71% of black children grow up without fathers is at one level the result of a misunderstanding of facts and at another level the mere erasure of facts. It would seem that Mr. Cowherd is invoking the often-cited statistics that 72% of African American children were born to unwed mothers, which is significantly higher than the national average of 40 %. Yet, this statistic is misleading and misused as part of a historically defined white racial project. First and foremost, child born into an unmarried family is not the same is growing up without a father. In fact, only half of African American children live in single-family homes. Yet, this again, only tells part of the story. The selective invoking of these statistics, while emblematic of the hegemony of heterosexist patriarchy, says very little about whether or not a child grows up with two parents involved in their lives. According to the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a sizable portion of those children born to single mothers are born into families that can be defined as “marriage like.” 32% of unmarried parents are engaged in ‘visiting unions” (in a romantic relationship although living apart), with 50% of parents living together without being married. In other words, the 72% says little about the presence of black fathers (or mothers for that matter). Likewise, this number says very little about the levels of involvement of fathers (and mothers), but rather how because of the media, popular culture and political discourses, black fatherhood is constructed “as an oxymoron” all while black motherhood is defined as “inadequate” and “insufficient.”
In other words, as illustrated Roberta L. Coles and Charles Green, The Myth of the Missing Black Father, “non-residence” is not the same as being absentee; it says nothing about involvement and the quality of parenting. As such, the efforts to links the myths and stereotypes about black families to explain or speculate about Michael Vick’s past involvement (what is the statue of limitations of writing on this subject?) with dogfighting does little beyond reinforcing scapegoats and criminalizing discourses.
The argument here that race matters in Michael Vick’s life feels like a cover for rehashing old and tired theories about single mothers, culture of poverty, and hip-hop/urbanness as the root of many problems. Of course race matters for not only Michael Vick but also everyone else residing in America. This is America, arguments about post-racialness notwithstanding.
Race mattered during the coverage of dogfighting and continues to matter for Vick in this very moment. It also matters given history. As Melissa Harris-Perry notes, race matters in relationship to Michael Vick (and the support he has received from the African American community) in part because of the larger history of white supremacist use of dogs against African Americans.
I sensed that same outrage in the responses of many black people who heard Tucker Carlson call for Vick’s execution as punishment for his crimes. It was a contrast made more raw by the recent decision to give relatively light sentences to the men responsible for the death of Oscar Grant. Despite agreeing that Vick’s acts were horrendous, somehow the Carlson’s moral outrage seemed misplaced. It also seemed profoundly racialized. For example, Carlson did not call for the execution of BP executives despite their culpability in the devastation of Gulf wildlife. He did not denounce the Supreme Court for their decision in US v. Stevens (April 2010) which overturned a portion of the 1999 Act Punishing Depictions of Animal Cruelty. After all with this “crush” decision the Court seems to have validated a marketplace for exactly the kinds of crimes Vick was convicted of committing. For many observers, the decision to demonize Vick seems motivated by something more pernicious than concern for animal welfare. It seems to be about race.
Just as when Tucker Carlson said Vick should have been executed, or when commentators refer to him as thug, race matters; it matters in the demonization he experienced over the last 4 years. It is evident in the debates that took place following his release from prison, especially given the lifetime punishment experienced by many African Americans (see Michelle Alexander) or the very different paths toward forgiveness available to Vick (and countless other black athletes) compared to their white counterparts.
Race and racism have impacted his life in a myriad of ways. The continue significance of race matters in the ways in which this article plays upon and perpetuates cultural arguments that seemingly erase race, replacing it with flattened discussions of culture. The power of white privilege and the impacts of racism, segregation, and inequality are well documented, leaving me to wonder if the point of Touré’s piece is not that race matters but rather that culture matters. And this is where we agree because culture is important here; a CULTURE of white supremacy does matter when thinking about Michael Vick or anything else for that matter.
Special thanks to Guthrie Ramsey, James Peterson, and Oliver Wang who all, in different ways, encouraged me to write a response.