An NFL executive likened protesting black players to ‘inmates’. Affixing blackness to pathological criminality has troubling roots writes Ameer Hasan Loggins
Bob McNair, the owner of the Houston Texans NFL team, last week said: “We can’t have the inmates running the prison.” It was a reference to NFL players kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial inequality and police brutality in the United States.
After his private comments became public, McNair issued an apology: “I regret that I used that expression. I never meant to offend anyone and I was not referring to our players. I used a figure of speech that was never intended to be taken literally. I would never characterize our players or our league that way and I apologize to anyone who was offended by it.”
McNair’s words reflect a willful ignorance of the purpose behind players kneeling in the first place. It also brings to question, what exactly does the Texans owner regret? What he said, or that he was caught saying it?
Many sports writers have come to Bob McNair’s defense, saying his comments have been “twisted and set on fire” and dismissing them as a poor choice of words. But few have understood it for what it was: a case of casually profiling the NFL players kneeling in protest as criminals.
Have I mentioned yet that 70% of the NFL workforce is black? Or that all of the high-profile players involved in this protest movement are black men?
When McNair says that he, “would never categorize” players “that way”, he fails to remember that those players are not protesting on behalf of themselves personally. They are protesting on behalf of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Terrence Crutcher and other black Americans killed by the police. They are kneeling for all the people who have been historically racially profiled in America, and deemed inherently criminal.
The historical permanence of affixing blackness to pathological criminality has roots within the system of chattel slavery, and the subjugation of black folks after the signing of the emancipation proclamation.
The myth of innate black criminality served both to dehumanize during slavery and to justify the brutal means of social control needed to maintain white dominance after slavery, and it continues to this day via racial profiling conducted by police throughout America.
It’s not hard to see how black NFL players would feel racially profiled by McNair’s comments behind closed doors.
Persons subjected to racial profiling tend to feel unfairly singled out because of their race, and not because of any legitimate reason for suspicion.
Being racially profiled also involves feelings of victimization or powerlessness, both during the racially motivated encounter and while seeking redress afterwards. Such encounter(s) regularly lead to feelings of stigmatization and dehumanization.
Tennessee Titans linebacker Brian Orakpo tweeted: “That’s how they really feel huh??? These words out this man’s mouth are infuriating to me and the rest of my brothers in this League.”
In a thread of tweets, former Houston Texan Cecil Shorts said: “This says it all smh… That’s how they really feel… Inmates, slaves and products. That’s all we are to the owners and others. Not grown men with families, kids, wives, values, and morals”.
It may strike some as a stretch to make connections between slaves, inmates and black NFL players protesting the policing of black bodies. But the 13th amendment to the US constitution, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime, makes it unavoidable in my eyes.
This amendment, which legally allows slavery and involuntary servitude, has always been about the conflation of blackness and criminality, creating the phenomenon that some call slavery by another name.
While McNair clearly did not intended for his “inmates running the prison” comments to go viral, what is clear is that he was referring to black men protesting systemic racism in the criminal justice system.
It is also clear that the inescapable historical stigma of blackness and criminality is alive in 2017. That’s why black NFL players were so casually compared to prisoners – all just for exercising their right to protest.
- Ameer Hasan Loggins is a doctoral candidate at UC Berkeley
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010