Since I am sometimes accused of bringing race into everything, it seems fitting to bring my growing sensitivity to white privilege and racial discrimination to this high, holy day in American culture. It would seem unlikely that such a quintessential American event would be immune to the systemic racism that plagues the rest of our national institutions. What should we look for as we sit down this evening with our beer, chips and bean dip?
First, we should notice the composition of the teams. Though their helmets may obscure this – other than in the highly visible quarterbacks – there will be very few white faces on the field. About 70% of the players on the Super Bowl teams are black. This, in and of itself, should be startling. There is no other place in American society where black men are so over represented. This even dwarfs the scandalous over representation of blacks in our prison system, which hovers at around 37%.
While some might suggest the presence of so many blacks on football fields is a sign of racial progress and equality, this would be a little like arguing the predominance of black faces in cotton fields of the 1850s suggested blacks had a special affinity for agriculture. In both instances, a more reasonable assumption is that we’ve created systems that either require or direct young black men in a specific direction. While the fields may have changed, the system has not.
Young black men are inundated with media images that predominantly show them as either sports stars, criminals, or sometimes both. While some will argue the media is simply mirroring our society, it seems ridiculous to argue that these images represent the true aspirations of black young people. Even more troubling, since we know only 0.09% of all high school football players ever play in the NFL, highlighting the success of black men in sports sets up thousands of young black men for failure and disappointment. While both white and black boys have unrealistic opinions of their athletic prowess, the alternatives for disappointed white athletes are far more obvious than for disappointed black athletes.
This leads me to the second thing to watch tonight. Watch the commercials carefully to see if and when blacks are portrayed. While marketing firms have become more racially conscious, most of what we will see tonight in the highly synchronized commercials will reinforce rather than challenge racial prejudices or white privilege. Notice what race of people will be shown with the high dollar items – cars, jewelry, etc. Notice when blacks are represented and how. While the Super Bowl is performed by a largely black cast, the programming will focus on white privilege and superiority.
Notice how many white faces will be represented in the quarterbacks, coaches, commentators, referees and owners. (There are no black owners.) In nearly every decision making position in the professional football industry, blacks are seriously under represented. They are trusted to guard the quarterback or carry and catch the ball, but they are seldom asked to lead or decide. Indeed, the percentage of black players on defense is almost 85%. Since the goal of football is ultimately to score touchdowns, even this highest of prizes is reserved more often for white players.
While some will point out the high salaries paid to black football players as evidence of racial equality, it should be noted that this affluence comes with certain demands by the white owners. As in the days of Jim Crow, black players are free to spend their money as they wish, to peddle merchandise and to garner a certain level of acclaim. They are not, however, allowed to speak about the racism they encounter in their lives and in society. While they are often lifted up as representatives of their race, they are highly discouraged from modeling anything other than compliance with a racially discriminatory system. When they violate this expectation, they don’t play football much longer. Ask Colin Kaepernick.
Tonight, there is one thing we are unlikely to see. We are unlikely to see one of Donald Trump’s “sons of bitches” kneel during the national anthem. And if they should do so and if the television networks broadcast their act of protest, we can expect to see a myriad of criticisms and condemnations of their unpatriotic and ungrateful behavior. Someone will inevitably say, “If they don’t like America, why don’t they go back to Africa?” They will imply that the solution to injustice in America is not to resolve it, but to send those who are victims of that injustice away…from football, into prisons, and even to Africa.
Oddly, white people never consider the possibility that Africa might actually be preferable for a black person, that those “shithole countries” have at least one thing that America does not. They are countries where black faces are represented in every occupation and field of endeavor, where the options for a young black boy or girl are not limited to sports or jail. They are places where black people lead and make decisions. While African countries have their imperfections and challenges, they far exceed America in giving black people an equal opportunity to succeed.
On Super Bowl Sunday, it seems appropriate to ask this simple question. What would it take to create a system where black people were over represented in the halls of Congress, at hospitals, on universities and in corporations? Would we think it odd if 70% of congress people, doctors, professors or CEOs were people of color? I suspect white people would find this disturbing, even threatening. That this same level of over representation on football fields seems perfectly normal and acceptable is evidence of our inability to see the deep racial dimensions of everything in our society.
Even the Super Bowl.