Black Quarterbacks

How do blacks act?

I think that is a genuinely stupid question. I wouldn’t put it in this essay at all if I didn’t hear it on the radio most days.  Ordinarily it isn’t said; it is presumed.

Last weekend, the Carolina Panthers decisively defeated the Arizona Cardinals and became NFC champions. On down the road they will play the AFC champion Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. One of the major reasons the Panthers won was the play of quarterback, Cam Newton.

Here are a couple of things you need to know about Cam Newton. [1] He is a young black
black 2.jpgman. He is very demonstrative during games, both on the sidelines and on the field. The manner of his demonstrative actions is very much like some other black athletes.

Let’s stop for a moment and think about the dilemma faced by black social innovators, especially athletes. You devise some gesture, say a raised fist, to symbolize some part of the black experience in the U. S. Maybe defiance, like the sprinters at the Mexico City Olympics, or determination or victory or collegiality or something. It is something “we”—just us young black people—do that “others,” that would be older black people and all white people do not do. [2]

So far, so good. But other people are attracted to the gesture for some reason. [3] And theblack 4 popularity of the gesture spreads. After black athletes have established it as black and therefore “cool”—I’m sure that isn’t the current term for what I am talking about—then white athletes take it up. You could watch end zone celebrations over the last 20 years and just watch it spread. Even linemen celebrate now.  And after them, white athletes, then black and white non-athletes. Eventually, old white women in nursing homes can be seen exchanging high fives and fist bumps, gestures that were invented as symbols of black solidarity.

So something new has to be invented. A newly invented black gesture lives a very short life as a distinguishing mark before the hyenas of white culture move in on it, leaving nothing but the bare bones. So something new has to be invented. It has to be distinctive—it won’t exclude anyone if it is not distinctive—and it has to be expressive. Maybe even “flamboyant” is not too much to require of it.

Cam Newton is not only a master of such actions, but very likely the origiblack 3nator of some as well. Here is his famous Superman pose.  My own expertise does not extend to first uses. So Cam Newton does all these things and he is black and so what could possibly be wrong with saying that he acts ‘the way blacks act?”

Well…let’s see. The last time I looked, we had a black President of the United States. He is quiet, contemplative, understated, rational, careful in his expression of his ideas. Does that make him “not black?” And he chose a black Attorney General with the same social style he has. Neither of them “really black?” Not in my mind. Michelle Obama was taunted, when she was in grade school, for giving good answers in class. “Ooooh,” her critic said, “You talk like a white girl.” This “right answer” stuff, the classmate was saying, is not “racially appropriate.”

You see the problem.

black 5Let’s imagine for a moment that the issue before us is not race, simply, but some unholy amalgam of race and class and let’s use “working class” and “middle class” as our category names. Those are crude categories, but they allow us to ask some simpleminded and useful questions. What percent of successful trial lawyers are black? What percent of successful CEOs are black?  This is Ursula Burns, who was CEO of Xerox at the time.  Black enough?  What percent of tenured faculty are black? What percent of NASA engineers and scientists are black? I don’t know the answers to any of those and frankly I don’t care.

Here’s what I care about. When they take their middle class upbringings and their middle class educations off to do their middle class jobs, do they have to give up their racial identity? Do they still get to be black? I want to say that they do.

If I get to specify that there are different ways of being black—there are many, of course, but we can say that there are at least the working class way and the middle class way—then we can say that the black NASA engineers are still black although they don’t sound like young urban working class black men. If we pay the price of admitting what everyone knows, which is that the characteristic black working class vocabulary and body language are different from those used by the majority of middle class blacks, then we can recognize the difference without being forced to say that the working class style is “the real black style” and that the NASA scientists are “traitors to their race.” [4]

I don’t have a grievance against Cam Newton, apart, of course, from his having beaten my beloved Oregon Ducks in 2011. My grievance is against the sportscasters who celebrate Cam Newton for “being willing to be black.”

black 6Newton is not the first black Superbowl quarterback, of course. The most recent being Seattle’s Russell Wilson of the Seahawks and we could go back to Doug Williams of the Washington Redskins, the first black Superbowl quarterback, in 1988. But they weren’t black enough for the commentators I was listening to. The first explanation they used was that Williams “felt the pressure of the system” (to act “professional” rather than “black”). But both commentators knew that wasn’t true of Doug Williams. Of course, they said (second explanation) that wasn’t really what he was like anyway. He looked at the game and his place in it “in a more professional manner.” Their words, not mine.

So I began with a really bad question. I would now like to give a good answer to it. The question was, “How do blacks act?” I have been looking at the style of Carolina Panthers’ quarterback Cam Newton as the occasion for the question. Newton is very demonstrative both on the field and on the sidelines. Doug Williams and Russell Wilson do it differently. Their personal style is focused and intense, they seem to be entirely into the game.

And they are all black men. Doug Williams and Russell Wilson get to be “black” in the style that is most natural to them. Cam Newton gets to be “black” in the style that is most natural to him. Couldn’t we just give them that?

[1] Leaving aside for the moment by grievance against him for beating my Oregon Ducks in the National Championship game.
[2] I know there are other shades of Americans—conventionally yellow, red, and brown. I am skipping all those because I believe that “not-black” is the essential meaning of these gestures.
[3] There are so many possibilities and I don’t feel the need, today, to choose among them. There is the possibility that in making “black gestures” i.e. gestures just invented by black innovators for use by their community, I am expressing solidarity with them. It is possible that what is seen to be black is also seen to be more “real” and for that reason, more attractive. It is also possible that the phenomenon I call “downward identification” is at play here. By the magic of “downward identification,” blue collar people are “more real” that white collar people, people whose grasp of the grammar of their native language waxes and wanes like the moon are more “real” than people who are more careful in their speech. And so on. “Blue collar” is now a term connoting “hardworking.” Commentators unthinkingly call very good defensive lines “a blue collar defense;” no one ever, even in disparagement, calls a defensive line “white collar.”
[4] That is what it means when they are called “Uncle Toms”—a character borrowed from Uncle Tom’s Cabin—or “Oreos,” which, as everyone knows are black on the outside and white on the inside. By the same logic, some Asians who act “too white” are called “bananas.”


About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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