Atonement

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(Ta-Nehisi Coates and his son, Samori)

(Editor’s note: I originally started composing this last Wednesday, when I was in the middle of a day of fasting for Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement. So, take that for what it’s worth).

I know I’m late to this party, but a few words about the exchange last week between Seattle Seahawks teammates Richard Sherman and Michael Bennett about Black Lives Matter.

Sherman said he supported BLM, but referred to a two-way street, noting that blacks need to stop killing each other “first,” as if the primary response to what Ta-Nehisi Coates, citing the Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson calls “compound deprivation” for folks enmeshed in it is simply to transcend it. Sherman is remarkable for having done so. But that doesn’t make it a sustainable solution to what ails us.

Michael Smith had this very sharp response to Sherman. Bennett said more or less the same thing.

The reason BLM matters is that it calls attention to a fundamental injustice – the fact that many Blacks in America are living under what amounts to a military occupation, where the presumption of innocence that most white Americans take for granted has been suspended in favor of something approaching a presumption of guilt.

Anyone who has read about (or lived) what’s gone on in Miami Gardens, Florida, or Ferguson, Missouri, or New York City must confront this basic, inescapable fact.

American sports have played a complex, ambiguous role in white America’s understanding of these dynamics. On the one hand, we’ve learned through athletics about some of the exceptional men and women to come from America’s meanest streets, to have transcended their violent, deprived circumstances to have achieved great success, the ultimate embodiments of the American dream. In so doing, their successes have destroyed older, more monochromatic understandings of what black Americans are and aren’t capable of, even as their achievements have brought forth newer stereotypes about “naturally” gifted black athletes.

On the other hand, their very success has obscured the degree to which, as TNC has been so powerfully writing, the ideology and practice of racial supremacy continues to reside in America’s DNA.

To note this fact isn’t to absolve of responsibility each black athlete for any mistake he or she might make.

But it would serve us well to remember that, when it comes to race in America, there’s no pure, objective, unsullied starting point from which to evaluate our own judgments, whether we’re talking about quarterback controversies, “attitude” or far weightier matters.

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