New generation of activist-athletes

tags: racism, Ferguson

William Jelani Cobb is associate professor of history and director of the Institute for African American Studies at the University of Connecticut.

THERE AGAIN WAS the imagery, looking like cinema that took leave of the screen -- or a remake being shot on a Staten Island street corner. Even before Spike Lee dropped a video mashup of Eric Garner's death and the Radio Raheem scene from Do the Right Thing, the whole affair had the ring of something we'd seen before, seen too many times, never wanted to see again but knew was somehow waiting to spring before our eyes. The big man raised his hands. He'd had enough. "This ends today," he said in tragic prophecy. Officers swarmed, and in a moment he uttered the last words he's known to have spoken: "I can't breathe." A metaphor in three words.

If you joined in progress, this looks like life imitating art, but the reality is more like artists, at points, attempting to step outside of history altogether. Three months before Garner died, Pharrell Williams spoke to Oprah Winfrey about the virtues of being a "new black" -- first among them, he said, is that this novel category "doesn't blame other races for our issues." In the wake of Garner's death, Charles Barkley waded in to defend racial profiling because, in his estimation, "we have a lot of crooks in our race." No one has done more to chronicle the specific ills of the streets where Garner lived and died than the Wu-Tang Clan, but even its founder and guiding light, RZA, stopped short of saying Garner's death was the result of racism, telling Gawker that "racism is played out." The denial has become a refrain. Garner's own family voiced a similar sentiment. As did Michael Brown's. Trayvon Martin's parents assured the world that their son's death was "not about race." Yet the math disagrees. Nothing so establishes the enduring presence of racism as the fact that we are presented with so many opportunities to deny it.

We've cultivated a habit of such denial because it allows us to pretend we've slipped beyond the grasp of history, that the past is dead, that Emmett Till died once, in Mississippi, almost 50 years ago, not many times and in many places and with numbing regularity in the years since. Such a fantasy was at work in the words of the normally sage Kendrick Lamar, who told Billboard magazine, "What happened [to Brown] should've never happened. Never. But when we don't have respect for ourselves, how do we expect them to respect us? It starts from within. Don't start with just a rally, don't start from looting -- it starts from within." But this is precisely the opposite 
of insight. The entire point of protests roiling in streets, of keening in public and of insisting that #blacklivesmatter is that the moment you place prerequisites upon equality, you've also rationalized injustice. No such dignity voucher is required of the hoodied white teenager encountering the police. Nor did the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s impregnable self-respect leave him any less vulnerable the day he stepped onto the balcony of the Lorraine Motel....

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