Thursday, May 21, 2009

Race, Drugs, and Michael Phelps

Last week, swimmer Michel Phelps, arguably the greatest Olympian in the modern history of the games, returned to the sport for the first time since pictures of him smoking weed surfaced. I was shocked, and, frankly, offended by the way in which the situation was discussed. Understandably, many in the media were excited for Phelps's return after the way he electrified the Beijing games. From a sports perspective, everyone should be excited.

However, there seemed to be a sentiment that what Phelps did to "get in trouble" was trivial, and that he should be let alone. He's behavior was portrayed as OK, normal, expected for a young man his age. It was argued that he should be shielded from harsh criticism. The will to forgive and forget is astonishing in this situation.

For perspective, we can compare Phelps to another world class athlete who is just now re-emerging after participating in illegal activity: Michael Vick. Look at the way this Michael has been turned into a villain. Granted, we live in a society where being mean to dogs is much more frowned upon than smoking weed. Still, as I watched the coverage of Phelps, I couldn't help but wonder, What role, if any, does Phelps's race play in the way we evaluate his behavior. Had that been Allen Iverson or Ryan Howard or LaDanian Tomlinson in that picture would there be the same near-unanimous desire to forget the whole thing?

Maybe there would, but I just can't help but think that the reaction would be substantially different. Not completely opposite, but still different.

This all made me think about what Tim Wise said in This is Your Nation on White Privilege:

White privilege is when you can get pregnant at seventeen like Bristol Palin and everyone is quick to insist that your life and that of your family is a personal matter, and that no one has a right to judge you or your parents, because “every family has challenges,” even as black and Latino families with similar “challenges” are regularly typified as irresponsible, pathological and arbiters of social decay.
Seriously, what if it had been then candidate Obama with the pregnant teenage daughter? He would have been laughed out of the election. In fact, he wouldn't have even run, because he would have known that he had no shot. White girl gets pregnant: "good job not giving the baby up," "everyone makes mistakes," "kids are kids." Black girl get's pregnant: "she's irresponsible and promiscuous," "another welfare queen," "what's wrong with them?" As much as we like to pretend that we're a colorblind society that wouldn't have such a double standard, we know it's the truth.

But back to marijuana. Why such a different response to blacks and drugs. They are portrayed as criminals who deserve to go to jail. The use of drugs is a major part of the false image that has been drawn of African American youth. It's used as a way to rationalize disparities in education, employment, and incarceration. Black athletes who use drugs are immoral, irresponsible, and bad role models. White athletes just made mistakes.

Michel Phelps v. Allen Iverson
Barry Bonds v. Mark McGuire
Brett Myers v. Michel Vick

There is a higher standard for black athletes. There is higher standard for blacks in general. Another comparison:

George Bush: recovering alcoholic, bad grades, failed businesses, and governor with relatively little power
Barack Obama: head of Harvard Law review, good student, successful community organizer, law professor, successful state legislator, and U.S. Senator

Yet, who is accused of succeeding because of "affirmative action"? Who was labeled as inexperienced?

So that's sports and politics, with a dash of education.

Then there's the world of celebrity. Why isn't rock music vilinized the way rap is?

Why is Brittany Spears more acceptable than Beyonce? Why are white sexually explicit movies artistic and intellectual, while similar black movies are soft-porn trash?
MTV: American
BET: Immoral

We could also look at religious commentary.

George Bush can speak at a religious school with racist policies (Bob Jones University did not allow interracial dating without a parent's permission), but Barack Obama is racist for attending Jeremiah Wright's church? And while we're on the subject of Rev. Wright, how is it that he can be labeled as racist for making statements based in truth - because American indifference to the world can inflame hatred, and the U.S. does have preventing blacks with STDs from receiving treatment, and Hillary Clinton really doesn't know what it's like to be a black man - and he's called a racist, but John McCain can make explicitly racist comments and no one flinches?

How do we decide what religious leaders get to be just religious leaders, and which ones must be turned into political figures.

But, I've gone off on a tangent again. The point I set out to make is that blacks are routinely held to a higher standard that their white counter parts. This is especially true when it comes to drug use, and particularly well illustrated in the case of Michel Phelps. Personally, I like Phelps and as a sports fan am not too concerned with his "recreational" activities. I don't think it was a good thing to do, but I'm not loosing any sleep over it. However, in context, I thing the reaction to Phelps shows just how pervasive racism is in our society. If Michel Phelps were black he'd be in a totally different situation right now. That, my friends, is just a small look into the true nature of race in America.


Macon D said...

I completely agree, and I wondered about that too. While what Phelps did is nowhere near as heinous as what Vick did, he's still definitely being given a pass in a way that he wouldn't be given if he were black.

Anonymous said...

A a white guy, I think there is probably some truth to what you are saying. For instance, I think that you are right that the pregnancy of Britol Palin would have probably been a bigger issue for an African-American female candidate than it was for Sarah Palin. (Although the supporters of the candidate would rally around her and the detractors would rip her, just like the supporters of Sarah Palin rallied around her and her detractors ripped her for the pregnant unwed daughter.)

However, some of the examples you use actually work against you.

For instance, as I white guy, I think much less of Brittany Spears than of Beyonce. I am not a fan of either one, but the first word that comes to my mind when I think of Brittany Spears is far worse than the first word that comes to my mind when I think of Beyonce.

Furthermore, the reaction of the media and the public regarding Bush and Obama show a definite bias IN FAVOR of Obama, not the other way around. It could easily be BECAUSE of his race that this is true. I would think that, in general, white media finds it much easier to call a white man racist than to a black man racist.

You use the example of Bush going to make ONE SPEECH at a school whose racism is that it did not allow inter-racial marriage and compare it to TWENTY YEARS in a church where the pastor repeatedly made racially charged statements about "the white man" and made statements like "God Damn America." Obama essentially got a pass from the mainstream media and could incredibly claim to not be aware of his own Pastor's views (despite claiming him as a mentor, spiritual advisor, basing a book off of things he had said, etc.), while Bush got killed in the mainstream media for the visit to BJU and ended up apologizing and going on Letterman and denouncing the school.

Anyway, just a second opinion.

Kevin Lockett said...

I don't think that your opinion of Spears/Beyonce is representative of the general public before Brittney went off the deep end (think 1999/2000).

As for Bush, ask yourself, could a black man get C's, get into schools he didn't deserve to get into only because of affirmative action, have failed business after failed business, hold only one elective office, in which he had little power or responsibility, and then walk into his party's nomination for president, then "win" the general election, start a two wars, one of which the majority of the American people are against by the time re-election comes around, then win again? That's George Bush.

Could a black man graduate near the bottom of his class, cheat on his sick wife, make b latently racist remarks toward Asians, and be a serious contender for the presidency? That's John McCain.

As far as Jeremiah Wright is concerned, I have yet to hear a good explanation as to how his words were racist. Harsh? Yes. Inaccurate? Possibly. But racist? I just don't see it.

I don't think that speaking at Bob Jones University makes George Bush racist. I do think that it shows that we don't judge white persons by the same standard as blacks.

Anonymous said...


Thank you for your reply.

I don't think having a debate about Bush's lack of qualifications vs. Obama's lack of qualifications is really that profitable in this discussion. Frankly, neither of them came to the Presidential campaign with a very impressive resume, yet both were elected. Bush was a two-term governor with a Harvard M.B.A. and Obama was still in his first term as a Senator who has a Harvard Law Degree. Both were unsuccessful in congressional campaigns and both were elected President.

The point of your post, however, was in regards to racism's role.

Since Wright has been mentioned in this (by you and me), let me ask you to HONESTLY think about this regarding Rev. Wright and the church of which Obama was a part.

Do you really believe that John McCain would have gotten a pass from the media and the public if he had spent 20 YEARS in a church that claimed to be "Unashamedly WHITE and Unapologetically Christian?" Would it have been okay with you if his church website stated:

"Our roots in the WHITE religious experience and tradition are deep,
lasting and permanent?"


This church has adopted the "WHITE Value System"


"We believe in the following 12 precepts and covenantal statements. These WHITE Ethics must be taught and exemplified in homes, churches, nurseries and schools, wherever WHITES are gathered. They must reflect on the following concepts:

1. Commitment to God
2. Commitment to the WHITE Community
3. Commitment to the WHITE Family
4. Dedication to the Pursuit of Education
5. Dedication to the Pursuit of Excellence
6. Adherence to the WHITE Work Ethic
7. Commitment to Self-Discipline and Self-Respect
8. Disavowal of the Pursuit of "Middleclassness"
9. Pledge to make the fruits of all developing and acquired skills available to the WHITE Community
10. Pledge to Allocate Regularly, a Portion of Personal Resources for Strengthening and Supporting Black Institutions
11. Pledge allegiance to all WHITE leadership who espouse and embrace the WHITE Value System
12. Personal commitment to embracement of the WHITE Value System.

If a WHITE candidate even gave a speech at such a place, they would have been branded as a RACIST and would have lost any chance of election. You know it and I know it. Yet Obama had a 20 YEAR relationship with this church that had these things posted on their website (until the controversy made them take it down).

I agree there is still areas of racism, but your post assumes a bias in areas where the past election shows it has been disproved because the bias actually worked IN FAVOR of the candidate of color rather than against the candidate of color.

Kevin Lockett said...

No, McCain would not have gotten a pass on these things. But you can't make a 1-to-1 comparison here. Your argument is completely devoid of historical context. The Christian church in America is not traditionally dominated by the black culture, but rather by the white culture. Trinity UCC's proclamations of blackness are a black church's response to being in a overwhelmingly white denomination and a white dominated culture.

There would be no need for a white church to say that it is "unashamedly white" because that is the default in America. White has been treated as "normal," black as "other." So, it is completely appropriate for a black church to use such language to assert it's legitimacy, it's normalcy, in the face of a culture that contests that normalcy. Trinity is asserting that there is a "black family," a "black community," a "black work ethic" - beliefs that run opposite of the common stereotype of black America.

For a white church to say the same things would carry a different meaning. Such statements would simply reinforce the same racist constructions that Trinity is responding to.

Such language is more common among the black community than you may realize. A clearer example is the phrase "black is beautiful" which is a challenge to the traditional American concept of beauty - whiteness. It's a response to the preference for white features, and the pursuit of those features (valuing lighter skin, lighter eyes, straighter, lighter hair, etc. - think less extreme Michel Jackson) all in pursuit of this traditional beauty. We could even look at Beyonce again, who's rise in popularity outside the black community has coincided with the "mainstreaming" of her image.

Finally, no I don't think that John McCain would have suffered the same harsh treatment if he attended the church you describe. Remember, this is the man who said "the only good gook is a dead gook" and "bomb-bomb-bomb Iran." Both statements were made fairly recently and to my knowledge he has not even apologized. He was not called to answer for his own words during the campaign, but Obama was called to answer for someone else.

If you want to make a black-white comparison try this one: what if a white man had said what Jeremiah Wright had said? Don't change "black" to "white." Just ask, what if the exact words were said, only by a white man? Would the response be the same?

Anonymous said...


I have enjoyed this conversation, but it is clear we are not going to get anywhere. If you really can excuse the comments of Wright and Trinity as acceptable, then it seems to me that you have lost all moral authority to speak on the topic of race. On the other hand, the very fact that I am a white man means that I have no authority to speak on race, by default.

This conversation (in the biggest sense of the word, not merely in the sense of this discussion between me and you) is never going to progress unless all sides are willing to correct and police their own sides instead of excusing their own sides.

Whites need to stand up to other whites and say, "That is not acceptable." But blacks also need to stand up to other blacks and say, "That is not acceptable." Frankly, I have seen A LOT more of it on the white side than the other way around.

I have repeatedly called my uncle out for speaking derogatorily against blacks - to the point of causing tension in the family. (FWIW, he is a loyal Democrat - in fact, the only two people that I have ever heard use the N-word that I knew personally were both loyal Dems).

We have a problem, however, when Bill Cosby gets up and makes pro-family comments, and he is blasted by many in the black community. We have a problem when educated blacks like Clarence Thomas, or Condi Rice, or Michael Steele are accused of being an "Uncle Tom" because they hold to conservative principles and conservative values.

I have preached many, many times at an all-black church (except for me and my family when I am there) and I know that there are legitimate issues of racism that my friends there have had to persevere. So, I do not, in any way discount the reality of the racism.

Dr. King said we should be judged by the content of our character, rather than the color of our skin. Unfortunately, all too many people (on both sides) are willing to excuse the flaws in the content of the character of those who also share the color of their skin.

(BTW, while I am not necesarily a big McCain suppoter, I think you should be aware that you have misquoted McCain on the "gook" comment and taken him out of context - he actually said, "I hate the gooks. I will hate them as long as I live…" and clarified that he was referring "to my prison guards and I will continue to refer to them in language that might offend." Three days later he issued an apology for the statement and said he would no longer use the term, even to refer to the prison guard saying, "Out of respect to a great number of people for whom I hold in very high regard, I will no longer use the term that has caused such discomfort." (You can find this by doing a search. There is an article about this at Asian Week here - )

Kevin Lockett said...

First let me apologize for inaccurately quoting Senator McCain. I still don't put much weight on such apologies, but he should receive credit for what he has done to correct the situation.

Second, let me defend against your characterizations of the black community. Black people don't see Thomas or Rice or Steele as "Uncle Tom's" just because they're on the other side of the political aisle. Colin Powell is an avowed Republican, and he has a very high level of respect within the African American community because he is a person of integrity. Black people show disdain for Thomas, Steele, and Rice because they many see them as having shown a lack of integrity. Your oversimplification of this belittles black political through.

Thirdly, I had hoped that we could engage in an adult, level-headed discussion of Rev. Wright's comments. Your coming within an inch of calling me racist for not repudiating his words is indicative of the superficial nature of the conversation surrounding Wright. Not once over the past year-plus have I heard anyone actually explain why his comments were racist. I'm not saying that you have to agree with the substance, and even I don't completely agree with the style. However, one would think that if his words were so plainly racist, I would have found at least one person in more than a years time to explain to me how they were racist. Think about it:
- Hillary Clinton doesn't know what it's like to be a black man
- White men are the dominant group in our society
- Our government has a documented history of allowing lethal sexually transmitted diseases to spread among minority groups, even when a cure has been found, even when members of that group are serving in the military
- One important part of the current debate on torture is the role that immoral and unethical behavior on the part of the U.S. plays in generating hatred around the world, ultimately making the U.S. less safe

That's the gist of what Jeremiah Wright was saying. I don't see how that's racist or un-American, especially if he's trying to get us to change to be a better culture.

On Bill Cosby, you again characterize the black community. We weren't angry that he was challenging black families to do better - any black leader worth listening to acknowledges this. However, the way he did it was viewed by many as elitist, disrespectful, and uninformed. Even when his critiques have been accurate, their style has left open the door for ultra-conservatives who yearn for a black man to validate their distraction and deception.

My whole point was that in our society, whites get away with things that blacks would never get away with. Imagine if a white liberal pastor had said the things that Jeremiah Wright said, or if it was LeBron James caught smoking marijuana. Look at the reaction to fights in hockey and fights in basketball. Look at the reaction to white teen pregnancy and black teen pregnancy. Look at how people respond to poor white people differently than poor black people.

Anonymous said...


Are you that young to not remember the reaction to Collin Powell when he was running around campaigning for George W. Bush? While Collin Powell might have a high level of respect now, it is only because in the last election he "came home" to Barack Obama in the last election. Before that time, he was in the same boat as Rice, Thomas, etc. Do you not remember Civil Rights activist Harry Belafonte calling Powell a "house slave" a few years ago?

As far as Thomas, Rice, etc. having shown a "lack of integrity"? How so? It seems that their only lapse of integrity is not toeing the liberal line.

I indicated to you some of the reasons why Wright is clearly racist, but you EXCUSED it

The fact that if a WHITE church did the same thing that Obama's church did, you would be crying RACIST is proof enough that the comments are RACIST at their heart. You excuse the racism because white is the "dominant culture", but that is just an excuse.

Are you really serious about this claim? If so, I would love to see the documentation for it.
"Our government has a documented history of allowing lethal sexually transmitted diseases to spread among minority groups, even when a cure has been found, even when members of that group are serving in the military"

You also state, "My whole point was that in our society, whites get away with things that blacks would never get away with."

The problem with your point is that it also works the other way. Blacks often get away with things that whites would never get away with. That is what I was trying to point out.

Obama has a 20 year relationship with Wright and gets a pass, Bush speaks 1 time at BJU and gets slammed for WEEKS, yea, YEARS.

You comment, "imagine if a white liberal pastor had said the things that Jeremiah Wright said." I am not sure about the reaction to a white liberal pastor saying the things that Wright said, but a white CONSSERVATIVE preacher saying anything of a similar nature would have been banded and forced to resign in disgrace.

"if it was LeBron James caught smoking marijuana." You may have a point there. Although I am not sure. A lot of these things also have to do with the person's overall image. I would guess that LaBron or Dwight Howard would get about the same reaction as Phelps got - concern, but a willingness to forgive if seeming to be genuinely repentant, while Iverson would get slammed. It is more than just race. It is also personality and image.

Look at Kobe. Now that the rape case has been dropped, he is as popular as ever - perhaps more so. Why? In part, because his personality (or at least his image) was such that a lot of us believed from the beginning that he probably did not do it, that it was more than likely an attempted money grab by some woman.

You also comment, "Look at the reaction to fights in hockey and fights in basketball." Surely you understand that you are comparing apples to oranges with this, don't you? I recognize that hockey is generally considered a "white sport", but hockey, throughout its history, has always included fighting as part of the game. Basketball has not. A beter comparision would be the way fights are treated in Basketball and the way fights are treated in Nascar - and you know what, they are treated about the same. They are not supposed to be part of the sport. Or for that matter, baseball, which has a pretty mixed make-up (rather than predominately one race).

"Look at how people respond to poor white people differently than poor black people." Seems like it is perfectly acceptable (in media, at least) to refer to poor white people as "white trash." Can you imagine the uproar if Jay Leno did a segment called "black trash TV."

Christ told us "as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise." If we would just follow those words on this issue, we would make a lot more progress.

Kevin Lockett said...

Anonymous, you said: Blacks often get away with things that whites would never get away with.I think that summarizes your main point, and I agree that this is a legitimate concern and something that should be talked about. However, at least concerning the things that you are addressing, I think that's OK. What you brought up about TUCC is essentially a majority (but certainly not exclusively) black church expressing pride in their African heritage. You are right, if a white church expressed pride in their Anglo heritage, it would not be received in the same way.

I'm so glad that you brought this up, because I think one of the reasons that we have made so little progress in race relations so far is that we don't discuss this distinction enough. The reason that it's OK for a majority-minority church to make such comments is the context in which they are made. Historically and even presently, minorities have been made to not see their heritage as a point of pride, or to not see their heritage at all. Although you may not realize it, there has been a constant effort to Anglicanize minorities in this country for some time now. What TUCC is essentially saying is that we're black, and that's not a bad thing. How is that wrong?

In context, there would be no reasons for a mostly white church to say the same thing. Because whites constitute the dominate culture group in this country, the legitimacy of their heritage and culture has not been challenged in the same way as blacks. In this way, your argument is the same as saying that there should be a National Association for the Advancement of White People or a White History Month.

Is there really a need for such things? Do white people need to advance themselves collectively in order to be achieve equal political and economic rights with persons of color? Has the history of whites in American been neglected and overlooked? No. So there would be no need for a NAAWP or a White History Month. In the same way, there would be no need for a white house of faith to affirmatively state pride in their white heritage. So, yes, if a white church said "We're white and proud of it" or "We support the white work ethic" it would be received differently. I don't see how that's a bad thing, unless you want to remove such statements from the context of reality.

The comparison you are setting up is just not equal. It's {black people confronting racism} vs. {white people confronting... I don't know what}. If you want to have a fair comparison, have both sides do exactly the same thing.

As far as the history of the US and disease, consider the case of the Tuskegee experiment, a government study, in which hundreds black men with syphilis were intentionally kept from knowing that they had the disease. There were not offered treatment, even when a cure was discovered. Many of these men were married, and certainly others were sexually active as well, meaning that they would, unknowingly, be spreading this disease to their partners. When some of them joined the Army, the Army went along with the study, not alerting the men to their illness or providing them with treatment, even though there was a cure. When men moved from town to town, the government contacted their new doctors, advising them not to alert the men or provide treatment for this lethal disease. This study began in the 1930s and continued into the 1970s. Had it not been exposed, it likely would have continued until each of the subjects died.

Kevin Lockett said...

On Rice, Thomas, and Powell, first are you really going to make Belafonte the spokesperson for 40+ million black people? Also, even thought they may criticize him, most blacks see Powell as someone who acts respectable and who is an independent mind. Even though he served under George W. Bush, it's clear that he was not as "in" as some other cabinet members, because he was not willing to go along with their craziness. Black people have admired Powell long before he endorsed Obama. If you look at the things he said in his endorsement, you can see why - he was objective and mature in a way that is missing from American politics.

Rice is seen as little more than a yes-woman for Bush. There's a reason she replaced Powell. Thomas is seen as a sell-out and the enemy of the policies fought for by the man he replaced on the SCOTUS, Thurgood Marshal. So, if you could, please excuse blacks for being critical of people who don't align with their political views. If I'm a liberal, why should I support conservative policies? If most black people are liberal, why should they support conservative politicians?

On hockey v. basketball. I understand, and, to a degree, accept the different cultures of the games. It just disturbs me that when there is even a small fight in basketball, commentary turns to the lack of character or self control of the players involved. You don't see the same level of attacking people's character in hockey. Basketball players who fight aren't criticized as being outside of the culture of the game, but as being out of control hoodlums. There is a growing trend in the NBA to control players - no talking to refs, dress codes, technicals and flagrants for everything, Tim Duncan even got thrown out of a game for laughing. You wouldn't see this in other sports. It all seems to me like we have to keep these black kids under control and clean them up so that white people will accept them and not look at them as just a bunch of hood-rats, and I think that attitude is really hurting the league.

Finally, as a Christian, I believe all I'm asking for is exactly what Christ said - I want to be treated equally. I want to be able to be proud of my heritage and to speak out against injustice without being called racist. If I screw up, I want to be evaluated fairly, on the basis of what I did wrong, without feeling like I could have gotten away with it if only I had less melanin in my skin. Remember, Jesus also said that he came to the earth as a doctor for those who were sick, not for those who were well. I think that's the same way I approach these issues.