One of the highlights of the 2007 sports year has to be Boise State's dramatic victory over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. This game had it all: a big-time BCS power in Oklahoma versus an underdog Boise State squad that went on to win the game in dramatic fashion, a series of spectacularly executed gadget plays from football's past, and to top it all off the Broncos' Ian Johnson's taking a page out of Ahmad Rashad's book by proposing to cheerleader Chrissy Popadics on national television.
AP Photo/Idaho Press-Tribune, Greg Kreller
Chrissy and Ian Johnson hired security for their wedding after receiving threats.
Though there are many people who seem to think that racism of this sort is dead, I was not at all shocked or surprised by these threats. Even though we live in a time when the overt expression of racism doesn't always take the openly egregious form of the threats received by Johnson these days, there are still many subtle, coded, and nuanced incidents of racism remaining that are very lethal in their own right. The image of an interracial relationship between a black man and a white woman, particularly a black athlete whose fame and wealth afford him access that is not as available to the common man, still touches a raw societal nerve for some people in spite of what racial progress people might assume has been made.
On the surface, some might assume that if ever there were an area of the society where it appeared that black people were being readily accepted it would be in the way that sports fans have embraced black athletes. For many people, loyalty to their alma mater and/or favorite professional team tends to supersede all else. When you factor in the money and success that so many black athletes experience these days, such accomplishments and the attendant visibility often lead people to believe that all must be well in the world of race relations.
Further, it is really hard to watch a football game these days, even in Boise, without reconciling the fact that a large percentage of the players, and in many cases the best players, are black. Yet Ian Johnson stated that he assumed that some of the same people who directed their hatred at him probably were cheering him on while he was playing football. Apparently, some people's racial tolerance is limited to what takes place between the white lines. It is this incredible hypocrisy that says that "you're OK to serve as my sports entertainment on the field, but stay away from my women" that exposes the fallacy about sports being color-blind once again, though.
In 2003, it was reported that several professional athletes and other prominent African-American males had received hate mail complaining about relationships between black men and white women. Some athletes who received these letters were Derek Jeter, Jason Taylor, former Philadelphia Eagle Freddie Mitchell and the mother of former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett. Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas and the parents of tennis star James Blake were among others who also received the letters. The hate mail contained threats of castration and death and prompted an FBI investigation.
The image of the black male/white female has become a cultural stereotype even. Discussions of this stereotype come up often in an African-American woman's magazine like Essence, where conversations about the dearth of eligible black men are often attributed to black athletes and other successful black men choosing to date white women. A fictional, though cinematically charged version of such black female conversations is highlighted in Spike Lee's film "Jungle Fever" (1991). I am not saying that these black women's conversations are the same as the racist threats, but it does demonstrate the controversy that still exists in relation to the black male/white female union from multiple parties. What makes this situation even more difficult is the fact that certain people start to get real uncomfortable when such a topic comes up, because at its core we are talking about a black man's sexuality, and this threat has long rendered otherwise talkative people speechless.
Boxer Jack Johnson was the prototype for the modern black athlete. With his larger-than-life style and colossal indifference to the restrictive dictates of an immensely oppressive era, Johnson flaunted his relationships with various white women during a day and time when people were getting lynched for far less. Johnson, a master provocateur who was keenly aware of his ability to incite the worst fears of his detractors, is said to have wrapped his penis with gauze bandages while training so as to enhance the appearance of its size for the sportswriters and other whites who were watching him train. This gesture, of course, played on one of the oldest stereotypes in the book.
Johnson recognized early on that there was something potentially profitable about being the black villain with accentuated sexuality in an otherwise white sport and society. He knew that because of his image, people would be that much more inclined to pay to see him possibly defeated by one of the many "white hopes" who had been nominated to bring down the black "menace to society" that he had become. Jack Johnson consciously worked at exploiting all the sexual myths about black masculinity for the purpose of enhancing the threat he posed to America's racist conventions with a huge smile on his face. This is why he was so hated a figure at the time, why he was convicted on trumped-up charges of violating the Mann Act and why his utter defiance of the dominant white social order would make him a legend for future generations of black men.
I was reminded of Johnson's tendency toward sexual provocation in the aftermath of Randy Moss' imitated mooning of the crowd in Green Bay during the 2004 playoffs. After being fined $10,000 for the gesture, Moss told a group of reporters that he wasn't fazed; "Ain't nothing but 10 grand. What's 10 grand to me? Ain't s--- next time I might shake my d---." Moss, like Johnson, was well aware of what he was doing and how his over-the-top embrace of the black male sexual threat would only add to his already controversial image.
This image works both ways, though. Sometimes black men embrace it -- like that old Richard Pryor joke in which he boldly asks, "where the white women at?" -- and at other times, the image can be used against them. There was the controversial political commercial from last year's senatorial campaign in Tennessee when Republican Bob Corker used such an image against his Democratic African-American opponent, Harold Ford. The provocative and extremely outlandish commercial featured a bare-shouldered blonde saying that she had met Congressman Ford at the Playboy Mansion. At the end of the commercial she suggestively asks Ford to call her. Some people credit the commercial with being the deciding factor in Ford's defeat.
This was also the case a few years back with the sexually suggestive skit featuring Terrell Owens and Nicolette Sheridan of "Desperate Housewives" before a 2004 "Monday Night Football" telecast. In the skit, Sheridan, playing her character from the popular show whose rampant sexuality is a big part of its appeal, dropped her towel and jumped naked into T.O.'s arms, causing him to forsake the game he was about to play in. Sheridan was shot from behind and from the waist up after dropping the towel. No matter, the skit prompted cries of indecency and pornography, from both black and white constituencies, even drawing complaints from the FCC.
While the innocuous skit was especially corny and T.O.'s acting skills beyond reprehensible, the societal backlash to it was even more outrageous than the actual skit itself. Talk about an incredible overreaction. In a world where Internet porn is only a keyboard stroke away, where someone like Jenna Jameson can write a New York Times best-seller entitled "How to Make Love Like a Porn Star" and where there are far more extreme representations of sex visible all across television now, the interracial nature of this especially pale-by-comparison farce still managed to open up those old racial taboos once again.
Underneath all of this social discomfort is the prevailing image of the "black buck," an image that Eldridge Cleaver once labeled as the "super masculine menial" in his landmark book "Soul on Ice." This is the stereotype that defines the black man as an unbreakable sexual stud who is to be feared as he is often cited with using his immense physicality for physicality's sake. The most extreme representation of this stereotype was embodied in the character played by former heavyweight boxing champion Ken Norton in the 1975 Blaxploitation slave melodrama "Mandingo." The film's title says it all. Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder's comment about blacks being bred to be athletes, which eventually led to his being fired in 1988, is but another example of how such thinking has manifested itself over time relative to the black male athlete. This particular racial imagery helped to inform people's reactions, good, bad or otherwise, in both the O.J. Simpson ordeal and Kobe Bryant's more recent troubles in Eagle, Colo.
This convoluted racial history notwithstanding, it is still depressing that in 2007 some people are still overly concerned with whom someone else dates or marries. How ridiculous is that? Nonetheless, from the days of Jack Johnson to the more recent saga of Ian Johnson, the image of black men with white women still holds the potential to start a Southern California-sized dry brush canyon fire of controversy. Though buried deep in America's closet, it doesn't take much to expose the festering wounds of a racial history that has yet to be fully reconciled. Some things just never change, it seems. Rest assured that even today successful black athletes are most certainly not immune from the contradictions of this retrograde thinking, in spite of how many touchdowns they score, how many baskets they make, how many jerseys and sneakers they sell and how many games they help their respective teams win.
This being the case though, to all those whose heads are hopelessly stuck in the racial sands of time, who hate having to see a black man and a white woman together, they simply need to get over it by now, because as The Blind Man says in "The Mack" (1973), "It's been goin' on since the beginning of time and it's gonna continue straight ahead, until somebody up there turns the lights out on this small planet. Can you dig it?"
Dr. Todd Boyd, a columnist for Page 2, is an author, media commentator, and professor of critical studies at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. His next book, "The Notorious Ph.D.'s Guide to the Super Fly '70s," will be published this month.