Junior Seau committed suicide after suffering from brain injuries. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa.)
This Sunday, citizens across these United States will indulge in the country’s most cherished pastime: watching large men give each other life-threatening concussions. For about twenty weeks, millions of us sit riveted as players in the NFL collide into one another at breakneck speeds, delivering bone-crushing hits that thrill and excite, and it all concludes on our favorite holiday, Super Bowl Sunday. Buckets of chicken and kegs of beer will be consumed in raucous atmospheres at homes and bars across the land, as we all watch the next generation of Alzheimer’s patients and suicide victims ride on to national glory.
It sounds grim when put that way, but that’s exactly what is happening. Over the past few years, the dangers of the sport have come under more scrutiny, as more than 3,800 former players have sued the NFL over the issue of head injuries. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, more commonly referred to by its initials CTE, has become a huge concern for retired football players, as a number of high profile suicides have put the debilitating brain disease on their radar, including that of former star linebacker Junior Seau. Only 43 years old, Seau was found dead last year of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. Like others before him, he chose to preserve his brain so that it could be studied after his death. During his playing career, Seau was never sidelined due to concussions, but it has been established that he did develop CTE, likely because of repeated hits to the head during his twenty year career. His family has filed a lawsuit, according the Associated Press, accusing the NFL of “deliberately ignoring and concealing evidence of the risks associated with traumatic brain injuries.”
On his MSNBC show, Chris Hayes hosted a roundtable discussion, including a former NFL player and the wife of one who committed suicide, on the future of football:
The conversation centered around our culpability/responsibility as consumers of the sport. As we learn more about the risks involved for the players, and knowing that the owners want the sport to continue so long as it is profitable, do we as fans hold the ultimate key to protecting these guys, in that we can change the channel? Yes, but here’s the problem. The average fan, aside from being enticed by the violence, is able to put some distance between themselves and the players, as they justify watching by telling themselves that these men are being paid millions of dollars to play a game they know is dangerous.
The Seau family’s lawsuit alleges the NFL was not forthcoming about the risks involved with head injuries, and perhaps had he known what those risks were, Seau may have stopped playing. Mary Ann Easterling, wife of Ray Easterling who committed suicide last year, said on Up with Chris that her husband felt “used,” and that if he could go back, he wouldn’t have played. But that dredges up the old cliché: hindsight is 20/20. What would it take for current and potential future NFL stars to give up the game?
My guess is more than the threat of CTE. We talk about the culture of violent machismo as a driving motivator behind their choice to play, but it’s even more basic than that. It’s the economy, stupid. The reason there are over a million boys in this country, of all different ages, playing this violent game is that there are millions of dollars on the table, in guaranteed contracts and endorsement deals, available to those who prove themselves capable of strapping on the pads and play America’s favorite sport at the highest level. This is the lottery, and who is more willing to play than those who are most economically disadvantaged?
It’s no accident that throughout the year the most celebrated players talk about their humble beginnings coming from poor and working-class families. It’s also no coincidence that so many of them are African-American. Sixty-seven percent of NFL players are are African-American. Why? Because this is a hustle, and so long as African-Americans are disproportionately represented among the poor, they’ll also be disproportionately represented in the NFL.
As much as players, particularly the black ones, are chastised in the media for their lavish lifestyles, an NFL contract is the economic hope of many poor black youths and their families. There may only be little more than 1,700 African-American men with deals, but that is still 1,700 six-, seven- and eight-figure deals that families and friends of the players are relying on for their economic security. For all the expensive cars and frivolous clubbing, these guys are also propping up immediate and extended family on their salaries. As the checks get bigger, it’s not surprising the number of kids playing at earlier and earlier ages increases. For too many, this is their answer to debilitating poverty.
So what’s a little permanent brain damage?
We can wait for the cultural shift to take place, where football no longer figures so prominently because soccer and basketball have overtaken our imaginations, and then we no longer have to concern ourselves with this messy business of brain injuries. Or we could improve the economic conditions of the poor and working class, especially those of color, and no longer render them dependent on the idea of huge paydays from a major breadwinner putting his future health at risk, and see how that works out. Until then, go Ravens, I guess.
Emblematic of a generation of men and women in the South that challenged their parents’ generation’s views on race, jobs, gender, sexuality, and a broader sense of the world, Anne Braden did more than look backwards. She, like Bayard Rustin, was a woman “ahead of her times, yet the times didn’t know it.” Anne Braden: Southern Patriot, a documentary from California Newsreel, highlights how she did not merely respond to the regressive and oppressive realities of the South, but instead looked forward toward a more just and equal society.
Like Ella Baker, Braden was committed to and involved in a myriad of movements, fighting against economic injustice, environmental injustice, war, classism, racism, and sexism. Where there was violence and degradation, Anne Braden was likely fighting alongside countless others. The film highlights not only her work, but her ethics and ethos, a willingness to confront injustice whereever it confronted her. Through the film, Braden expresses a level of fearlessness that spit in the face of white supremacy, patriarchy, and class inequality. She was always standing in opposition to white supremacy, on the other side of the police state, yet the danger and the consequences never led her to shy away from a fight.
What Anne Braden’s life reveals, and what Anne Braden: Southern Patriotdemonstrates in vivid detail, is how her work was both an external fight and an ongoing reconcilliation with her own whiteness. Her fight was with her own privileges and their relationship to a broader system of white supremacy. In a powerful moment in the film, Braden recounts a moment of clarity where she felt the impact of American racism in her own ethos and worldview as much as with those “backwards neighbors”:
In the mornings before I came downtown I would call the courthouse, to see if anything big happened overnight, because if there had I’d have to skip breakfast usually and go on to the courthouse and get the details and get it into the first edition of the afternoon paper. When I would get downtown I often stopped for breakfast and met a friend there. And the waitress was putting our food down on the table. And so he said anything doing? And I said no, just a colored murder. And I don’t think I’d have ever thought anything about it if that black waitress hadn’t been standing there. She was pouring coffee into our cups and her hand was sort of shaking, but there wasn’t an expression on her face. It was like she had a mask. And my first impulse was that I wanted to get up and go put my arms around her and say, “Oh I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. It’s not that I don’t think the life of your people is important. It’s my newspaper that says what news is.” And then I just suddenly realized I had meant exactly what I’d said.
Listening to these words, and others from Braden, I was struck by the resonance within our own moment. The silence afforded to Chicago compared to Sandy Hook, for example, and the erasure of anti-black state violence and mass incarceration from public discourse highlight how Braden’s assessment still matters 40 years later. Her diagnosis of society, and every white member of society, remains an unfortunate reality and this is why her life’s work deserves attention.
Throughout her life, Anne Braden’s fight was not just with white supremacy, but also most importantly with white America. In actions and words, she challenged white America to make a choice, to decide whether or not to challenge racism, whether or not to accept the unearned benefits of American racism:
“What you win in the immediate battles is little compared to the effort you put into it but if you see that as a part of this total movement to build a new world, you know what could be. You do have a choice. You don’t have to be a part of the world of the lynchers. You can join the other America. There is another America!”
In a powerful letter she lays out the history of white supremacy, state violence, and the complicity of white women. She addresses patriarchy, and how white domesticity operates in relationship to white racism, and the demonization of black male sexuality.:
I believe that no white woman reared in the South-or perhaps anywhere in this racist country – can find freedom as a woman until she deals in her own consciousness with the question of race. We grow up little girls–absorbing a hundred stereotypes about ourselves and our role in life, our secondary position, our destiny to be a helpmate to a man or men. But we also grow up white–absorbing the stereotypes of race, the picture of ourselves as somehow privileged because of the color of our skin. The two mythologies become intertwined, and there is no way to free ourselves from one without dealing with the other. … I don’t think all this will change until women-organized and strong and asserting their humanity-demand it. We haven’t had that kind of strength-and don’t now-because of the deep chasm that divides white women from black in our society, a chasm created by crimes committed in the name of white womanhood. It may seem paradoxical-but in this racist society we who are white will overcome our oppression as women only when we reject once and for all the privileges conferred on us by our white skin. For the privileges are not real-they are a device through which we are kept under control. We can make a beginning toward building a really strong women’s movement as we openly reject and fight racist myths that have kept us divided. We can begin by joining with our black sisters in a campaign to free Thomas Wansley-and go on from there to free others, and ourselves.
The power of Braden’s voice, the depth of her analysis, and a commitment to radical transformation was demonstrated throughout her life. The film amplifies her voice, elucidating her words and deeds; it spotlights the influence and lasting impact she had on a generation of activists and freedom fighters, students and teachers. She was part of a cadre of people who demanded change while being that change. “They were people who were labeled the rebels, the renegades, the outliers. People who weren’t afraid to be called crazy or in Ella Baker’s case difficult, in Anne Braden’s case red,” notes Barbara Ransby in the film. “Dreamers that catapult us into a different place. She was born at a time in the Jim Crow south in which there was a very rigid script about what a middle class white woman could be and do. And pretty much Anne Braden violated every page of that script with great pride.”
Anne Braden was a dreamer and a fighter, an inspiration whose work provides a pathway forward. The question is: Are we listening and are we following not just her example but our own dreams and desires to violate the scripts afforded to each and everyone of us?
“TRIGGER WARNING: Video contains footage from the shooting of Oscar Grant between :38-:58, between 3:25 and 4:02 and between 13:11 and 13:28”
We’ve become accustomed to reading about human rights abuses in remote, backwater prisons, across oceans and continents. But Illinois Governor Ryan’s monumental commutation of 167 death sentences on his final day in office drew world attention to the gruesome torture routinely inflicted in police interrogation rooms on the south side of Chicago. In a carefully crafted move the day prior, Ryan (R), pardoned four members of the Death Row 10–Madison Hobley, Stanley Howard, Aaron Patterson, and LeRoy Orange–all African American men who had been tortured, by Commander Jon Burge, into confessing to crimes they say they did not commit.
“There are many decisions he could have pardoned, but he chose to pardon the Burge guys,” says Joan Parkin, Death Row 10 coordinator for the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. “He used the Achilles’ heel of the State’s Attorney’s office. The public campaign had gotten a lot of sympathy. Aaron Patterson and Stanley Howard had both won torture hearings. It would all have broken loose, but Ryan pardoned them.”
Because the Burge torture cases were so egregious, Parkin says, they fueled Ryan’s boldest moves: a moratorium in 2000 and the blanket commutations in 2003. More than 60 suspects (including over 10 condemned inmates) alleged that between 1972 and 1986, Burge and his underlings tortured them to confess. All were from Chicago’s south side. All were African American. Men who’d never met one another described detectives punching them, kicking them, or suffocating them with an electric typewriter cover. The detectives used needles, Russian roulette; they pummeled suspects with a telephone receiver. They electro-shocked their testicles or hung them out a third-story window–all to extract confessions.
The police department’s own Office of Professional Standards investigated and confirmed these charges, and terminated Burge in 1993. (He retired with a full pension and lives in Florida, where, critics say, he spends days tooling around on his pleasure boat, the Vigilante.) Judge Paul Biebel has appointed a special prosecutor to investigate whether there are sufficient grounds to press felony charges against Burge and his officers. Victims’ attorneys have filed a motion to disqualify all Cook County judges from trying these cases. Why? Twenty-six out of 33 judges took statements from Burge’s victims when they worked for the State’s Attorneys’ office; a handful testified against the torture victims at trial.
Once a staunch supporter of capital punishment, Ryan considers himself an accidental activist and a modern-day abolitionist in the spirit of Abraham Lincoln. “The system has proved itself to be wildly inaccurate, unjust, unable to separate the innocent from the guilty and, at times, racist,” Ryan said in his last moments as governor.
“Ryan helped pass Illinois’ death penalty law, and signed plenty of death warrants as governor. But with that first execution–where it was his hand pushing the button–he understood the seriousness of the death penalty,” says Abe Bonowitz of Citizens United for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
Ryan began to doubt the fairness of the death penalty in 1998 when Northwestern University Professor David Protess, investigator Paul Ciolino, and a team of journalism students proved Anthony Porter’s innocence 48 hours before his scheduled execution. The state of Illinois had an abysmal record: it had executed 12 inmates and exonerated 13 (now 17) since capital punishment was reinstated in 1977.
Over two thirds of Illinois’ (former) death row inmates were African American. “But the real racism in the death penalty is not in the race of the murderer, but in the race of the victim. Kill a white person and you are far more likely to get the death penalty than if you kill a person of color,” Bonowitz says.
A Maryland study released in January found that 80 percent of the state’s death row inmates were convicted for killing white victims. “When it comes to the death penalty, white lives are considered more valuable than black lives in Maryland,” Richard Dieter says of the Death Penalty Information Center.
Ryan also indicated the U.S. needs to take a serious look at its human-rights record. A week later, Mexico filed charges in the World Court calling for urgent stays of execution for 51 Mexican nationals serving capital sentences. Mexico claims the U.S. violated the Vienna convention by denying Mexican prisoners the right to contact their consulate.
“If we don’t uphold international law here,” Ryan said, “we can’t expect our citizens to be protected outside of the United States. And I think that’s especially important in the world today.”
Editor’s Note: Rinku Sen is the President and Executive Director of the Applied Research Center (ARC) and the publisher of Colorlines.com.
By Rinku Sen, Special to CNN
(CNN) –With the news that, for the first time in U.S. history, the majority of American babies are not white, it should put to rest use of the term “minorities” as a reference to America’s black, Latino, Asian and Native American residents.
Nearly 30 years ago, I learned to think of myself as a person of color, and that shift changed my view of myself and my relationship to the people around me.
It is time for the entire nation, and our media in particular, to make the same move.
I am an Indian immigrant, and became a citizen in 1987.
My family came to the States in 1972 when I was five, just seven years after Congress passed the
Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which removed bans on Asian immigration.
My father was a metallurgical engineer and we lived in predominantly white factory towns in New York and Pennsylvania.
All I ever wanted was to be fully American. But everything around me, from the population to the television, taught me that being American meant being white.
I lived in a household, similiar to others, where only white people were called Americans, and everyone else got a more specific title (black, Indian).
I grew up with the weird mix of pandering (“You’re such a genius like all your people! Let’s skip you to seventh grade!”) and exclusion (none of the white girls showed up to my 13th birthday party, and no, they didn’t call) that I would later learn characterized the “model-minority” experience of many Asian Americans.
Not yet aware that it was not only me who was treated this way, I had to develop alternative explanations to deny the racial reality in which I found myself, searching for “anything-but-race” reasons for my experiences.
At the beginning of my sophomore year at Brown University in 1984, the African American, Latino and Asian student groups ran a campaign for campus-wide policy changes – more professors, new curriculum, a new Third World Center.
There had been meetings and a rally, and I had skipped them all, just as I had skipped the school’s pre-orientation program for incoming students of color when I entered college.
One night I was with my friends Yuko, a Japanese national who had been raised in the U.S., and Valerie, a biracial black and white woman, who wanted me to attend a rally the next day.
I gave them the 1980s version of “I’m not feeling that.” And they gave me a serious talking-to. “You’re not a minority,” Yuko said. “you’re a person of color.”
I went to the rally.
It was the first time since immigrating that I felt I belonged in an American community.
That was the moment I realized that being an American wasn’t about looking like Marcia Brady. It was about making a commitment to the community you were in, and doing all you could do to make that the most inclusive, most compassionate, most effective community possible.
I have been building multiracial social justice organizations ever since.
Long before the press starting talking about changing demographics, community organizers needed to connect the communities that fell under the “minority” rubric.
Our specific groups were outnumbered by whites. But when we came together, the proportions shifted in a way that forced institutions to deal with us.
The term “people of color” has deep historical roots, not to be confused with the pejorative “colored people.”
“People of color” was first used in the French West Indies to indicate people of African descent who were not enslaved as “gens de couleur libre,” or “free people of color,” and scholars have found references to the term in English dating back to the early 1800’s.
American racial justice activists, influenced by Franz Fanon, picked up the term in the late 1970s and began to use it widely by the early 80s.
As an Indian immigrant, calling myself a person of color enabled me to identify with African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans.
The new identity freed me from the model-minority slot that I had been given by the media, politicians and by Americans themselves.
To build a multiracial movement, I had to expand my identity in a way that tied me to African Americans’ struggle to access the promise of the American dream, rather than as the ringer that would suppress that struggle.
“People of color” is now commonly used far beyond political circles, as “minority” fades into the category of things that used to be true.
It is past time for the media and the general public to embrace the phrase.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Rinku Sen.
Times moves quickly but the scars of the past linger. I realized this as I stood in front of my college class and made a plea for my students to see the new Ken Burns documentary The Central Park Five. Many of them were born around the time of the notorious case on which the film is based; thus, the release of the documentary barely aroused a reaction from the young students.
Twenty three years ago, the nation was gripped by the case surrounding Trisha Meili, a White female jogger who was brutally beaten and raped in New York City’s most famous park. The crime was horrific and the New York Police Department and the City quickly moved to pursue a group of young Black and Latino males who were in the park that night.
On that fateful night of April 19th 1989, a group of teenaged boys entered Central Park and traveled around causing mischief: harassing other park guests, scrapping…things that are not atypical of adolescents, but nonetheless things that Black and Brown youth are often singled out for. The late eighties and early 1990s were times of intense paranoia in New York City because of an increasingly high crime rate. After Meili was found brutally beaten and near death, the NYPD arrested a number of boys for their misdeeds in the park that night. Through coercive interrogation strategies, they manufactured false confessions. In the end, they convicted and imprisoned five boys—despite no DNA linking the boys and the jogger as well as the grossly inconsistent facts in the “confessions” the five teenagers provided.
The problem is, the boys were were innocent.
The stiff penalties the Central Park Five received were due in part to the fact that their trial was seen as “a test case” for the judicial system on crime, particularly interracial crime. Long before Donald Trump was asking for President Obama’s birth certificate and academic transcripts he was raising clamor about the case of the Central Park Five. He took out a full-page ad asking New York to bring back the Death Penalty and to increase police presence. The ad further stirred hatred toward the boys and made their trial more public fiasco than a public pursuit of justice. News article after news article called for “justice for the jogger,” but shared little concern for the boys receiving justice and outright ignored the presumption of innocence; Black outlets, such as the Amsterdam News, were the only notable exceptions.
The Central Park Fives case is a one in a long line of “public trials” of Black males accused of sexual assaults like the Scottsboro Boys. The true rapist would not be known until 2002, when Matias Reyes confessed to the crime and his DNA was matched to that found on Meili’s body.
Though the convictions of the Central Park Five were vacated, the scars on their life remain. From having their names erroneously linked to one of the most heinous and public crimes of the 20th century, to having their lives change course due to unjust incarcerations, the Central Park Five have not seen justice. After having their convictions vacated in 2003, they sued the city for damages behind the ordeal. This October, the City subpoenaed all interviews and notes from the documentary, which is currently screening throughout the nation and later coming to PBS, likely with hopes of invalidating the suit that the five have brought against the city.
For many, ‘the Central Park Jogger case’ lives in infamy, yet the case of the five men falsely accused lives in obscurity. The public fascination with the case faded soon after conviction; the vacation of the conviction and the real rapist being found hardly made waves. While the media spotlight is often about rushed judgment, as a caring community concerned with social justice, we must keep the focus on justice for all. We should support the Central Park Five’s case against the City for having their lives irreparably altered. We must connect old and new patterns of police and criminal justice mistreatment our communities face by pushing for initiatives like the creation of an Inspector General, work to end the death penalty and support other policies that give communities greater ability to protect themselves. And critically, we must talk to our young people about their rights, our responsibilities, and make sure that injustices of the past and present do not fall into the dustbin of history.
Dr. R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Black Studies at the City College of New York. His work concentrates on race, education and gender. You can follow him on Twitter at @dumilewis or visit his official website.