In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the part of the American political imaginary in which the black male embodied the criminal was temporarily suspended. If only out of situational sympathy or utter revulsion at what the black bodies in New Orleans laid bare about U.S. society, it seemed that that representation was open to emendation or even radical transformation. The moment turned out to be quite brief, however, as the perception regained its hold, though perhaps with a different articulation. This restratification was — perhaps not surprisingly, but significantly — achieved where black-male bodies are at their most visible: professional sports. This reality became clear last week with the release of the Mitchell report on steroid use in major league baseball, which, ironically, “exonerated” black athletes — by my count, only six of the sixty-plus players named in the report were black, well below the percentage of black players in the league. For the past few years, however, the evil specter of steroids has been continually, almost exclusively, linked to black players. The Mitchell report reveals not only that this was not the case but that assumptions about black criminality still inform U.S. political discourse.
Actually, it’s not strictly correct to say that black athletes, in the plural, were assumed to dope. The linking of steroids to black athletes was instead largely accomplished in the figure of one person: Barry Bonds. Throughout the last two summers, as he chased the home-run record, Bonds was the object of extreme vitriol from sportswriter, politicians, and fans: he could only break the record — which of course is still Babe Ruth’s record, even though another black man had officially held it for over thirty years — by being juiced. Though undoubtedly a gifted athlete, the arguments went, Bonds’s difficult personality and, more importantly, obvious doping were ruining America’s beloved game. The discourse around Bonds brought out a seemingly contradictory belief about black athletes: that they are both more naturally gifted than whites and they need things like steroids to make them better players. Like black males in general, they are caught in a double bind that sees them as both superior — more physically talented, better musical gifts, bigger dicks — and inferior — not as smart and prone to drug usage.
There was, of course, no way to prove that Bonds had used steroids, as no one had ever come forward with evidence implicating him. Plenty of white players, on the other hand, had actually been caught using them, and there were questions and faint whispers about other white players, superstars of Bonds’s stature even, and their increased performance, but none of them were subjected to the hatred and assumptions that Bonds endured. He was the face of steroids in the league. Now that they report has been released and it’s been “shown” — the scare quotes indicate the report is, legally speaking, pretty dubious, as the witnesses to the doping are few in number, and that there’s hardly a high threshold of evidence that had to be met to be included in the report — that Bonds may have used steroids, the only thing that’s changed is that instead of assuming guilt, now sportswriters, politicians, and fans are, as Zizek calls it, “lying in the face of truth: Even if what [they are] saying is factually true, the motives that make [them] say it are false.” The motive being, of course, U.S. racial politics.
Bonds was the athlete who most obviously served as a point of relinking the black male to the criminal, but he was far from the only one. The fight in an NBA game last December between a handful black players reinforced perceptions of black males as thugs, and the fact that the most famous punch in that fight was thrown by the cornrowed Carmelo Anthony, who ran across the court after landing his punch — and who has been and probably will forever remain the “bad black” to the “good black” of his superstar contemporaries, Dwayne Wade and LeBron James — enacted another double movement, the black male as thug and chicken, the tough who lacks the will and the wits to back up his convictions. More recently, last month when football player Sean Taylor was killed in his home, it was automatically assumed that his “thuggish” past had finally caught up with him and that he was killed for some street wrong he did. Turns out, though, that he died at the hands of a group of burglars he had no connection to.
The reinstantiation of the black male as criminal has now been accomplished at a higher level. Whereas prior to Katrina the black-as-criminal was largely a “street-level” figure, almost a stock movie character, that responsible black men were supposed to escape, the assumption of criminality of black athletes at the professional level, where they had been the most socially accepted and where they certainly are the most visible and successful, has ensured that even that area of escape has been blocked. Now the black male is fully criminal, wherever he goes.