by Dr. Boyce Watkins
A sports columnist is trying to explain himself after making some odd remarks about the quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. Sports writer David Whitley doesn’t seem to know the difference between an NFL quarterback and a prison inmate, after he compared 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to men who just got out of prison.
Whitley says that Kaepernick can never be a legitimate hero because he discounts the position of quarterback with all of his tattoos.
“San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick is going to be a big-time NFL quarterback. That must make the guys in San Quentin happy,” wrote Whitley in AOL FanHouse.
“Approximately 98.7 per cent of the inmates at California’s state prison have tattoos. I don’t know that as fact, but I’ve watched enough Lockup to know it’s close to accurate.”
Whitley also said this:
“NFL quarterback is the ultimate position of influence and responsibility. He is the CEO of a high profile organization, and you don’t want your CEO to look like he just got paroled.”
Obviously, the column got a reaction, but not the kind that’s good for business. If an article sparks a light among readers, that’s great. But the last thing you want is a forest fire.
In spite of the controversy, Whitley wasn’t backing down from his words. The columnist goes one up on the “I have a black friend” defense: He actually has two adopted daughters who just happen to be black.
“If they were old enough to read, my two adopted African-American daughters would certainly be disappointed to find out I’m a racist,” he said.
“It didn’t occur to me that admitting I’m not a fan of body art would be admitting I don’t like African-Americans.”
Whitley seems to think that having black people close to you means that you can’t be a racist. This couldn’t be further from the truth. There are quite a few people who hold racial anxieties who also have black people in their lives that they love to death. You need to go no further than the old southern plantation, where massa’s wife would trust her black nanny with her life and her children. You can also point to college campuses like The University of Kentucky, where the negroes on the court are treated like rock stars, while rank-and-file black people are considered second-class citizens. So, loving a black person is not a “Get out of jail free” card when it comes to accusations of racial oppression.
Some of Whitley’s animus could be due to the fact that times (and people) are changing. Part of the problem could be a classist reaction to “those people” who come from a different background from ourselves. Loving black children doesn’t mean that he loves all black people, and there are some who associate themselves with black folks so they can teach them a set of values that differ from what they might see otherwise….at worst, it can be part of the paternalistic tradition of “civilizing the savages.”
But in Whitley’s defense, it can be noted that there are quite a few black people who are equally annoyed with the “tatted-up” culture of modern athletes. Additionally, there is a very disturbing spillover effect between prison culture and black male culture in general, largely driven by the rapid expansion of the prison industrial complex, where black men have become cattle being fed to slaughter in a capitalist machine of involuntary servitude. We even have music being played for black boys on a daily basis that indoctrinates them into a set of predictable decisions that significantly increase their probability of spending time in prison.
What is certainly true, however, is that you can’t disconnect race from Whitley’s association of a tattoo-covered black athlete with a prison inmate. The prisons are full of black men who could have been professional athletes, and there are plenty of professional athletes who roam with convicted felons. The cultures tend to overlap and many white folks can’t tell the difference between the big black man who might hurt them and the big black man who will score their touchdowns.
The bottom line is that the analogy was an inappropriate and unnecessary example of when “keeping it real goes wrong.” Whitley could have expressed his concern in a more decent and thoughtful way, rather than grabbing onto the most convenient stereotype he could find. Also, he needs to focus on loving his black daughters and not using them as political hand puppets, since using them to make his case only makes him look like that much more of a bigot. A better approach for Whitley might have been for him to protect his job by judging the player by the content of his character and not the colors on his skin. He probably needs to go ahead and apologize.