By David J. Leonard | with thanks to NewBlackman (in Exile)
Saturday, April 12, 2014.
DeSean Jackson was fired and few inside and outside the sports world were troubled by the decision from the Philadelphia Eagles. Despite ample success – 82 catches, 1,332 yards received, and 9 touchdowns – and no trouble off the field, the Eagles released Jackson. In a nation that prides itself on meritocracy, and in a sport where measurable performance is elevated as the be-all and end all, the Eagles decision to go all Trumpish on Jackson is telling. WhileSports Illustrated taunts the science of sports, and ESPN promotes a sporting culture where “numbers never lie,” the dismissal of Jackson, (and the muted backlash) highlights that the value of his blackness cancels all those other numbers, whether it be wins or yards-after-catch.
Shortly before the Eagles sent Jackson packing, NJ.com published a report entitled, “DeSean Jackson's gang connections troubling to Eagles.” Citing LAPD sources (as if they are objective and without consideration of bias), and fears resulting from the Aaron Hernandez case, Jackson was seen as a liability because of his “gang ties”. “Ever since New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was arrested and charged with first-degree murder last summer, NFL franchises have been reevaluating how closely they needed to watch their players away from the field,” wrote Eliot Shorr-Parks & A.J. Perez in the NJ.com piece. “And what Eagles executives saw in Jackson, a six-year veteran, was apparently a potential blight on the brand and a bad influence in the locker room.”
Never mind the fact that Hernandez’s arrest (paging, due process) is irrelevant, Hernandez’s purported gang ties have been a media creation. Forgot the fact that there has been “no proof Hernandez was in a gang,” ignore the fact “there's no proof of an NFL gang culture,” it continues to be used as justification for fears about Jackson despite the lack of proof that he has any connection to gangs or criminal activity.
Without actual evidence, the NJ.com indicts Jackson because he is a known friend of known gang members who are known to have allegedly done bad things. Yes, DeSean Jackson’s crime is he befriends people who may or may not be in gangs, who may or may not have committed crimes.
Relying on guilt by association and stereotypes, not to mention photos from his Instagram page and an unreported arrest for “possession of marijuana while driving, disturbing the peace and operating a car with materials that obstruct or reduce a driver’s view), the NJ.com traffics in the accepted signifiers of blackness. The decision to release Jackson, on the heels of this report, points to the heightened legibility of his criminality beyond a reasonable doubt.
DeSean Jackson is not a gang member; he has made that clear and so have others, yet the criminalization of his body remains. Because of his association with “gang members,” because of his connection to South Central, Los Angeles, which in the dominant white imagination is the capital of GANGLAND--as oppose to Inglewood where he played little league, Long Beach, where he went to high school, or Berkeley, where he went to college--and because of the “company he keeps,” his criminalized body remains entrenched and, therefore, suspect.
In reality, neither his Instagram page nor his childhood zip code matters because within the dominant white imagination, black and criminal remain interchangeable. Studies about persistent implicit bias (see Alexander 2010), and the persistence of stereotypes (see Feagin 2010) demonstrate how “young + black + male is equated with reasonable suspicion (Russell 2007), justifying arrest, interrogation, search and detention” (Alexander 2010, p. 194). These many studies and polls, as well as countless others exploring the criminalization of African Americans, should not be surprising given the representations and discourses disseminated by academics, politicians, popular culture, and sports.
Between the flowering of the civil rights movement and the Reagan years, the image of black youth in particular underwent an extraordinary transformation: The brave little girl walking up the schoolhouse door in the face of jeering white crowds was replaced by fearsome young black men coming down the street ready to take your wallet or your life. The cultural transformation of black youth from victims of injustice to remorseless predators was mirrored in public policies that quietly reduced funding for programs that had historically served minority youth (Brown et. al. 2003, p. 132).
Moreover, these shifting mediated representations of blackness rationalize and justify policies of surveillance, incarceration and disciplining, whether in zero tolerance initiatives in schools, the war on drugs, mass incarceration efforts, or the immediate dismissal of black athletes who fail a drug test. Blackness, in juxtaposition to whiteness exists as “a problematic sign and ontological position” (Williams 1998, p. 140).
In contemporary America a “secluded, camouflaged kind of racism” that ultimately “naturalizes black people as criminals,” (Davis 1997, pp. 270-271) not only leads to mass incarceration of black and brown youth but second chances for Jim Irsay, Josh Hamilton, Marshall Henderson and others afflicted with “affluenza.” It leads to the redemptive narratives afforded to white youth (and their fathers, mothers and grandparents) in city after city, on team after team, amid the “thugification” of the NBA’s Ron Artest (Metta World Peace), Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart, the Seahawks’ Richard Sherman, and now DeSean Jackson (now playing in D.C.)
The focus on Jackson’s choices and decisions, his production company, his sartorial choices and photo poses (one has to wonder when Justin Bieber, countless white college students, and even more high school students will be punished for Instagram photos of their flashing gang signs) ignores the real issues at work in terms of the criminalization of black bodies. One has to look further than the number of black youth punished in recent weeks because it looked like they were flashing gang signs.
While criminalized and illegible as anything but a criminal (Neal 2013), black athletes are also routinely demonized for "selling out," for refusing to give back and be role models. The hyper focus on the types of community service, foundation work, political involvement, or connection to community fits within a broader framework that consistently imagines today’s black athletes as selfish, materialistic, and narcissistic.
Still, Jackson’s work within the community, his refusal to sever ties with those “left behind” by hurricane deindustrialization and the great neoliberal storm, his interest in mentoring those swept away in the “New Jim Crow” is not imagined as activist, political, or community service work, but criminal misconduct. The uplifting black body, the person dedicated to enriching and empowering others, is reimagined as just another criminal.
Despite often celebrating athletes like DeSean Jackson for pulling themselves up by their laces, for living the American Dream, Jackson’s refusal to sever ties (cultural, physical, communal) has been used as evidence of a level of pathology. The usefulness of the “ghetto” within the constructs of the American Dream is limited to the past, to its symbolic place as a point of departure; its ideological utility exists because it is not the present, it is where Jackson came from (and left) on his road to the American promise land.
The constant references to his “inability to sever ties” despite the potential ramifications reflects the pathologizing of Jackson, as if this decision reflects bad judgment that COULD have severe consequences. In refusing to turn his back on his family and friends, on his community, Jackson refuses the narrative of success resulting from escape, from living in a new world, and from starting over.
Jackson demonstrates the power of these indexes of blackness – the criminal, the pathological, and the culturally deficient. “But DeSean Jackson is the menace, right? He’s just as bad as those guys he parties with because he threw up a Crip sign in a picture and he owns a gangsta rap record label,” writes Richard Sherman.
If only all record label owners were held to this standard, somebody might realize that Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg weren’t the bosses behind NWA. Jim Irsay lookalikes in suits were. But go ahead and judge DeSean for the company he keeps. While you’re at it, judge me, too, because I still live in Los Angeles, and my family does, too. We didn’t run from where we grew up. We aren’t afraid to be associated with the people who came up with us. We brought some of our money back and started charities and tried to help out a few guys who were with us when we were nobody
The realities of antiblack racism is that irrespective of Jackson’s friend list, irrespective of Sherman’s post-game comments, irrespective of iPod playlists, childhood zip codes, tattoos, or driving infractions, the black body is always suspect. The suspect and criminal black body necessitates action, whether that be fines, suspensions, public denunciations, or dismissals.
This is bigger than DeSean Jackson or the NFL.
In a nation where black youth are routinely stopped and frisked because they “fit a profile,” where black youth are suspended and expelled for “criminal behavior” otherwise imagined as “horse play” from white kids, where whites with felony convictions are more likely to secure a job than blacks with a clean record, what happens to DeSean Jackson matters.
David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. Leonard’s latest books include After Artest: Race and the Assault on Blackness (SUNY Press) and African Americans on Television: Race-ing for Ratings (Praeger Press) co-edited with Lisa Guerrero. He is currently working on a book Presumed Innocence: White Mass Shooters in the Era of Trayvon about gun violence in America.