By Alan Bean
Joseph Mathews is a writer and public speaker who is currently working on his doctorate in urban youth culture and education at Columbia University. I met Joseph at an organizing meeting at Friendship West Baptist Church in Dallas in 2007. When he learned that I had been the first outsider to organize in Jena, Louisiana, he asked if he could visit the community with me. He was interested in shooting a documentary. When he met some of the Jena 6 defendants it took him about ten seconds to get them rapping. In the picture to the left, Joseph is filming their impromptu performance.
My response to the Richard Sherman post-game rant differs from Joseph’s. For one thing, I have followed Michael Crabtree’s career since he played at Texas Tech and didn’t like hearing his talents impugned. To me, Sherman sounded more like a professional wrestler than a football player. Moreover, he was giving full, uncut expression to the hyper-competitive aspect of American athletics that has always repelled me.
But my first thought was, “Oh, no, the haters are going to have a field day with this.” Which, of course, they did.
Joseph identifies with Sherman at a much deeper level than I do because he shares so much of Sherman’s experience. Growing up as a gifted athlete who initially struggled academically, Joseph has experienced prejudice and rejection firsthand.
When we were driving out of Jena after the big rally in September of 2007, Joseph kept saying, “Doc, could you slow down just a little bit?”
When I explained that we were just a couple of ticks over the speed limit, he said, “Doc, how many times have you been pulled over by the police?”
“Two or three times,” I replied.
“And why did they pull you over?” he asked
“Because I was way over the speed limit,” I admitted. “How many times have you been pulled over?”
“Thirty three times,” Joseph stated flatly, “and it is almost always for nothing.”
This deeply divergent life experience influences perception at a basic level.
Joseph Mathews is right: in the vernacular lexicon, “thug” has replaced the n-word. No one is going to call you a racist for characterizing Richard Sherman as a thug. As this interview clearly demonstrates, Sherman is a well-spoken, highly educated young man. He also grew up on the mean streets of Compton, New Jersey, and those streets will be with him to the day he dies.
Man! Richard I wish you would have told them that you graduated 2nd in your class from a high school in Compton and went to Stanford where you graduated with a 3.9 GPA! I wish you would have told them you were working on your Masters Degree! I wish you would have told them that you were not a thug but a hero to your hood because despite the odds, you accomplished your dreams! This is what I was thinking they should have had him saying as I sat in front of my TV and watched the Beats by Dre Head Phones commercial that set the stage for what was about to transpire around the country. During the NFC championship game between the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers, as the reporter on the commercial said to him “what do you think of being known as a thug around the league?” I shook my head as he just put his head phones on, because I knew what was coming. NFL defensive back Richard Sherman’s character was about to be assassinated, he was about to become the latest victim of the dreaded New N-Word “Thug”.
The indiscriminate labeling of black males as thugs has created an atmosphere of disdain and insensitivity and has made them targets of crime with very slim chances that they will get justice, compassion and least of all protection under the law. In the name of neutralizing so-called thugs, police have been allowed to shoot and kill unarmed black men like Oscar Grant and trigger happy citizens have been allowed to get away with with murdering unarmed children like Trayvon Martin.
The reality is that most people who subscribe to this white supremacist ideology don’t believe that Richard Sherman is a thug, but they do want him to be guilty of something because that would reinforce the negative raciest stereotypes of young black males that they hold onto to feel better about themselves. Richard Sherman is not guilty of being a thug. He is guilty of being something much more dangerous. He’s guilty of making certain white people uncomfortable. He is young, black, rich, educated, and cocky, feels he is the best, and is the best at what he does. But worst of all he is not afraid to let the world know. That is why in many ways Richard Sherman simultaneously represents the American dream and the American nightmare. He has the bravado, drive, and leadership abilities that are often touted as quintessentially American, BUT one of America’s greatest fears is for one of its black athlete’s (i.e. Mohamed Ali, Jim Brown, Paul Robeson ) to use their influence and platform to speak out against injustice and inequality. Richard Sherman has the potential to be that athlete. If they neutralize him with the “T” word before he recognizes his true potential then their fears will be put to rest — for now. So be careful not to think too much of yourself or you might be the next “N” Word, I mean thug.