I hesitated to write about what can now only be called The Richard Sherman Incident. I hesitated because the rhetoric and meaning of it all was so fraught, and it seemed, and still does seem, that there are obvious ideas I find deeply offensive (the racialized language of “classy,” “classless,” and the like) and that I’m drawn to (critique of that racialized language, appreciation of trash talk in professional sports). But as I read through all of this stuff on blogs, social media, and sports journalism outlets, I did have a question: what has happened to Michael Crabtree in all of this? How can we talk about him? Or is talking about him impossible? And, if it is impossible to speak about Crabtree, then what does that say about our discourse on race and cultural politics?
In case you don’t know the example, it’s pretty straightforward. After a tough and by all accounts vicious football game, Richard Sherman (defensive player for the Seattle Seahawks) bragged about his performance – rightly, as his exceptional play sealed the game for the Seahawks and put them in the Super Bowl. In that brag, which is in both an immediate interview and in remarks after, he derided his opponent Michael Crabtree, an offensive player for the San Francisco 49ers, calling him mediocre and overrated and, to put it lightly and abstractly, an unworthy opponent. It’s worth watching what I’d call the performance. It’s funny and bombastic. If you’re a Seahawks fan. 49er fans feel differently, I suspect.
Sports and social media first exploded with predictably breathless condemnation of Sherman as “a thug” and all the other shit you expect. Then sports and social media countered with breathless pieces about how that first explosion was racially coded and fucked up (indisputably true) and how Sherman was just doing his thing and how it made so many white people explode with racial anxiety (also indisputably true). Then more considered back and forth stuff along the same lines, asking the question: is Richard Sherman a bad person or a good person? Was his schtick out of bounds or just part of the life of sports? All of this discourse was couched in the racial politics in which it was first cast. Sherman yelling at or around a white woman triggers just too much history for many folks to bear.
Just to say it, my general take: the racist attacks have been terrible and terrifying, if not altogether surprising. The defenses, if that’s what we want to call them, have been excellent and underscored all the respectable things about Sherman: his smarts, his dedication, graduating from Stanford, his nerdism as a teenager. Perhaps someone will want to talk about the complicated appeals to a politics of respectability in those defenses, but that’s not my concern here. I also think plenty has been said – factual reports, really – about Sherman as a full person, educated and decent and generous. (It’s always weird when people think we see a whole person on the sports field and locker room…who wants to be judged as a person for how you act at your workplace?! Please no!) Strangely, this advertisement featuring Sherman answers many of the racial caricatures.
A couple of things struck me right away. As a native Northwesterner and Seahawks fan who follows the team, I was actually surprised by people being taken aback by Sherman’s thing. He’s a trash talker, instigator, and all around irritant to opponents. If he’s on your team, you love it. It’s fun and he outlets your brag for you in terms you’d never venture. He backs it up, more times than not. If he’s on the opponent’s team, you really hate this guy. He gets under your skin, he taunts and then he says the brag you don’t want to hear when your team loses, and it’s just tough to hear his schtick. That’s Sherman. If you follow the Seahawks, you know this. I also wondered how many people remembered his conflict with Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers coach, who coached Sherman at Stanford and, by the player’s account, did not support or promote him leading up to the draft. That’s a real beef (ethical and financial) and heightens emotions, rightly. Or just the stakes of the game and how, for all his shit talk, Sherman did what all shit talkers dream of: live up to the hype with the game on the line. Keep quiet or calm after that? Yeah, right. So, none of this was any surprise to Seahawks fans. Just Sherman being Sherman and the fans love him, opponents hate him. Reggie Miller was the NBA’s version of this. And the gold-standard for anyone like Sherman.
Of course that’s not how things unfold once The Richard Sherman Incident enters the public imagination. In that imagination, all of our old, terrifying national anxieties about race come out. For what it’s worth, I think most of the venom directed toward Sherman is driven by racial anxiety of the worst sort. For what it’s worth, I also think it’s sad that we do so much of our discourse about race, nation, and culture around millionaires and celebrities; to paraphrase a friend from Facebook, I wish CNN paid as much attention to Amiri Baraka’s passing as it did to The Richard Sherman Incident. We’re a nation of spectacles. Perhaps it’s best to just deal with it all as it comes, not as one academic (me) wishes it were.
None of that above is particularly new or novel.
A couple of days removed, though, I began to wonder about this: where is Michael Crabtree in our conversation? How is it possible for Crabtree to speak or for us to speak about Crabtree?
This is not a new question. In moments like this, where a Black public figure is being vilified by a largely white media and chattering class, the discourse is thoroughly structured as Manichaean. The Manichaeism of racial discourse – I borrow this from Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, a book dedicated, in large part, to imagining a discourse about political relations outside the colonial imagination, for which Manichaean thinking is absolutely foundational. It is hard to think outside those terms. Certainly, the terms around Sherman haven’t even attempted that sort of discourse, and in that sense our racial politics in the public sphere are all but universally reactive – a thought that reacts, rather than creates. Sure, reactive thinking has limits, but, in fraught public space, it is often the only option. It does help to see reactive thinking as reactive, however, for reasons I hope become clear below.
My question about Crabtree here is not to think about post-Manichaean thinking (that’s a much bigger question), but instead how Manichaean thinking produces an unthinkable, unspeakable racial remainder. That is, how Manichaean thinking creates a discourse in which a third term – in this case, Michael Crabtree – cannot enter the conversation and conflict. We’ve seen this before, and two similar (though not the same) examples are worth recalling.
Think here of Muhammad Ali, who played a specific role in a long public history: race man, Black nationalist, Muslim, war dissenter, instigator, trash talker – all of which frightened white America and made Ali, in Grant Farred’s fantastic rendering of his life, a vernacular intellectual. Ali was exceptionally self-conscious and, in many ways, was one of a kind. He also famously degraded Joe Frazier in fucked up racialized terms, calling him a “gorilla” (even punching a gorilla-as-Frazier toy in a press conference) or “monkey.” Same with George Foreman, racialized insults that are frankly quite shocking.
I’m also thinking of the conflict between Terrell Owens and Donovan McNabb when both played professional football for the Philadelphia Eagles. That was public and racialized, even though both players were African-American. Owens degraded McNabb and, along with some Philly journalists, questioned the quarterback’s racial authenticity. The taunt – and it was meant as a taunt, not as an attempt to motivate or help – was fucked up and it hung as a cloud over much of McNabb’s middle and late career, driven not by his own speaking, but instead about how he’d been spoken about. Owens was routinely mocked by the media and this sort of thing earned him scorn and derision, though, for one reason or another, not nearly as much defense in public outlets (T.O. was a fairly unpleasant personality). But suddenly nothing McNabb did as an athlete could be separated from Owens’ and others’ racial question: is he trying to be white because of how he plays?
Now, it’s not at all the case that Sherman said any such racialized thing about Crabtree, so drawing in those two examples isn’t intended to make strict parallels. I’m not blaming Sherman for the racialized effect for Crabtree, which was produced instead by sports and social media. (At most, Sherman inadvertently activated racialization, for which the writers are alone responsible.) Instead, I want to say only that all three cases produce a racial remainder out of a Manichaean conflict. There are clear lines drawn, in Manichaean terms: what white people say to attack Black people AND what Black people and “allies” (I’m not a fan of that term, but let’s go with it) in defense against that attack. But in that discourse, I wonder what room, if any, there is for the third and unassimilable figure in the racialized discourse, the one who is at the heart of the conflict, yet has no voice in either side of the discourse – something that is especially important when the third is Black, and so in the most precarious position.
I call this the racial remainder because it lies outside the two ways of talking. Crabtree as a figure is spoken for by the anti-Black, racist discourse in the mode of protection, a kind of new media version of missionary colonialism. He has no place in the reactive discourse, precisely because that discourse is (understandably and often rightly) focused on defense of Sherman against racialized frenzy. To stop and say “what about Crabtree?” is therefore immediately reinscribed in the anti-Black, racist discourse because it has asserted itself as, then been reified by in the reactive discourse, Crabtree’s voice or perspective. Crabtree as such, to put it rather awkwardly, isn’t present in either, because the Mainchaean structure of our cultural analysis has cast him as the protected of one or the antagonist to the other.
Crabtree has plenty of reason for his own sort of sports-based rage, right? His max effort, disappointment, and then spectacle of humiliation played over and over ought to be not so foreign. It is, in its own way, even familiar. Ridicule for failure is a human fear and sensitivity. The Great Recession has made so much of being American about failure and loss, so perhaps that is something most can all too readily imagine on their own terms, then transfer (as most passionate fans do, for better or worse) the affects over to the sporting field. Then imagine what it would be like to have that failure ridiculed and made fun of, along with degradation of your talents. Frazier said plenty about what it felt like to be the object of racist caricature by Ali, but that’s not in our memory about boxing’s great past – of which Ali, in one of those strange twists and reversals of history, has become a darling and icon. I’d venture the claim, however tentative here, that the enigma of the racial remainder is the reason why Frazier in history and Crabtree in the present have no real place in our discourse. They can’t speak because the possibility of speaking has already been spoken for, as it were. The remainder is here produced by the Manichaeaism of racialized discourse, and in this I’d add a twist to what has been said about the Sherman case: this is a problem easily solved by the eradication of white supremacy.
Those are high stakes (probably too high for sports and pop culture, but maybe not). And that’s easy to say in theoretical analysis, but a whole other thing to imagine in the complex world of cultural politics. The white supremacy stuff is just so deep and so buried and therefore so very unpredictable; you never know when it will show up and in what guise, but you can’t be entirely shocked when it does show up. The depth of white supremacy, if Fanon is right, should also make us pause and see how even anti-racist discourse can be entangled in the Manichaean terms of the conversation and conflict. When that entanglement produces the racial remainder, and it always will, I think we’d do well to make space for the question of the Michael Crabtrees in that conversation, how struggle can produce silencing, and just how difficult it is to speak-against while also allowing the third other of the conversation speak-for him or herself.