Last night, some of the sharpest minds in the Sportsworld converged at historic Morehouse College in Atlanta for a forum on the State of the Black Athlete. There was Spike Lee, Rutgers basketball coach Vivian Stringer, New York Times scribe William Rhoden, NBA stars Etan Thomas and Alonzo Mourning, and the great Jim Brown.
Among the greats, in the shadow of the campus Dr. King once called home, was “Big Sexy” himself, Jason Whitlock.
It boggles the mind.
We have now officially entered Bizarro World: that upside-down Universe from Superman comics where up was down, right was left, and white magically became black.
In recent months, Whitlock has gone from solid sports columnist to unhinged culture warrior calling for a “new civil rights movement” directed at “black idiots” and comparing himself to Rosa Parks.
He slammed Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton as “domestic terrorists.” (That would be the 21st century version of “dirty commies” or “dang carpetbaggers”)
He sneered at those calling for Don Imus’s job, writing, “Imus isn’t the real bad guy.” The real bad guys in Whitlock’s world are, of course, Jackson, Sharpton, and the other “black idiots.”
His writings have been farcical and frightening: our own Joe McCarthy of the sports page. And like McCarthy, another gassy, Midwestern bully, Whitlock hardly lives the kind of monastic life to justify this level of sanctimony.
He claims to be a crusader against sexism in “hip hop/prison culture”, but revels in tales of strip clubs and lap dances.
He calls for black women to speak up and be heard, but slammed Rutgers coach Vivian Stringer’s stand against bigotry as a “shameless” grab for headlines. He described her press conference, where she called on people to “take their country back” as a “pity party/recruiting rally” where Stringer “rambled on for 30 minutes” to “tell her sob story.” (Whitlock seems to have equal contempt for both sexism in hip-hop and women who use their voices to say things other than “That’s $1,000 for the Champagne Room.”)
And in the classic Whitlock/Bizarro World moment, the great dragon slayer of “hip hop/prison culture,” recently produced a rap single for the Kansas City Chiefs that included artists like Rich the Factor and Tech N9ne, two men who have written anthems of uplift such as “Bitch,” “Drug Team,” and “My Wife, My Bitch, My Girl.” (We need to call his “hiphoprisy.”)
“Big Sexy” has no regrets about calling those in thrall to hip hop culture “the black KKK,” describing his catchphrase as “genius” because “it started a discussion.” Well, my two-year-old daughter also “started a discussion” last week by taking off her used diaper and putting it on the kitchen table. That doesn’t mean she should be invited to Morehouse.
In other words, this is not a serious person worthy of being taken seriously. And yet he’s now on Oprah’s speed dial, and working the college lecture circuit.
The question is why?
ESPN Magazine general manager Keith T. Clinkscales had his own explanation for the rise of Whitlock, writing in an open letter, “The mainstream media thanks you, Jason because by attacking Sharpton and Jackson you are doing the dirty work that no white person can credibly do. It is such an annoying chore to find enough black journalists around to credibly disseminate the type of disinformation that helps people look away from the real problems and focus on the irrelevant….You are not agitation. You are flowing with the currents….You are breaking no new journalistic ground by speaking your version of truth about black men. Your apocalyptic notion of young black men as the ‘new KKK’ again fuels fear, confusion and hatred.”
Clinksdales couldn’t be more correct. These are dire times in the “other America.” The past few years have seen a serious spike in the African American infant mortality rate. More Black men are in jail than college. The unemployment rate for Black men from 16-20 tops out at more than 30%. Yet if we all agree there is a sickness in our cities, debate rages over the cure. On one side are people who see it as an issue of structural racism: broken schools, slashed health care, McJobs, and swelling prisons. Fix those, and you go a long way toward fixing the problem.
The other side sees it as an issue of personal pathology. It’s the “urban culture of failure” that’s at fault, the “new KKK.” On this side, we see the usual suspects like Newt Gingrich who in April called Spanish “the language of the ghetto.”
But in recent years, a new cadre of wealthy blacks from Bill Cosby to Juan Williams to Whitlock have embraced this argument. Others from Oprah to Obama accept a version of this. They represent a generation of African Americans who – as a direct result of the civil rights movement – have achieved a level of economic mobility unknown to their parent’s generation. But with mobility comes a change in perspectives. The hood looks far different depending on whether you live and work there or just drive through on the way to the airport.
While they sell the idea that Snoop Dogg is the root of all evil, the U.S. prison population stands at 2.2 million, 25% of all those jailed in the world. It’s not hip-hop that’s doing that. It wasn’t Lil Jon building the fancy new Supermax prison in the middle of Baltimore City. Music and culture are reflections–sometimes very ugly reflections–of these harsh realities. But at the risk of shocking Jason Whitlock, violence and “moral decay” actually predate hip-hop. Blaming hip-hop for our current state is like blaming the pan-flute and zither for the crusades.
Jason Whitlock is not a serious person. But it is a tragic statement on our times that his ideas must be taken seriously.
For those wanting to challenge racism, Coach Stringer and the Rutgers women, as well as the tens of thousands who took to the streets when Sean Bell was executed by the NYPD, are forging the way forward. The Whitlock way–blame the poor for poverty, blame the incarcerated for “prison culture”–will work only in Bizarro World. One thing for sure: aint nobody organizing “a new civil rights movement” from the Champagne Room.
DAVE ZIRIN is the author of “The Muhammad Ali Handbook” (MQ Publications) and “Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports” , forthcoming from Haymarket. You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing email@example.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org