Message to the People: Michael Vick and the continuing drama of race

Aug 28, 2007 at 8:22 pm

Recently, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick pleaded guilty to felony dogfighting charges in Virginia. The question now is not whether Vick will spend time behind bars or not, but how much time he’ll serve. Whether he is sent away for less than a year (as his attorneys want) or up to five (the maximum for his offense), the Vick saga highlights several aspects of America’s social landscape — none of them good.

First of all, Vick’s dilemma once again places America’s ongoing, sad and destructive obsession with celebrity in the spotlight. It is telling that in 2003, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin praised Vick as “ours” and forecasted that he would be a role model and Atlanta icon for years to come. Even before the dogfighting horrors, one could legitimately ask why Vick (or any other athlete) should be considered a role model solely because of athletic prowess. It is a very real and troubling question, especially in black America.

While white Americans are also guilty of being “star-struck,” I believe the problem is more pressing in black America because it does not have the same diversity of visible, successful individuals in the public sphere. For every Bill Romanowski there is a Bill Clinton or Gates. There is no equal balance in black America for often wayward, depoliticized black athletes and rappers.

Vick’s case also forces other enduring racial divisions back into the light. For a plethora of reasons, many blacks and whites simply view the world differently. A percentage of whites currently argue that the Vick case isn’t about race at all. They believe he is simply reaping what he has sown with reprehensible, inhumane behavior. There is no doubt that footage of brutal and bloody dogfights viewed by millions once Vick was implicated touched a nerve with many of us. We were also repulsed when details of Vick and his friends hanging, drowning, electrocuting and shooting dogs were made public.

On the other side of the fence, many blacks believe this case is all about race. They argue that American media are behaving as if dogs are more important than humans. In their minds, many whites seem more incensed by the deaths of dogs than they ever are by the suffering and demise of black human beings. They also argue that Vick is being attacked with a fervor that doesn’t fit the situation. He misbehaved, but the offense doesn’t warrant incarceration and definitely not blanket demonization or the end of his football career.

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. To be sure, approaches to Vick have always had a racial dimension. The fact that he plays a position historically reserved for whites has not escaped avid sports fans’ attention. Beyond that, Vick brought something very different to the quarterback club. He was very often the best raw athlete on the field — a distinction usually held by running backs, receivers, cornerbacks or linebackers. With his braids, jewelry, oversized clothing and tattoos, he was the first quarterback (black or otherwise) to bring the full force of hip-hop and youth culture to bear. He just didn’t fit the conventional mold — on or off the field.

His “difference” prompted an incredible polarizing effect in and outside Atlanta — often along racial lines. Put simply, Vick has been both the beneficiary and victim of American racism. On one side, he has been viewed with suspicion and derision because of his race and “style.” On the other, he is the latest in a long line of blacks in the public eye that many black folk feel compelled to defend and protect from white mean-spiritedness and racism. Both realities are understandable and neither is new.

In light of Imus (who seems to be headed back to radio), the recent Supreme Court decision that (in spite of the praise of a few deluded blacks in the city who still romanticize segregation) set us back greatly, and now Vick — some blacks are once again asking if black folk will ever be fully accepted in America. This has once again carved out space for the fundamental and neo-fundamental nationalists who think the only road to equality for black folks is to have their own land here or abroad.

Let me be clear, there are no excuses. Vick was wrong. So are the white racists, the black fundamental nationalists and the deluded segregationists. Beyond all of them, this race thing is real, and we’d all better do our level best to address it.     
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