Back in 1944, Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal warned that there was a dangerous tension at the heart of American society: The “American Creed”, as he defined it, her founding documents, ideology, and the identity of Americans were based in concepts of equality of opportunity and universal kinship, but its economic and social reality was founded on racial discrimination against the African American minority. This internal conflict, he argued, had to be resolved before the American project could truly be realized.
During his work on An American Dilemma, Myrdal (:37) was repeatedly warned by Americans “that reforms in interracial relations should be introduced with as little discussion about them as possible. It is actually assumed that the race issue is a half dormant, but easily awakened, beast. It is a complex which is irrational and uncontrollable, laden with emotions, and to be touched as little as possible.” He was further warned (:36) that when it comes to race relations, things should be said in “such a manner that they do not ‘offend’ or create ‘embarrassment’.”
The reaction to the current wave of on-field protests by NFL players shows that the rules and expectations around the discussion of race relations that Myrdal encountered in 1944 still largely exist in 2017. The idea of addressing race-based discrimination in the pursuit of fundamental American ideals and for the sake of living the American Creed is generally agreed to be good, but the protests clearly offend and cause embarrassment, and so are not welcome as a part of the discourse. People agree that they want change, but they don’t want to discuss it, and certainly not in such a public, high visibility venue.
The modern NFL is a microcosm of the dilemma Myrdal identified. According to various sources, up to 70% of NFL players are African Americans. They are the ones who generate the value, which is owned by the exclusively white owners. American football fans, who pay to attend the games or watch them, and who buy the merchandise, are overwhelmingly white. They tend to associate football with core American values symbolized by the flag and the national anthem. For them, football is an American success story because it is based on equality of opportunity, performance, determination and grit.
The reality on the field is that football replicates the strong correlation between race and class in America. I am old enough to remember discussions about whether African Americans were suited to the role of quarterback, and that wasn’t so long ago. Of course, as a Montrealer, I also remember the painful dominance of the Edmonton Eskimos under Warren Moon in the CFL.
The US President’s emphatic Twitter affirmations that the NFL controversy “has nothing to do with race” is merely a reiteration of the instructions given to Myrdal: Don’t discuss race if at all possible, but if you absolutely must, don’t offend and don’t embarrass. Others argue that it is just a game and that politics don’t have a place in sports. As Sarah Bond recently reminded us, that is not a tenable argument. The very association that Americans make between football and the flag renders it moot, anyway.
If we look back through recent history, we see that real change in American race relations has come when peaceful and effective protests have forced Americans to confront their core dilemma in ways that is are at once deeply personal and fundamentally public. From attending a “white” university, to sitting in the wrong seat on a bus, to the simple act of ordering lunch at a counter, to raising fists at the Olympics, to kneeling during the Anthem at a football game, people have raised the issue of race. They have offended and embarrassed, and they have gotten results.