Both a dream and an escape plan: how young African-Americans see sports as the way out for a better life
Ken Carter, whose character inspired the realisation of the inspirational 2005 basketball movie, Coach Carter, decided to end the 1999 undefeated streak of Richmond High School basketball team because of his players' poor academic performance. His decision to lock the school gym and cancel the upcoming basketball matches, despite opposition amongst the Richmond community, garnered enormous US media attention framing it as an elevation of education over sports. While extensively elaborating and rationalising the gym shut-down in front of his students, Coach Carter posed a rhetorical question that resonates amongst recent events of police brutality and racial injustice in the US: where do these students end up after graduating high school? The answer for those who do not make it to college or into a professional sports career is, for many, probably prison.
Even though the US imprisonment rates have recently experienced its most significant decline in the last two decades, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (2018) data indicate that the US prison population's racial and ethnic makeup remains highly disproportionate to the actual demographics in the country. According to the US Justice Department, black Americans represent 33% of the sentenced prison population – a number nearly triple the 12% share of their US adult population. Even though the racial margin of incarceration has been in decline, black Americans constitute two times the rate of imprisoned Hispanics and slightly above five times the rate of imprisoned whites in the United States.
The recent Black Lives Matters (BLM) protests offer a juncture for Britain to have a broad and sensible conversation on race and racism, similar to that headed by the Clinton administration in America 20 years ago. The recent re-appearance of the debate on terminology – the question of how to refer to racialised groups in Britain – may be the beginning of this. It is not a new question but is being posed by a new generation of Black Britons, who having been born in the UK should be unfamiliar with Hall’s sense of living ‘on the hinge between the colonial and post-colonial worlds’ (Hall & Schwarz 2017, 11).
In my Identities article, ‘The stigma of being Black in Britain’, I argued that despite more than 50 years since Britain adopted its first Race Relations Act (1965), colour remains a ‘visible feature of the urban landscape’ (Hall & Schwarz 2017, 184) in the UK. I described Brexit as an indication that, as Stuart Hall wrote many years ago, many of the ‘white underprivileged…believe that what they experienced was not because they were poor and exploited but ‘because the blacks are here' (Hall & Schwarz 2017, 185).
The themes of becoming and opposition as identification resonated with me, a white man from the US, as I searched for alliance strategies of anti-racism and anti-essentialism in historically the most creolised part of Europe: Portugal, and more specifically, the capital city of Lisbon.
I had spent the better part of the late 1990s and early 2000s with hip-hoppers, mostly young men of African-Indigenous descent, in the working-class neighbourhoods on the outskirts of São Paulo, Brazil, and considered myself relatively prepared to approach the former metropole of Lisbon as a 'Black' city.
During research stints from 2007 to 2013, I realised that the spatial dimensions and historical depth of Blackness were much more complex than I originally had appreciated. In particular, local creole-speaking rappers in Lisbon, Portugal, who identify as Cape Verdean, sometimes Portuguese, sometimes African, occasionally European or even American, tuned me into the predicament and potential empowerment of Blackness: Black time depends on Black space; Blackness as encounter.
My Identities article, ‘The capital, state and the production of differentiated social value in Nigeria’, problematises the Nigerian oil-dependent capitalist economy through the perspective of the Black radical tradition. Using Cedric Robinson’s concept of race, I analyse the racialism inherent in the Nigerian capitalist economic relations and the accompanying contradictions. Capitalism is a very powerful historical force that has influenced and still influences diverse social, political and economic landscapes. The state is an agency through which the association of individuals are entrusted with the administration of the affairs of a given society. Both the capital and state are essential agencies in the entrepreneurial model of the capitalist mode of production.
Marxist scholars present capitalism as an unfair system that engages in unequal distribution of the social wealth generated by the society. Marx argues that the capitalist society is divided along class line and the economic factor remains the most decisive determining factor in shaping capitalist dynamics and its contradictions, while culture and other human pre-occupations play a role but not the decisive one. The working class, Marx maintains, is the revolutionary class that will eventually transform the capitalist economy.
The African Caribbean Self-Help Organisation (ACSHO), based at Heathfield Road in Handsworth, Birmingham, established itself as a central hub for Pan-African centred learning and intellectual debate in the early 1970s. ACSHO members were part of a UK-wide co-ordinating committee that sent a delegation of activists to the 6th Pan African Congress (6PAC) in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania in 1974. My Identities article, ‘Each one teach one’ visualising Black intellectual life in Handsworth beyond the epistemology of ‘white sociology’, shows how the conference statement by the UK delegation at the 6PAC meeting was critical of the inherent racism of their social condition in England’s metropolitan cities as well as of the racist ways they were being studied by white social scientists at the time. Through their own Pan-African centred and anti-colonial critique, the delegation used ‘scientific socialism’ to situate their political struggle within a global context of anti-imperialist resistance movements.
Inside this hive of Black intellectual activism emanating from Birmingham, the archival work of Vanley Burke is particularly noteworthy. Born in St Thomas, Jamaica in 1951, Burke recalls receiving a gift of a camera sent by his mother from England for his 10th Birthday. He became fascinated by the ‘magic of photography’ and was compelled by both the science and artistry of this medium (Sealy 1993). Since the early 1970s, Burke has documented the lives of Caribbean communities in Birmingham with an intimacy and sensitivity towards the people he shares the city with.
While tourists know Montreal for its cafés, festivals and old-word European 'charm'*, locals also know its boundaries that divide the city into an Anglophone West and a Francophone East. Montreal’s Black community usually occupies space according to this prevailing language divide: Black Francophones on the East side, and Black Anglophones on the West side. This pattern has had implications for relationships among Black Montreal residents, as well as for their organisation and political possibilities. Indeed, after the rise of Quebec nationalism starting in the 1960s -- which made the French language 'the distinguishing characteristic of ethnic identity' (Thomson 1995) -- it has been somewhat challenging for Black people to organise as Black people, rather than linguistically-specific 'Anglo' and 'Franco' Black communities.
Adding to the rich literature on how space and place are inherently racially produced and lived, my Identities article, 'Black in the city: on the ruse of ethnicity and language in an antiblack landscape', helps to elucidate how the politics of language and ethnicity do not occlude the ways in which race and antiblackness configure the city.