Commentator in Chief: Donald Trump's Complicated Relationship With Black Athletes

| DEC 4, 2017 | 10:34 PM
Oakland Raiders v Washington Redskins

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It’s no secret President Donald Trump is quick to speak his mind.

However, to those who have studied Trump’s behavior in the past, his rhetoric toward high profile black Americans may raise some eyebrows.

“To the three UCLA basketball players I say: You're welcome, go out and give a big Thank You to President Xi Jinping of China who made....your release possible and, HAVE A GREAT LIFE! Be careful, there are many pitfalls on the long and winding road of life!” Trump tweeted about three black UCLA basketball players whom he helped free from house arrest in China after they were caught shoplifting sunglasses from a Louis Vuitton store near Hangzhou.

When LaVar Ball, father of one of the three players, refused to directly thank the president for his actions, Trump entered into verbal fisticuffs with him, comparing “ungrateful fool” Ball to controversial, African American boxing promoter Don King, who was convicted (and later pardoned) of manslaughter:

Ball recently withdrew his son from the UCLA basketball team.

Accusing NFL Protesters of “Total Disrespect”

The commander in chief's fraught relationship with black athletes continues with his extended attacking of NFL players over their decision to kneel during the national anthem.

Originally, several sportsmen across the NFL, NBA, and even the MLB followed a trend of kneeling in order to bring awareness to police brutality and the systematic oppression of black Americans. At this point, Trump has called few players out by name, with Colin Kaepernick and Marshawn Lynch being some of the few individuals on his radar. Instead, he's decided to attack the action as a whole. 

“The NFL has decided that it will not force players to stand for the playing of our National Anthem. Total disrespect for our great country!" Trump proclaimed about the NFL anthem protests, one of many times he publicly questioned the athletes' patriotism. Though the comments were seemingly off-base given the reason for protests was police brutality, not disrespect toward the U.S.

These comments were inevitable, according to Joe Feagin, professor of psychology at Texas A&M University.

“Trump's got a long history of anti-black thinking and action [...] he has this fear, this anti-black perspective,” Feagin told IJR.

Feagin, a sociologist and social theorist with extensive race and gender research, explained that Trump operates out of the “white racial frame,” a phenomenon that allows whites — especially white males — to feel entitled to, and sometimes threatened by, the presence of a “sub-par” race.

That white racial frame has two key parts, Feagin explained.

“One part is a bunch of anti-black stereotypes, prejudices, negative images of black people; they're criminals; they're welfare; they're not as smart as whites' they're over-sexed.” The other is the belief that whites, barring a few exceptions, are infallible. To Feagin, Trump's behavior seems to unflinchingly check every box.

“It's not just chance that the person he picked to compare Ball to was another black man,” said Feagin.

Many other experts agree: For Trump, these are not just off-handed remarks — they are personal attacks against black people.

Political commentator and CNN politics editor at large Chris Cillizza took concern earlier this September with Trump's language towards protesting athletes in his piece titled “The dark racial sentiment in Trump's NBA and NFL criticism.” There, Cillizza highlighted the president's insecurity with being challenged by sports professionals across the board.

“Play football or basketball so we can be entertained, Trump seems to be telling these athletes,” Cillizza said. “No one wants to hear your lack of gratitude for what you've been given. There's so many things wrong with that view.”

Cillizza pointed to the president's remarks in late September as a clear example of Trump's “purposely playing at and with racial animus.”

“Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a b***h off the field right now. He is fired. He's fired!” Trump said to a substantially white crowd in Alabama. “Total disrespect of our heritage, a total disrespect of everything that we stand for. Everything that we stand for.”

Not long after these comments, Trump tweeted an attack toward NBA star Stephen Curry, who declined an invitation to celebrate a championship win at the White House:

Cillizza remarked that it's unlikely that the president is ignorant of the implications of his words.

“It's impossible to conclude that [...] Trump is totally ignorant of the racial context in which his remarks on the NFL and NBA land,” he argued. “No one is that oblivious.”

One report from The Atlantic labeled Trump's emotional appeals as a “shock-jock-in-chief routine.”

The White House’s argument, which comes from Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, is a close defense of his Internet antics. “When the president gets hit, he's going to hit back harder,” Sanders said after being asked by reporters during a recent press conference.

“I think that it's always appropriate for the president of the United States to defend our flag, to defend the national anthem, and to defend the men and women who fought and died to defend it,” she said regarding the NFL protests.

But Feagin dismisses any criticism that black Americans are not patriotic.

Blacks “are disproportionally patriotic,” he added. “The idea that they're disrespecting the flag is just absurd. They've come back disproportionately in coffins, like that young widow's husband, draped with the U.S. flag.”

And the numbers back Feagin up. According to data provided by the U.S. Army, blacks serve in the Army at a rate that is higher than their representation in the U.S. population.

The Danger of “Us vs. Them” Rhetoric

In spite of the facts, the president's words are suspected to have a real impact. Some scholars believe that Trump's rhetoric against the NFL (an organization made up primarily of minority players) motivates his white supporters against minorities.

“He's running on this narrative of 'us-versus-them', them being non-white, non-native born, non-male. It's a hyper-masculine white nationalist sort of movement,” Stephen Nuño, a politics professor at Northern Arizona State University told IJR.

This “othering” of America, found both within the administration's treatment of blacks and throughout American history, dampens any spark of racial progress, Nuño contends.

“It's very clear that Donald Trump is a step backward in this conversation,” said Nuño. “If you're a marginalized group, you're not surprised, but you're threatened.”

And this marginalization had a lasting impact.

In an NBC News poll, voters were asked if they were comfortable with “different lifestyles, gender roles, languages, cultures, and experiences.” Among Hillary Clinton voters, 81% said they accepted a “changing America.”

Only 28% of Trump voters agreed.

“Whites are most worried about the so-called 'browning' of America,” Feagin added.

The violent side of that worry and ignorance reared its head in Charlottesville, where members of white nationalists group “Unite the Right” and others marched on the college town, chanting “blood and soil,” a phrase inspired by the Nazi philosophy “Blut und Boden.” Here, experts agree that these racially-motivated protests are clear examples of white Americans lashing out against things, or people, they do not fully understand.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Some white players have not been as blindsided by ignorance. Seth DeValve was the first white NFL player to take a knee in solidarity with a dozen or so of his black teammates.

Morphing the conversation from racial injustice to lack of patriotism shows that, similar to Charlottesville, it's another white man demonstrating his ignorance on the larger racial issues facing the country, according to Nuño.

Nuño believes that the president will continue to instigate fights with black athletes whether to distract, mobilize, or frame himself to his followers.

“The conversation was and is about inequality and racism in America. Interestingly, inequality and racism seem so synonymous with America, that when black people protest it, many people assume they are protesting America,” Nuño said.

“The issue isn't going away, but as the season winds down, it's usefulness to Trump will wane until next season I presume. The players made a deal with the NFL, so this may make this less of a tool in the future,” he concluded.