Olympic gold-medal winner Shani Davis is not playing by the rules. I don’t mean the Olympic rules of international athletic competition. He has abided by those. He trained hard, practiced long, competed honestly. He should be a momentary national hero. But Davis’ press is ambivalent rather than celebratory. The reason: The speedskater is not playing by the unspoken, but powerful, racial rules that constrain Black men in America.
Davis was labeled selfish for deciding not to complete in a “team pursuit” event that would have given a white teammate a chance to win five gold medals.
Davis was labeled rude for his terse interview on NBC after his medal win in the 1,000-meter race.
He made a decision to put his personal goals for success above those of another athlete.
He chose not to grin for the cameras and announce he was heading to Disney World.
These hardly seem like headline-provoking choices. But when these choices are made by a Black man, the first Black man of U.S. winter Olympic glory, they provoke America’s racial angst.
Black men in America face very strict constraints on their public behavior. Powerful images of Black men as aggressive, sexual predators emerged at the same time that Black men first assumed the role of citizen following Reconstruction. These myths were used to justify a system that terrorized African American communities and limited Black men’s public expressions.
Under lynch-mob rules, Black men could be murdered for the slightest infraction of the social code. They learned to play by the racial rules by appearing meek, deferential and grateful in public.
Social scientific studies continue to show that rambunctious Black boys are perceived as threats in our nation’s classrooms, while unruly white male behavior is excused. Unabated racial profiling in our nation’s cities means that Black men live under the constant threat of criminalization. When Shani Davis failed to act sufficiently gleeful after his win, he was asked: Are you angry? Our nation continues to read Black male autonomy as frightening, angry and aggressive.
What does all of this have to do with Shani Davis? It helps explain the angst about his actions. White athletes regularly behave in similar ways: Bode Miller anyone? But the subtext here is racial. How dare you keep a white skater from reaching his goals, just so that you can pursue your own? How dare you not smile broadly for the cameras, in order to reassure the nation that you are a safe Black man?
Shani Davis is not a race hero. He does not belong, politically speaking, in the same league as conscientious athletic dissenters like Tommie Smith and John Carlos of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Shani Davis is just a world-class athlete, fiercely competitive and not media friendly. And that is OK. Black men have the right to claim their victories and their humanity unconstrained by the nation’s racial rules.
Melissa Harris-Lacewell is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago. This piece originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune and is reprinted by permission of the author.