Photo Credit: Nathan Rupert, Flickr CC

In case you were otherwise occupied, on Christmas Day the Associated Press named the “NFL National Anthem Protests” the top sports story of 2017. In a year of many huge sport stories both on and off the field, the AP said the story was the “runaway winner” for its staff. This doesn’t surprise me at all. I’ve studied sports-based social activism for a long time, but I’ve never had more media calls and requests for interviews in my career than these past few months.

The single biggest reason for the story, I’m pretty sure, involves our President’s seemingly unprompted and unusually profane attacks in September on football players who had engaged in demonstrations and the NFL. For better or for worse, Trump’s attention provoked a tidal wave of unprecedented gestures of protest and support across the league (and across both racial lines as well as those of management and ownerships) that gave the story its scale, scope, and intrigue. But there’s much more to say about it than that, much more.  I’ve been tracking this all fall as part of my own research project on the “new era” of African American athletic activism we are currently witnessing, and I am going to pull some of that together in a commentary with my sport and politics collaborator Kyle Green.  We are hoping to run that piece in the lead-up to the Super Bowl here in the Twin Cities at the end of January, so stay tuned!

There are two points I’d like to address here, by way of year-end retrospective: “kneeling” and “remembrance.” On kneeling, why do athletes feel the need to protest?

“Why do they do it?” is far and away the most common question I get from journalists and regular folks alike. Underlying this inquiry is the sense (a) that these demonstrations are disrespectful and (b) that professional athletes are super-rich, superstars who should be so satisfied with their lives and salaries and fame that they’d have no reason to complain or be angry, much less act out in public. At best, they see African American athlete activists as spoiled complainers, more interested in politics, making news, and making money than anything else. For many Americans, athletic protests are as incomprehensible as they are inappropriate.

Based on the athletes I’ve talked to and my earlier research on black athletic activism in the 1960s, I see the issue quite differently. and commitments. In a society that continues to be plagued by disproportionate police brutality, persistent racial gaps, and overt bigotry and bias, they feel compelled to do or say something. Sometimes it is in support of communities of color—their communities—who continue to face persistent racism and discrimination. Sometimes it is quite personal, stemming from their own ongoing individual experiences with racism and discrimination. And almost always it is quite principled and reasoned, with a clear understanding of the costs and consequences (which are far more real and extensive than most of us realize). Athlete activists don’t take their activities lightly or think of them as disrespectful or anti-American. Quite the contrary, they understand activism as consistent with the higher moral standards, ideals, and aspirations of both American democracy and sport culture.

But there is something else here too: It is also the fact that many —to make it seem like everything is okay. This was a major motivator for the African American athletes who participated in protests in the year leading up to the 1968 Olympic Games. As high jumper Gene Johnson explained in support of the “Olympic Project for Human Rights:”

“The United States exalts its Olympic star athletes as representatives of a democratic and free society, when millions of Negro and other minority citizens are excluded from decent housing and meaningful employment” (Race, Culture, and the Revolt, 2003, p. 84).

Or, as the OPHR organizing pamphlet put it: “We must no longer allow this country to use black individuals of whatever level to rationalize its treatment of the black masses.” 

So, that’s kneeling, now for remembrance. A few weeks back I was interviewed by a Time reporter for a special 50th anniversary retrospective issue on the tumultuous year of 1968. Among other things, the reporter asked me what my research on Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s iconic victory stand demonstration taught me about the meanings and implications of the protests of Colin Kaepernick and his NFL brethren. “How will we remember what is going on today, 50 years from now,” she wanted to know?

Social scientists like me, I told her, are loath to make predictions. However this topic is one where I was willing to make an exception. I’m pretty confident that one day in the not-to-distant near future, Kaepernick and company will be remembered far more positively across the American populace than is currently the case. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if, once the specifics of this moment and the larger racial politics that are unfolding are behind us, these athlete activists come to be revered as courageous, admirable, or even heroic—certainly ahead of their time. If you’re interested, my little quote to this effect can now be found in print on page 92 of the latest issue of Time (dated Dec. 25/Jan. 1) as well as online here.

Such historical re-remembering is a familiar pattern in American culture. It happened to our collective conceptions of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Muhammad Ali. Perhaps most pertinent to this discussion are the memories that surround the perpetrators of one of the most iconic sports demonstrations of all time, Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s 1968 clenched first, victory stand demonstration at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Today, most Americans celebrate Smith and Carlos as heroes of the Civil Rights Movement; back in 1968, they were seen as villains, traitors, and worse.

History and memory—what happened and how we think about what happened—are two different things. All too often, the way we remember and romanticize images, individuals, and events comes at the cost of forgetting all of the actual social issues and context that gave rise to them in the first place. As this year draws to a close and we begin to look to the future, let us not lose sight of the racial disparities and social injustices at the root of the biggest sports story of 2017.

I turned 50 this summer so maybe I’m feeling a little sentimental. Nevertheless, in this season of tumult, Trump, and 140 character tweets that pass for news, I have found myself sustained by the some of the most old-fashioned modes of media—weekly and monthly news magazines, and, more specifically, long-form journalism. Here are some of my favorites from the past few weeks, categorized in the ways that I think my sociology friends and colleagues would find meaningful:

Social movements: Nathan Heller’s analysis of the efficacy of collective protests “Out of Action: Do Protests Work? The New Yorker, August 2017.

Popular culture: “How American Lost its Mind,” a piece on culture and populism by Kurt Andersen in The Atlantic, September 2017. (Other solid treatments roughly in this category/vein: “The New Paranoia by Colin Dickey in July’s The New Republic; and “European Disunion: What the Rise of Populist Movements Means for Democracy” by Yascha Mounk, also in TNR, August/September).

Sociology of knowledge: David Session in The New Republic, “The Rise of the Thought Leader: How the Superrich have Funded a New Class of Intellectual,” June 2017.

Media studies: a trip down memory lane by my favorite television critic of how Donald Trump built his popularity (and personality) in and through the small screen, Emily Nussbaum in The New Yorker, July 2017.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Traditional journalism doesn’t (and can’t) solve all the problems of our fractious world, and indeed I sometimes worry that all of this great writing and reading can be its own kind of distraction or delusion. But the clear-thinking, the ability to put things in broader context, and the commitment to synthesizing social facts and cultural complexities—all qualities that us sociologists aspire to—displayed in these pieces is admirable and much needed. And I can only shake my head in awe for the way these writers, reporters, and critics are able to produce such great, insightful content in such timely and engaging fashion.


U.S. athletes Tommie Smith, center, and John Carlos stare downward during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner after Smith received the gold and Carlos the bronze for the 200 meter run at the Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City on Oct. 16, 1968
U.S. athletes Tommie Smith, center, and John Carlos stare downward during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner after Smith received the gold and Carlos the bronze for the 200 meter run at the Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City on Oct. 16, 1968. (AP Photo)

So Tommie Smith and John Carlos get to go to Washington, D.C. next week, to the White House, to be received by President Obama with the 2016 United States Olympic team. Who are they and why is this such a big deal?

Smith and Carlos are the American Olympians who raised their fists during the playing of the national anthem during the victory ceremony–their victory ceremony–at the Mexico City Games in 1968. The gesture remains one of the most iconic images in all of sport history, and it has been referenced frequently in recent months with the emergence of a whole new era of African American athletic activism.

My first book was on Smith and Carlos and their demonstration, and over the course of the past few months I’ve been working on a project to situate the current era of athletic awareness in the context of the activism of 1968. Too often in sports, if not society more generally, we have a tendency to confine history–especially the history of racism and injustice as well as conflict and struggle–to the past. Without getting lost in the details, here’s a few facts about the history that I think are still relevant today.

  1. Smith and Carlos’ 1968 demonstration was not the spontaneous gesture of two isolated, discontented individuals; rather, it was the culmination of a year-long effort of activism and advocacy (famously titled “The Revolt of the Black Athlete”).
  2. The athletic activism of 1968 was not directed against prejudice and discrimination in the world of sport; rather, it grew out of the desire of socially-conscious, politically-committed African American athletes to use the publicity and platform of sport to contribute to larger, societal struggles against racism and injustice.
  3. Smith and Carlos were not celebrated by most Americans back in 1968, much less received at the White House for their demonstration. They were kicked off the team in Mexico City and treated as outlaws, villains, and traitors back home.
Click to visit the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality website.
Click to visit the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality website.

Our friends over at the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality are at it again—this time with a special, election-year issue focused on the positions of the various parties and presidential candidates on the issues of poverty, mobility, and inequality in contemporary American society. While these topics may not be as popular, provocative, or controversial as others which have dominated campaign coverage so far, this attention to social stratification and public policy—especially for those on the bottom end of our socio-economic system—is basic, bread-and-butter stuff for any sociologically-inclined reader or researcher.

Three pieces in particular caught our attention. The first two, written by Douglas Holtz-Eakin and Harry J. Holzer, actually work best as a paired set. Each provides a short synopsis of how Republicans and Democrats, respectively, think about the challenges of poverty reduction in the United States. Holzer’s take on the Democrat approach doesn’t have a lot of surprises, though you can be the judge of how the various points of emphasis he lays out have played out in the Democratic primaries of late, especially considering that Holzer is the former Chief Economist of Bill Clinton’s labor department and advisor to the Hillary Clinton campaign. (“The views expressed,” he writes in a wry footnote, “are strictly my own.”) And while you might not agree with Holtz-Eakin’s reframing of poverty as a problem of “self-sufficiency,” I find it refreshing to hear a conservative both acknowledge the depth of the policy challenge as well as put social scientific research and data at the foundation of a prospective policy agenda.

The other piece I’d really recommend is Jeff Manza and Clem Brooks‘ article “Why Aren’t Americans Angrier about Rising Inequality?” The question comes from the realization that in spite of four decades of rising income and wealth disparities along with “stagnating or even declining real wages,” General Social Survey data suggests that Americans are not nearly so concerned (or at least, are much less outraged) than we might expect. Manza and Brooks believe this disconnect is “an important, yet under-acknowledged, challenge for scholars seeking to understand the politics of risking inequality in the United States.” They go on to suggest that the persistent strength of optimistic beliefs about opportunity and mobility is a key reason explaining why Democratic politicians have such difficulty getting public traction beyond their party base.

With the benefit of observing the last few months of presidential campaigning on both the Right and the Left, I’m wondering if perhaps these discontents aren’t quite as absent or one-sided as it once might have seemed, expressing themselves in the political arena more than public opinion polling. In a topsy-turvy political era, where anger is becoming all the rage, this possibility makes me think that we will need to be careful what we wish for when it comes to public attention to and partisan packaging of public policies affecting our economic systems and social hierarchies.

The study of racial inequalities and identities has been one of my main areas ever since I started graduate school in the 1990s. In fact, persistent racial injustice is one of the main reasons I went to graduate school and became a sociologist. But for the most part my emphasis has been on the subtler forms of racism and racial ideologies that emerged and have taken hold in the post-Civil Rights era—the seemingly positive, yet deeply racialized representations of African-American athletes, for example. Racial coding, symbolic racism, whiteness, and colorblindness are all part and parcel of the more covert racism I’ve studied, but my primary interest has been about how these various racialized images and ideologies serve to perpetuate and even legitimate the social and institutional structures that constitute institutional discrimination, systemic racism, and white privilege in contemporary America.

On the whole, I have been less interested in the more blatant, old-fashioned forms of prejudice and bigotry. This wasn’t because I believed such old-fashioned forms of racism were gone—I grew up in Southeast Missouri, Rush Limbaugh territory and I’ve got cousins in the Ozarks. Rather, it is/was because I believed that these forms of prejudice and intolerance were fading away, in retreat.

But now, as these most blatant and overt forms seem to be re-emerging, especially in conjunction with the extreme rhetoric and acts of violence provoked by the Trump campaign, I am beginning to rethink my rather comfortable orientation and set of assumptions. More specifically, I’m beginning to realize that however repugnant and upsetting, we need to try to understand where these sentiments—so at odds with our highest ideals, our better angels—come from and what they mean. What may be most important from a social science perspective is to engage these sentiments empirically, gathering real data on who holds these sentiments and why.

It was with this all in mind that I appreciated the story based upon interviews with Trump supporters our local paper The Star Tribune ran a week ago Sunday. Here’s a sampling of quotes from Trump’s backers:

“Do I like Trump as a person? Probably not. Would I hang out with him? Probably not. Would I like to see him beat Hillary Clinton? Absolutely.”

“Every time the [Republican] party attacks Trump, it reminds people again what they don’t like about the party… There was a decision to go for strong, strong leadership.”

“The guy we’ll see get elected is going to be much different from the guy who is currently resonating with voters.”

“Trump’s idea isn’t nutty, but he certainly sounds like an inflammatory guy who hates Muslims, and I wouldn’t support him if I thought that was true.”

“I’m tired of being pushed around by other countries. I’m tired of looking weak in the world.”

“He wants to …make sure people are not coming here to hurt Americans. He wants to put Americans first.”

“I’d like to see our country for once take care of ourselves. And then if we’ve got the extra money and time and energy, we help who we can.”

“People are scared. They know this country needs a change, bad.”

“I’m really tired of people thinking that Trump supporters are uneducated and that they’re not smart. We are probably some of the savviest, most politically motivated people there are. Sure, he isn’t perfect with his language, but I don’t even care at this point.”

I’m not sure just how representative these quotes are. Trump, after all, didn’t carry Minnesota’s caucuses (that was Rubio’s only victory), and my sense is that those who were willing to go on record (or those that the newspaper was willing to quote) are not the kinds of Trump supporters who chant about building a wall, punch protesters, or throw up Nazi salutes. And I would really have liked to see the story (or interviews themselves) dig a little deeper into who is the “we” implied in “our country,” the “ourselves” who need to be “taken care of” before we help “others,” or the “people” who are scared. This is the kind of rhetoric where race’s dark underbelly reveals itself. But still this piece gives us a bit richer, more concrete sense of what motivates or drives some of these kinds of sentiments: the sense of having fallen behind or being completely left out; the lack of faith and outright anger with the Republican Party; the cynicism about government and deep-seated belief that playing by the rules doesn’t work; completely left out; the belief in the need for strong leadership (“strong, strong leadership”).

In terms of exploring the larger racial context of all this, I’ve found two pieces most enlightening over the last week or so. One is Jamelle Bouie’s Slate cover story arguing—based upon a wealth of recent social scientific analysis—that one of the major driving forces of Donald Trump’s support is anger and resentment—rage, really—at the fact that our sitting President is an African-American man. The other is Phil Cohen’s recent analysis on the Family Inequality blog (of all places) about the distinctive demographic features of Trump supporters. One teaser: they aren’t any poorer than other whites, but they are poorer than most white Republicans.

I have also (re)-turned to Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab’s classic study of right-wing extremism in American history The Politics of Unreason (1970). I haven’t gotten through it all yet, much less been able to think through the implications for today, but several points from the first chapter alone are worth recounting:

  1. Extremist, racially charged rhetoric and politics are nothing new in American history. Lipset and Raab’s book reminds us that the same sentiments and even coalition informed George Wallace’s campaign in the late 1960s and the John Birch Society earlier in the decade; McCarthyism in the 1950s; Father Charles Coughlin in the 1930, the Ku Klux Klan before that, and the Know Nothing party of the previous century. While I’m not sure this is exactly reassuring, it is important to remember that what we are seeing is just the latest manifestation of a long-established American pattern.
  2. This resentment, anger, and rage is often very much the result of racial progress and change. “As disadvantaged racial groups [and others] developed new and higher levels of aspirations, the commitments of the privileged to practices which sustained their special advantages would increasingly confront…the functioning as an effective social order.”…the “continual efforts of the old ‘in-groups’…to protect their values and status…[through] new social movements.” “In almost every generation, ‘old American’ groups which saw themselves as ‘displaced,’ relatively demoted in status or power by processes rooted in social change, have sought to reverse these processes through the activities of moralistic movements or political action groups.”
  3. Lipset’s notion of “working-class authoritarianism:” that “the less sophisticated and more economically insecure a group is, the more likely its members are to accept the more simplistic ideology or program offered to them” (on the Left or the Right).
  4. And one final, somewhat more pragmatic and sociological point: it is institutional structures—unions, parties, regional cultures, religious organizations—that help moderate and contain resentments.

SSN LogoOur partner organization, the Harvard-based Scholars Strategy Network, is a natural go-to for those looking for cross-disciplinary academic findings in what’s been a turbulent and confusing political season. Here are a few that have piqued our editorial interest recently:

  1. How Do People Make Political Decisions when Compelling Identities Pull Them in Different Directions?” by Samara Klar.
  2. “Why Does Immigration Arouse Deep Feelings and Conflicts?” by John D. Skrentny.
  3. NoJargon Podcast: “Does Your Vote Count?” Episode 20, with political scientist David Schultz.
  4. The Roots and Impact of Outrage-Mongering in U.S. Political Media,” by Sarah Sobieraj and Jeffrey M. Berry.

Trust us, there’s plenty more where that came from—be sure to check out the SSN’s page here on TSP, as well as their full site, for topic-specific questions and policy recommendations.

Beyonce and her dancers practice their entrance before the performance. Via Beyonce, Instagram.
Beyonce and her dancers practice their entrance before the performance. Via Beyonce, Instagram.

Okay, I’ll make this quick since it’s a bit dated. After I wrote that little post about Saturday Night Live’s “Beyonce is Black” spoof a couple of weeks back, I had a number of students and friends wanting to know what I actually thought about her Superbowl performance (well, her part in the Coldplay performance featuring Beyonce and Bruno Mars). I’m no music critic (or big Beyonce fan, for that matter) so I hadn’t really taken the bait. However, I did spend some time reading what other people were saying—both about the performance and about the backlash it seems Beyonce experienced.

One piece that really caught my attention was by the Salon blogger Lasha. She was struck by the very different reception that Beyonce experienced than the one that met rapper Kendrick Lamar after his racially pointed and politically charged performance at the Grammys just days later. According to Lasha, it was one more instance of the unfair, sexist policing of African American women’s political expression.

Lasha’s point about the marginalization of black women’s radicalism is well-taken. I also think there is some additional social context worth considering. For one, there are expectations and previous record. I think part of the thing with Beyonce is that her Superbowl performance was perhaps her first “socially conscious art.” This surprised folks—it defied their expectations of the “Single Ladies” singer, upsetting those who didn’t see it coming or didn’t understand where she was coming from (witness my previous post on the SNL spoof).

Even more important, in my view, is the actual social context of the performances: the music industry versus the sportsworld. We Americans have come to expect and accept social consciousness and political radicalism in the music context. We not only do not expect such expression in sports, we actually oppose it. Not all cultural arenas are unique, and there are many things about the world of sport that make it uniquely powerful and complicated. As I written on many occasions—for example, in the piece Kyle Green and I did on this site about politics and sport being strange bedfellows—there are deep cultural norms about sport that make any kind of social statement in the realm of sport extremely complicated and typically controversial, especially where race is involved.

I won’t try to rehearse all of the ways this works, much less how racial movements and politics are implicated (there’s a lot on this in my book on the 1968 African American Olympic protests, if you are interested). But when it comes to statements of protest, unrest, and activism, Americans tend to see sport as somehow unique or special—either because we see sport as somehow sacred or sacrosanct (that is, above politics) or because don’t want our entertainment complicated or sullied by the realities of the non-sport world. So while sexism is clearly at play, there’s at least one other important thing going on—the idealization of sport on its highest, most holy day in America: Super Bowl Sunday.

Click for companion content.
Click for companion content.

As we head into tomorrow’s Super Tuesday contests, statistics, analytics, and minutia of all sorts are being bandied about, examined for their possible predictions and the clues they can give us about how those who turn out to caucus will make their choices for the presidential candidates who want to represent them. In a classic piece, Skidmore College’s Andrew Lindner looks at how such numbers and stats remain a form of elite knowledge in “The Sociology of Silver,” published online and in our first TSP volume with W.W. Norton & Company, The Social Side of Politics.

Click for companion content.
Click for companion content.

It wasn’t long ago that America’s talking heads worried whether John F. Kennedy, Jr.—a Catholic—could really be elected president. Today, some candidates tailor their rhetoric to reach out to large swaths of Evangelical voters, some voters refuse to believe the president when he declares his own religious affiliation, some wonder if Bernie Sanders’ campaign will be hampered because he is Jewish, and still others wring their hands over how to court the “nones.” The ties between religion and political power remain as knotty as ever, and we look to the University of Minnesota’s Joe Gerteis for insight with “The Social Functions of Religion in American Political Culture,” published online and in our first TSP volume with W.W. Norton & Company, The Social Side of Politics.


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Click for companion content

In our first TSP volume with W.W. Norton & Company, The Social Side of Politics, Stanford sociologist Corey Fields‘ essay “The Paradoxes of Black Republicans” explored the idea that minorities and the GOP were simply incompatible. This takes on new meaning and significance today, as we watch candidates Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz grapple over their Hispanic identities and commitments and their Spanish speaking abilities, while also adhering to the Republican line on limits to immigration and expanded deportations. As Ben Carson’s star seems to fade on the Republican stage, revisiting this article reveals how a sociologists’ perspective on conflicting identities helps all of us understand political jockeying.