The New Great Migration: From the Furnaces to the Basketball Court

The following words reside in the middle of Mexican-Yaqui-Filipino-American author, Alfredo Véa’s gods go begging. These words intonate a truism I have unsuccessfully attempted to articulate since I was a little boy. These words inspired this article:

“Every child had been given rights to an automatic weapon, a pair of oversized shoes made by Indonesian slave labor, and a personal saint – a celebrity athlete who had ‘gotten out,’ a patron point man who had scouted out the invisible path to the other world and … managed to use his athletic abilities to escape this place, only to become a strutting megalomaniacal Judas goat for various clothing and fortified beer companies. They were the new John Waynes, peddling the myth.”

In conjunction with Véa’s biography, the protagonist, Jesse becomes a fragmented public defender who pursues the purgation of PTSD-induced trauma whilst trying to learn how to be loved after serving in Vietnam. “This place” refers to Potrero Hill, San Francisco. A “Judas goat” is trained to earn the trust of other animals before leading them into a slaughterhouse.  Nike, Adidas, Reebok, Budweiser, Coors Light, and other corporate commoditisers of sport meet the criteria for: “Various clothing and fortified beer companies.” But, “the myth” – what is it?

‘Regardless of your circumstances, if you work hard enough you can turn your dreams into a reality.’

We have all seen this myopic mantra marketed in a sports brand commercial or merged into a lachrymose one-to-one pre-tip-off interview. Ascetically, it is a benevolent rescue mission, which aspires to facilitate the transcendence of one’s self-confidence and self-reliance beyond victimhood. But in reality, this medal of meritocracy is the antithesis of benevolent. It brazenly mocks the migrant, as Helena Viramontes’ Under the Feet of Jesus phrases, “phantoms of the field”, who slave through the grape vines of California just to survive. It is a colorblind codifier that has smothered the charismatic echoes of the Civil Rights Movement. It is an institutionalized gust that has blown away the admonishing ashes that adhered to Florence and Normandie after the Los Angeles Riots of 1992. This made way for the erection of an old yet newly-designed racial caste system in the United States. A racial caste system that tactfully opens its glossy gates of privilege until they are wide enough for only a few lumpen black aspiring athletes to crawl through, so dominant narratives can ground regurgitations of pseudo-equality in their image.

Gerald Horne contextualizes in Globalization and Survival in the Black Diaspora: The New Urban Challenge, “the 1992 explosion in Los Angeles in the aftermath of the beating by police officers of the Black motorist Rodney King, was suggestive of what might happen if the problem of racial discrimination were simply left to fester.” Subsequently, to not only debase and placate a profit-threatening resurgence, which had not been visible on the macro-level since the New York Race Riots of 1964, but to also revivify the apolitical lumpenization of the non-white proletariat, the political realm began to, not liberalize, but neoliberalize the sports industry. As white majority owners de-racialized their rosters, media and political oligarchs proliferated sports iconography and cryptography to germinate a false image of multicultural integration in the United States. Now, despite the fact that the National Basketball Association is merely, “one of the few areas where African-Americans are allowed to participate in sizeable numbers”, it has been misleadingly framed as a societal microcosm. In result, at-risk youths of color continue to benightedly chase the white floodlights of an economically stable quasi-egalitarian dominion.

Nonetheless, if applied in the negative, this pneumatic precursor of reductionism does, ironically, contain credence. Firstly, ex-owner of Los Angeles Clippers, Donald Sterling’s recorded vilification of “minorities” as “the enemy” indicates that even the National Basketball Association – a sports industry in which 76.3% of the players are African American - is suffused with inherent racialization. Worse still, the use of strategically sentimental rhetoric in NBA, Commissioner, Adam Silver’s proclamation concerning the official lifetime ban of Donald Sterling: “Sentiments of this kind are contrary to the principles of inclusion and respect that form the foundation of our diverse, multicultural and multiethnic league”, formulates a bureaucratic template even the Los Angeles Police Department Chief, Charlie Beck – the selected trivializer of Ezell Ford’s autopsy - would be proud of. Psst. Just swap the word, ‘league’ for ‘police department’. Secondly, ex-general manager of the Atlanta Hawks, Danny Ferry’s stereotyping of the South Sudanese professional small forward, Luol Deng: “He has a little African in him. Not in a bad way, but he’s like a guy who would have a nice store out front but sell you counterfeit stuff out of the back”, offers  a pedagogical demonstration  of how the foundation of America – the judiciary system – frequently criminalizes a person of color by white supremacist instinct, rather than by evidence. Thirdly, Michael Jordan’s isolated role as, the only black majority owner out of ninety-two different teams in three leagues highlights the outline of a higher hierarchical hegemony.

At length, as they are stripped, measured and weighed at a draft picking ritual, – symbolically sponsored by a company named, State Farm - players of color will still suffer from three of, what French sociologist, Loïc Wacquant calls, the four apparatuses of ghettoization: “(i) stigma; (ii) constraint” and “(iv) institutional encasement.” Thus making, “(iii) territorial confinement” the only evaded element.

Last year, Donald Sterling exclaimed: “I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does somebody else give it to them? … Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game? Is there 30 owners that created the league?” Put in less tacit terms, the “patron point man” is granted certain material white privileges, but remains subjected to, and dependent on, a white upper echelon that exploits his labour for profit.

National Basketball Association

Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers [centre] and Wesley Johnson [left] echoing Eric Garner’s final words before New York Police Department officers choked him to death. #SpeakUp

In the same way quasi-white privileges were diligently distributed to a select few black foremen, who escaped from strenuous sharecropping sections in the Deep South to indefatigable furnaces in Chicago, Pittsburgh, et al, during the Great Migration, in a tactical effort to lull black steel mill workers into a fallacy of hope, large salaries and notoriety have been deftly dangled in front of many African American athletes to expedite a conditioning illusion of impartiality. Professor of Law at Yale Law School, Reva Siegal dubbed this dynamic: “Preservation through transformation.” Indeed, current national wealth inequality – which has, “climbed back up to levels not seen since the roaring 20s” – propound this prognosis.

Admittedly, it would be incongruous to propose that the treatment of today’s black professional basketball players is analogous to the affliction black foremen absorbed in the 20th century. The chasm between labouring in a furnace which is on the verge of collapsing and working on a waxed wooden court is unequivocal. We need not look any further than William Attaway’s Blood on the Forge to learn that both foremen and their subordinates often lost their lives inside the furnaces while trying to earn enough money to feed their family. Contrarily, professional athletes are able to exercise their multi-figure salaries to ally the metamorphosis of a maligned loved one. The “anointment” of Jolinda Wade, mother of Miami Heat’s shooting guard, Dwayne Wade, personifies this. But, this article is not devoted to the micro-level. The championing of singular, against-all-the-odds fables is a life support machine for racialized neoliberalism. It cultivates a double-edged ‘white-frame’ that incites an extrinsic, disconnected figure to blame the victim and, in harmony, the victim to blame himself/herself: “If Dwayne Wade can succeed, then why can’t these people/I just get it together. They/I have no excuse. Institutionalized racism isn’t the problem; laziness is.” Systemic, socio-economic accountability is evaporating. Therefore, to pull the plug on this dialectic, we must peer past placatory privileges and attentively address the macro-level.

Since the abolishment of old Jim Crow laws, the individual player has been raised so communities of color can continue to be held underwater. The comforting crumbs of privilege are gobbled up by an almost undetectable minority who, more often than not, understandably seek refuge for themselves and their families. Meanwhile, the mousetrap of the prison-industrial-complex incapacitates more captivated subjects – who try to follow the coordinates of the “strutting megalomaniacal Judas goat’s” trajectory – than ever before. Pragmatically, the scoreboard has become a flare. A nullifying flare that has been lit to distract social cognizance away from the expediently symbiotic relationship between the mass unemployment-inducing de-industrialization of the black diaspora, social welfare cuts, and the draconian War on Drugs. Away from the fact that a cunning conflation of ‘tough on crime’ stances and ‘dog whistle politics’ has lead, and is leading, to quote Angela Davis’s Are Prisons Obsolete?: “Not to safer communities but, rather, to even larger prison populations.” This in turn perpetuates profuse profits for not only private prison owners – namely, Corrections Corporation of America and Wackenhut Corrections Corporation – that are paid by the state for each and every prisoner they “house”, but also for privatized food, health-care, and even soap providers. Ritualistically, the state awards them with contracts worth tens, and occasionally, hundreds of millions of dollars for their service. Away from the fact that, since 1980, 23 prisons have been built in California, yet, in the same period, only 1 state university campus has been opened. Away from the fact that, “two-thirds of all persons in prison (in the United States) for drug offenses are people of color” yet, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 2011: “Higher percentages of whites have used cocaine, hallucinogens, marijuana, pain relievers like OxyContin, and stimulants like methamphetamine.”


Soaring? Taken at Indiana State Prison. Source: Elijah Solomon.

Generally speaking, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness has made – and is making – a real change. The act of acknowledging that: “The [American] criminal justice system functions much more like a system of racial and social control than a system of crime prevention”, is aggressively accumulating. However, the momentum is, and will continue to be, marginalized until the neoliberalization of sport is incorporated into our discourse; until we focus on the whole truth, not just part of it; until Larry Sanders’s decision to retire from professional basketball at the age of 26 is equated to vision rather than a lack of gratitude. In the current guise, more inculcated embryos of color will acquiescently activate the desolation of their education for an enchanting road more travelled by, without realizing that the only means of collectively deciphering and deconstructing the new Jim Crow is being sacrificed. That is not necessarily in reference to the traditionalized premature relinquishment of academia for professional sport – after all, colleges overtly compartmentalize ‘student athletes’ for profit surplus value – but rather, the abandonment of one’s critical thinking faculties for the modification of athletic performance in a realm that meticulously diverts every scintilla of the black athlete’s energy away from the regulating forces that are subjecting him/her and his/her family.

According to the French philosopher, Michel Foucault’s Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison:

“The historical moment of the disciplines was the moment when an art of the human body was born, which was directed not only at the growth of its skills, nor at the intensification of its subjection, but at the formation of a relation that in the mechanism itself [discipline] makes it [one] more obedient as it [one] becomes more useful … it [discipline] dissociates power from the body; on the one hand, it turns into an ‘aptitude’, a ‘capacity’, which it seeks to increase; on the other hand, it reverses the course of the energy, the power that might result from it, and turns it into a relation of strict subjection.”


From 1917 to 2008: “Discipline is an art of rank” – Michel Foucault.

All too often, people of color are systematically invalidated until they get paid to dribble, pass, and shoot a basketball in a polyester uniform for seven days a week; until they become, to resurrect Foucault, “docile bodies”. Thereafter, they are, “individually characterized, but collectively useful.” Their heterogeneous talents are filtered into coalescent usefulness and that usefulness pertains to the distribution of a structuralizing myth. At bottom, the commodification of the basketball court camouflages the corruption inside the other court. The 350 African American players in the National Basketball Association are being airbrushed over the 832, 580 African American men who are incarcerated inside private and state jails. The hypnopaedic adage is spreading.