Trigger warning: racism
*please note this was written in early 2012 and has not been updated*
There was a moment in time in the 1990s when people believed man could fly. Specifically, that man was the Chicago Bulls’s Michael Jordan. It appeared as if Jordan was hanging in air, an action that came to be known as “hang time”. He was not in fact flying or even hanging in the air; it was an unintentional optical illusion. While most basketball players let go of the ball while they are still jumping up, Michael Jordan doesn’t let go of the ball until he is on his way down. He also has the tendency to pull his legs up as the jump progresses so it appears as if he’s staying higher than he really is. This is just one facet to the sensation surrounding Michael Jordan. To many, Jordan is more than Black man and indeed, more than a man; he seems a phenomenon. In research for this paper I found myself getting misty eyed when watching videos of Michael and reading articles written about him. His athleticism and character invoke emotions nearly a decade after his departure from professional basketball.
For Black Americans, his virtuosity on the basketball court and his ability to parlay that into the business world has caused him to become a cultural role model for many. For many White basketball fans, Jordan’s like ability and “family man” (Michael Jordan Biography) image allowed him to be enjoyed as a non-threatening off-court presence. Second in history only to Jackie Robinson forty years prior, he is a race defying hero to many. This is proven in David Halberstam’s statement that “Jordan has given us, then, among other things, a new definition of American male beauty.” (Halberstam, David) Even in 2012, when many would say we are no longer racist (LOL this was written in 2012), it is hard to deny that there are disturbingly racist aspects to many portrayals of African American athletes in America. Often, these individuals are described almost as if they are made entirely of body, with little or no mental facilities. Michael Jordan is one notable exception to this rule.
The origins of the conception that Black athletes are made merely of muscle can be traced back to the Age of Enlightenment. Jordan functions as a token of different sorts of desire for White and non-White fans to discourses of scientific racism beginning with colonial exploits to find exemplary non-White male laborers during the period known as the Enlightenment. Enlightenment philosophy provided for two opposing views of non-White bodies as alternately primitive “savages” or as acclaimed “Noble Savages.” Although times may have changed since the slavery exploits in which these terms were coined, it is still possible to see the savage/noble savage dichotomy at play in coverage of Black athletes and isolated examples like Jordan. I’d go as far as to suggest the possibility that modern commentators likewise cast his special abilities as a new sort of “missing link,” connecting not animals to humans, but humans to machines. There are also obvious connections between the idea of the “token” in Black athleticism comparable to older notions of the Noble Savage and contemporary arguments that people of color understandably desire role models.
Scientific Racism is a project that arises in the eighteenth century in order to provide data supporting the notion that non-Western men and women differed in fundamental biological ways from Western men and women. The book Toward the Final Solution: A History of European Racism is a work on eighteenth century efforts to prove that Africans were less than human but more than animals (otherwise known as the “missing link” theory) . The essay describes The Enlightenment as a time characterized by a progressive attempt to define man’s place in nature by ranking groups of people based on the color of their skin.
Anthropologists of the time made observations, measurements, and comparisons between groups of men and animals in hopes of understanding the unity and balance in the affairs of man and the cosmos. The anthropologists believed this would aid in comprehending the unity between the body and the mind. These observations, measurements, and comparisons were adequate to the new eighteenth century sciences but they were combined with value judgments succeeding aesthetic specifications stemming from Ancient Greece. Scientists in the age of Enlightenment attributed African American’s superior physicality to their close relation to the ape. They believed that Africans were more closely related to the ape than to Europeans. In John Friedrich Blumenbach’s “Degeneration of Species”, included in Toward the Final Solution: A History of European Racism he states “The assertion that is made about Ethiopians, is that they come nearer the apes than other men”. This is the basis of the “missing link theory”(Eze, Emmanuel Chukwudi). The frequent transition from science to aesthetics is a fundamental characteristic of modern racism. Even in 2012, basketball players are primarily described in terms of athleticism. This may seem natural because they are professional athletes but these words are the same that were once used to describe slaves. African slaves that were sold at the highest price, the “good slaves”, were the biggest, strongest and fastest.(Williamson, Samuel H.) In 2010 sports broadcaster Stacey King described Chicago bulls point guard Derrick Rose as “Too big, too strong, too fast, too good”. The dawn of racism was fraught with simplifications of human nature, defined in aesthetic terms, wherein outward physical signs were equated with inner rationality and this theme lives on today.
The impression that Black folks are intellectually subordinate to whites, specifically Black athletes, is best illustrated by the comments made by former Los Angeles Dodger Vice President for player personnel, Al Campanis. During the interview with Ted Koppel on ABC’s Nightline on the 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s arrival into major league baseball, Campanis was asked why he thought so few Black people were in management positions in baseball. Campanis replied, “I truly believe they may not have some of the necessities to be a field manager or perhaps a general manager” (Wilhelm, Maria) He also stated that Black people were not adapted to be swimmers because of a lack of buoyancy. This is blatant proof of scientific racism alive and well in 2012.
In 2001 a report was published by the Toronto Edition of “National Post” stating that East Africans, specifically Kenyans, have “built-in advantages”. This is according to Bengt Saltin of Copenhagen University, who has devoted more than 30 years to studying muscle biology. He also explains that his research proves that in general, muscles produce large amounts of ammonia when pressured while “The Kenyan runners, they don’t produce ammonia during very intense work. In fact, when they run at maximum speed they have the same ammonia concentration as European top runners at rest.”(Mehaffey, John) These are the type of indications saying there is quite likely a genetic component that links to athletic ability. Furthermore, he attributes Kenyans unparalleled running ability to the altitude in which they are raised. Most Kenyans grow up in areas with a high elevation, around 7,000 feet , which aids in developing lungs capable of functioning in thinner air. This is the modern equivalent to the eighteenth century concept of the “Noble Savage”. A 2012 article for The Atlantic explains that the theory that Kenyans’ history as herders means they get practice running as they chase their sheep across the countryside is still prevalent today.
Another concept that advanced racism was the Enlightenment discussions of the “Noble Savage”. It is unclear whether or not the origin of the term comes from Jean-Jacques Rousseau but the phrase was most certainly popularized after the publication of his “Discourse on Inequality” and “On the Social Contract”. Rousseau believed that man was better suited to a life in a “natural state”. According to Rousseau, mankind is in no way benefited by civilization or modern society. He explains that because “savage” men live in the company of animals and nurtured themselves to the level that aligned itself with the instinct of — and strengthened by regular contact with the elements. Rousseau observes that a man of nature, a “savage”, has only one tool. His body, which is naturally stronger than Europeans. In fairness to the time, I will point out that novelists of the era already were pointing out the problematic nature of Westerners using inhabitants of the West to create a “feel good factor.” In Charles Dickens essay “Noble Savage” he proclaims, “Yet it is extraordinary to observe how some people will talk about him, as they talk about the good old times”. This is paralleled in the undeniable connection between the “Noble Savage” and “Black Athlete” tropes.
It is widely understood that most Black basketball players today come from underprivileged homes. This causes Black athletes to be more attractive to White viewers because they sympathize for them. Black athletes are cast as the underdog, when they make it to the top they are the Cinderella story of the era. While athletes are the heroes of choice for many children, this is especially true of Black children. Bill Maxwell argues that this may not be caused by their ability to relate to the Black athlete that grew up in their neighborhood or one like it, but actually due to peer pressure. “Because of peer pressure and for personal reasons, they are into Black things: In and out of school, they hang out with other Black teenagers, listen almost exclusively to Black music, watch Black sitcoms, talk Black and “think” Black. Thus, the overwhelming majority of their role models are Black.”(Maxwell, Bill) This is partly the cause of Michael Jordan being such a cultural phenomenon. Both the “Noble Savage” and “Black Athlete” tokens are apparent today, although the “Black Athlete” is much more visible because it is widely accepted and not put in contempt of being outright racist .
During the Age of Enlightenment, Edmund Burke was one of the most vocal supporters of freedom and equality. This is apparent in his support of American Independence and voiced injustices of Britain’s American colonies, including his native Ireland: specifically the condemnation of the oppression of Catholics. This is not to say Burke was an Enlightenment philosopher. He bridged the gap between the Age of Enlightenment and that of Romanticism. While the Age of Enlightenment based its racist tendencies on scientific “proof”, the Age of Romanticism based it on nationalism. Romanticism is closely tied with revolution, specifically revolution based on class, not on race. It is for this reason nationalism is innately racist. According to Romantic philosophy, nationalism is defined as a community of people who are racially or genetically distinct. While we now know that the nations of the world consequently exist based on historical accidents and impulses, this was disregarded during the Age of Romanticism. Burke condemned inequality, and in turn racism, in his “Reflections on the Revolution of France” when he stated:
“On this scheme of things, a king is but a man; a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal; and an animal not of the highest order. . . . On the scheme of this barbarous philosophy, which is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings, and which is as void of solid wisdom, as it is destitute of all taste and elegance, laws are to be supported only by their terrors, and by the concern, which each individual may find in them, from his own private speculations, or even spare to them from his own private interests.” (Burke, Edmund, and L. G. Mitchell)
Burke critiqued the French Revolution, but not because of its cause but due to the practices employed. He believed the French Revolution was much too radical, while its American counterpart was more thought-out and reasonable. Michael Jordan was not considered a radical character; in fact, he was a well thought out media-machine.
His image was carefully calculated years before he received his first championship ring. In 1990 he explained “I’ve spent a life building something positive, being viewed as something positive, and I know any mistake I make could damage that for the rest of my life. People look for their role models to be almost flawless, and I guess I’m the closest thing to everything being viewed positive, very little being viewed flawed in my life. And I want to maintain that.”(Smith, Sam.) Representations of Michael Jordan are contracted by his promoters and sponsors, of which there are many. His image is carefully crafted to reflect a Black male with “family values”: a trait held in high regard during the post-Reagan era in America. His image also opposes historical and stereotypical images of Black masculinity as overtly dangerous. Michael Jordan managed to be marketable and extremely successful as a cultural symbol because he offers a rephrasing, tolerant and more marketable vision of Black masculinity due to the fact that he achieved such a remarkable level of success in culture that values athleticism more than ever. In his endorsements, he is portrayed as a thoughtful, engaging family man. This directly counters the socially constructed representations of African American men of the time as incompetent, dangerous and hyper-sexualized. Another aspect that makes Michael Jordan accessible to the White population is his lack of interest in political activism. Unlike Muhammed Ali, Jackie Robinson, and Hank Aaron before him, Jordan did not partake in political activism, instead he created an empire and from that donated and created charities of his choosing.
It is noted that “Jordan represents the hope and freedom and ultimate escape from the pernicious beliefs and social structures that stand between African Americans and economic prosperity, as well as physical and psychological security.” (Giroux, Henry A., and Peter McLaren) By pairing Jordan with Bugs Bunny in the “Hare Jordan” campaigns of the 1990s, he was personified as a cartoon-like figure, defying structures of race, gender and age.
Through athleticism, Black Americans have obtained economic power and, with it came freedom. Being extremely wealthy is a new experience for Black Americans, especially in the 20th century and it is most commonly obtained through athletic ability. Burke explains that “Considerate people, before they declare themselves, will observe the use which is made of power; and particularly of so trying a thing as new power in new persons, of whose principals, tempers, and dispositions, they have little or no experience, and in situations where those who appear the most stirring in the scene may possibly not be the real movers.” It is apparent that economic freedom leads to political freedom and this is especially apparent in black athletes. According to Forbes, in 2011 the top ten highest earning athletes were all black basketball players. That is in contrast to the 1991 Forbes list that stated that five out of the top ten earning athletes were black.
Economic freedom for many Black Americans comes as a result of athleticism. Unlike most industries, professional sports have provided African Americans a pathway to succeed economically. In Arthur Ashe’s book “A Hard Road to Glory: The African-American Athlete in Basketball” he explains “Proportionally, the black athlete has been more successful than any group in any other endeavor in American life.” (Dey, Matthew S.) Even in 2011, years after retirement, Michael Jordan was the second highest grossing athlete in the world because of his ongoing endorsement deals. He is still one of the most sought after endorsements because of his carefully cultivated image.
Years after his retirement Michael Jordan is still a cultural phenomenon because he created a cultural revolution. One could even go as far as describing him as an example of Burke’s “sublime” theory, despite the scientific racism that originated in the Age of Enlightenment and still lives on today. Even in 2012 it is apparent that the “Noble Savage” token has essentially been renamed the token “Black Athlete”. The Age of Enlightenment proved that economic freedom is equated with power and there is no better example than his Airness, Michael Jordan.
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