Public figures occasionally provide us with an opportunity to engage in issues that touch us all. The NFL is the most watched television show in America, generating billions of dollars, heroic moments, and an entire subculture of interest. Now they are showing us how employers react to violence in the spotlight, and needless to say it is not a graceful display.
Several things are troubling about the reaction of America. First, the focus of this violence is on Black men as perpetrators, and secondly, the suggestion that employers should act quickly and permanently ban people for criminal behavior. Numerous columns and comments arise that speak to these two points, thus it is time for some counterpoints.
Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, and Brandon Marshall are all Black men. In America, they are easy targets. When Chuck D and Public Enemy created their logo in 1986, of a Black man in the crosshairs, they artistically reflected history. The cynic at the time would have anticipated Rodney King, Amadou Diallo, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown and so many others. The narrative since the days of slavery has always been that Black people are overly violent, thus necessitating the violent treatment of them to keep them in line. Of course as any anthropologist, psychologist, or pet owner knows: if you treat someone violently, chain them, cage them, they are going to naturally want to escape.
So if the historical oppression of Black people (by White people and the government forces) is cause for the historical backlash of Black people, what are White folks’ rationales? White people have been extremely violent in the governmental context (if we put a skin tone to the people who enforced slavery) fought back against Reconstruction, fought (and murdered) the Civil Rights movement, and staff our over-militarized domestic police forces. And that is not even getting into foreign policy.
If the image of a drug dealing gun-toting thug were not enough, now Black men are allowed to carry the banner for domestic violence as well. Although the White drug dealers of the world, including the real heavyweights who earn millions, are benefitting by the mischaracterization of drugs as a Black issue… the White* women and children of America gain no solace in their abuse if we paint this as a character flaw inherent in Black men. (*Mixed couples aside).
As a society we have long gone for the easy answers, such as violence being caused by inherently evil people. Just root that out, or keep them in check, and mission accomplished. It is not that simple, which is why simpletons can’t be in charge of solving these problems. The movement, and civil structures, that arose in the 1970s and 1980s to stop spousal and child abuse did not come as a response to violent Black men. Domestic violence support services are not overwhelmingly staffed by and servicing Black women (although they are, and should be). Lets get real.
The historical dilemma of domestic violence is that wives were not coming forward, unwilling to be possible pariahs in their social circle and subjecting their families to turmoil. The father could be arrested, lose his job, and not be able to support the wife or children. Even worse, she wouldn’t be believed in a patriarchal society of male police officers and judges (similar to the disbelief given Black accusers of White violence).
The courage to say “Enough!” and shatter an intolerable family demands support, no matter what color are people’s skin tones or where they live. Studying who calls the police, or who goes to jail, does not give us statistics on who are the victims and perpetrators; it only tells us who calls the police and who goes to jail. The women who feel stuck behind the Wall of Silence need support. If they are White, this latest public iteration of the problem may keep them behind the Wall if they don’t have a Black partner, i.e. an “acceptable” abuser.
The more we portray crime and violence in racial terms, the more people inherently support a more punitive response. Focusing solely on the effects of social problems by arresting and punishing someone does very little in addressing, and preventing, the causes. I’m here to tell you: the cause of domestic violence in America is not the existence of Black men within our borders.
Employers and Criminal Activity
Many Americans have put a great deal of energy into reducing the employment discrimination of people with criminal histories. We call it “Ban the Box,” a phrase coined by All of Us or None and referencing the job application box asking, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” Over the past few decades we have made considerable progress in changing municipal policies, state laws, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s official federal guidelines on civil rights enforcement.
The brouhaha of the NFL threatens to undo decades of cultural education and policy development.
The Baltimore Ravens and Minnesota Vikings have learned that “the customer is always right.” Their fans and sponsors have spoken: don’t take domestic violence lightly. When the Ravens chose to wait and see what the League investigation revealed, and how the criminal charges played out, the fans were okay with Ray Rice losing about $500,000 from a two-game suspension. And then came the graphic video. People were stunned, that this video could generate that response. The Vikings have almost learned this lesson, and every team is likely scrambling with how to handle one of their employees doing something similar. The New England Patriots at least had the help of the court system, as the state held Aaron Hernandez without bail pending his trial for murder.
In the NFL, players can legally only be subject to sanctions by their team or the League. Not both. Thus, a team needs to play it wisely from the time of the event, as their whole profit model is based on likeability (and winning). Selling stuff with the logo is how they rake it in, and I have two jerseys, a mug, floor mats, a decal… and a slew of brainwashing items for my five-year-old daughter. If Troy Polamalu ever saw my little one in her customized Kiramalu jersey he would want to do a shampoo commercial with her. But who is putting an Adrian Peterson jersey on their kid now?
Most business are not on TV with a fleet of journalists and its own channel. Most employers will not be expected by their customers to take action immediately after an arrest, and should be able to continue employing someone while the judicial system runs its course. The Pittsburgh Steelers recently had their top two running backs arrested for marijuana on the brink of the season. Many wondered what would happen to the team if suddenly they were both suspended for several games. The team chose to punish them internally, with no details yet released. Obviously the team’s ability to “get away” with this response, and also allow the judicial system to run its course, reflects America’s views of marijuana at this time. We have far less tolerance for domestic violence.
Most employees (99.9%?) will not have earned millions of dollars prior to an allegation, arrest or conviction. Feeling consequences for one’s actions is an overwhelmingly accepted concept, whether it is through the criminal or economic system. So we should be careful not to draw too many lessons from these public figures being in the spotlight and how best to handle them. The rest of America needs to keep supporting families, and if they have consequences to pay, need to be able to rebuild their lives rather than be eternal pariahs.
We don’t see a lineup of White Wall Street executives on the Bloomberg Channel being paraded around for some alleged (or actual) domestic violence or drug use. We see wealthy Black men, talented in their field, and anomalies to the rest of us. Yes, take this opportunity to discuss these issues as it relates to us… but pointing the finger is not a method of dealing with our own problems.