If These Are Gang Signs, Yao Ming's a Triad

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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A Wisconsin high school has come under fire for suspending two basketball players for making what some are calling "gang signs" in a newspaper photo.

The Sheboygan Falls players, brothers Jordan and Juwaun Jackson (along with their brother Jamal), struck seemingly innocuous poses for the Sheboygan Falls News in which Jordan flashed three fingers on both hands while Juwaun pointed upward with his thumbs and forefingers out in a way that you could interpret as mimicking guns, if you're really in need of something to do. Some parents apparently complained to the school superintendent that the gestures were gang-related, leading to one-game suspensions for the boys.

The route to concluding that the move was racially motivated is much more straightforward than that which leads one to think an innocent, "three-point" hand signal commonly used by NBA players is a marker of gang affiliation. The brothers are African-American and recently transferred to Sheboygan Falls from another high school in Sheboygan, which is nearly 92 percent white and less than 2 percent black. They said they had no idea the gestures could be interpreted as malicious: "I had no idea, they told us it meant blood," Jordan told reporters. To go from these gestures to the Bloods' "b" seems like a stretch for anyone who isn't predisposed to automatically look on young men of color with suspicion.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin has taken up the Jacksons' case and is investigating the school district and police department, while the brothers say the public support they've received far outweighs the criticism. The Sheboygan Falls News, the local newspaper that originally ran the photo in a profile of how the players were adjusting to their new school, thought nothing of the gestures at the time and posted this response on its Facebook page:

The good intentions surrounding a positive article about high school student-athletes adjusting to a new school and contributing to an SFHS sports program has somehow taken an ugly turn. ... We are disappointed and saddened by the negative reaction and subsequent outcome, which has resulted in two high school basketball players being forced to miss a game against the team's biggest rival. The line between perception and reality is often blurry. Unfortunately, this week we found out just how much so. ... There was one Facebook post on the Falls News page that was critical of the photo. Although the poster admitted to having no idea what the signs in the photo actually meant, the person said the paper should have known what the signs represented before running the photo. However, the person speculated that they were gang-related signs.

Let's just go ahead and assume that all athletes of color of affiliated with gangs, and it's just a matter of time before they show their true gang colors. Aaron Hernandez can't be the only one -- I'm pretty sure Yao Ming is secretly a Triad.

Either way, school districts across the nation need a game plan to deal with increasing diversity, unless they want to start suspending players for high-fiving and shaking hands, too.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net