Derrick Rose Knows His Audience Better Than You Do
A growing number of athletes are showing support for the nationwide protests against police brutality, and the reaction against them demonstrates exactly why they should continue to speak up.
A week after some St. Louis Rams gave their "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" gesture in support of protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, players across the NFL and NBA wore clothing with the message, "I Can't Breathe" written on them, a rallying cry among those protesting the lack of indictment in the chokehold death of Eric Garner. Those taking part included Kenny Britt and Davin Joseph of the Rams, Reggie Bush of the Detroit Lions, Johnson Bademosi of the Cleveland Browns and Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls.
Rose's pregame T-shirt display, in particular, created a ruckus. He's the highest-profile athlete to make a statement outside of Twitter, and he tends to shy away from public engagement in general. Much of the reaction was supportive, with the usual sprinkling of detractors admonishing athletes to "stick to sports." LeBron James, who has been vocal about racial issues from Trayvon Martin to Ferguson and Garner, hailed Rose's shirt. "It's spectacular," he said. "I'm looking for one."
But one member of the sports media chose to praise Rose in a rather peculiar way. Dan Bernstein, a radio host and columnist for CBS Chicago, tweeted in support of the T-shirt, noting that his political stand was "more important than any game's outcome." He probably should have stopped there; what followed was a series of tweets questioning whether Rose truly understood the stance he took.
Bernstein's thoughts were echoed by his colleague Cody Westerlund, who supported Rose but questioned his decision not to talk to reporters about it after the game. I'm sure it had nothing to do with the fact that the Bulls lost, and it's certainly not informed by the derogatory way beat reporters have previously referred to Rose's lack of eloquence. And, as SBNation's Tom Ziller points out, Rose has addressed some of these issues in recent months, giving $1 million to a charity for at-risk teens and telling them, "You matter."
Never mind the racial politics of "speaking well," or that referring to Rose's inarticulate "bumbles" speaks to longstanding expectations that blacks compensate for others' notions of their mental deficiencies. Never mind that if these writers have a problem with Rose's level of education or intelligence they should take it up with the failures of the education system to properly serve poor students, particularly those who are budding athletes. Never mind that an honors degree from Duke could never give one the same understanding of systemic inequality as growing up black in the South Side of Chicago.
Put simply, Derrick Rose doesn't owe us an explanation. Questioning Rose's intelligence while seemingly supporting the protests speaks to the condescension and paternalism that black activists have experienced from white allies for generations. Liberal racism is on a different level than more overt forms of racism, but its subtlety makes it just as dangerous in allowing people to deny that it exists. As Salon's Brittney Cooper explains, "People of color are supposed to be thankful for good white liberals," even when they're "whitesplaining" from their lofty perch of privilege.
Rose doesn't need to explain his T-shirt to Bernstein, because it wasn't meant for him. The message was for the millions of black kids from the South Side and beyond who need to hear that their lives matter from a member of their community who also happens to be famous and popular. It was for those in Ferguson and New York and all across the country who have turned to protesting, sometimes violently, out of the sheer hopelessness -- a feeling that stems in part from decades of people such as Bernstein dismissing their voices. Rose isn't exactly the first black man to have his politics questioned and devalued.
A T-shirt slogan isn't going to fix race relations in America. But it does help reinforce that black lives matter, that black voices matter, regardless of how you think they sound.
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