News / World

Trump's attack on another Black sports figure no coincidence: Dale

In attacking LaVar Ball, the U.S. president is either using racism for strategic purposes, or being instinctively racist himself — or both, Daniel Dale writes.

Trump called LaVarBall, left, an “ungrateful fool” for dismissing the president’s claimed role in freeing three teenage college basketball players, including Ball’s son LiAngelo, after their shoplifting arrest in China.

John Locher and Manuel Balce Ceneta / The Associated Press

Trump called LaVarBall, left, an “ungrateful fool” for dismissing the president’s claimed role in freeing three teenage college basketball players, including Ball’s son LiAngelo, after their shoplifting arrest in China.

WASHINGTON—The political press has a way of avoiding the obvious when stating the obvious involves calling out racism.

So when Donald Trump attacked a sports figure on Wednesday, again, the obvious was left out of the news stories in the Associated Press, New York Times, Washington Post and CNN.com, among others.

Here’s what’s obvious. The sports figure, LaVar Ball, is Black. All of Trump’s recent targets in sports have been Black. And the president of the United States is either calculatingly using racism for strategic purposes, again, or being instinctively racist himself, again.

Of course, it can be both. But it’s not neither. Not after this many of these moments.

“It’s a pattern that to me, and to most observers, is an obvious pattern. They’ll try to deny it because he’s taken pictures with Black people, because he has Black people working in the White House. But to me that doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t take for him to wear a hood for him to be a white supremacist,” said Donte Stallworth, a former NFL player and now a CNN contributor. “In his actions, he is a white supremacist. And we shouldn’t be afraid to say that. It’s a damning charge, but it’s something that if you observe the facts, you will see the certainty of who he is.”

In the last two months, Trump has criticized Black NFL players as “sons of bitches” for kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality. Trump has criticized entirely uncontroversial NBA star Stephen Curry for no apparent reason.

Trump returned to the NFL on Monday, criticizing running back Marshawn Lynch for sitting during the anthem.

And on Wednesday, Trump attacked Ball, a famously outspoken basketball dad, as an “ungrateful fool” for dismissing the president’s claimed role in freeing three teenage college basketball players, including Ball’s son LiAngelo, after their shoplifting arrest in China.

Stallworth noted that Trump has said nothing about Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr, two white NBA coaches who have regularly roasted him at length, or Eminem, the white rapper who delivered a scathing attack rap about him at the BET Hip Hop Awards in October.

In tweeting about the Balls, though, he had a chance to strike two of his favourite themes: the criminality of Black people and the ingratitude of Black people.

“Just think…LaVar, you could have spent the next 5 to 10 years during Thanksgiving with your son in China, but no NBA contract to support you. But remember LaVar, shoplifting is NOT a little thing. It’s a really big deal, especially in China. Ungrateful fool!” Trump wrote on Twitter.

During his election campaign, Trump described Black “inner cities” as lawless hellholes. Tellingly, he always made the speeches in white suburban and rural towns, not the cities he was promising to transform.

He was speaking about Black people, but to white people, in a kind of half-hearted code. In lecturing Ball about the importance of respecting the law, he did it again.

“He doesn’t use overt racist language, and he couldn’t, but he stops just short of that,” said Ben Carrington, a University of Southern California professor and the author of the book Race, Sport and Politics. “And I think the base he appeals to hears him.”

Trump knows how well anti-Black racism can work for him. His entire career in Republican politics emerged out of a racist campaign to “prove” the first Black president was not born in America. Today, with few policy accomplishments to speak of, dumping on Black people helps keep the bigoted portion of his base on his side.

“Whenever Trump feels threatened or senses that the support from his base may be wavering, he tries to create some common opponent in an effort to solidify it. I think he finds wealthy, supposedly ungrateful Black athletes to be really useful for this, a convenient ‘other,’” said Phil Taylor, a former longtime Sports Illustrated columnist and now a contributing writer for The Athletic.

Trump’s use of racism, however, can sometimes be too quickly attributed to strategy rather than deep-rooted belief — a cunning attempt to secure his core voters rather than an expression of his own core.

Trump has a history of demonstrated animosity to Black people that runs more than 40 years. In the early 1970s, his family real estate empire, for which he served as president, was sued by the federal government for anti-Black discrimination that included marking the applications of Black people with a “C,” for “coloured.”

“Perhaps Trump is playing a cynical game of base management, assuaging his core supporters with dog whistles and bigotry. But looking at his life, the more likely explanation is also the simplest one: Donald Trump goes after Black people because he doesn’t like them,” wrote Slate columnist Jamelle Bouie.

Trump’s charge that Ball is “ungrateful” echoes his September claim that a football player should not be allowed to kneel during the anthem if he “wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL.” In both cases, Trump was continuing a long racist tradition of suggesting that Black success, in sports and elsewhere, is a gift of white people.

From the time American sports were desegregated, Carrington said, Black athletes have been told to “shut up and play” if they dare to speak out against the white powers that be.

“The ungrateful charge is based in racism. In my experience, Black athletes are criticized for lacking gratitude much more often than white ones,” said Taylor. “In the case of Ball and the UCLA players, Trump was indicating that he doesn’t think they were entitled to his help simply by virtue of being U.S. citizens, that for these four Black men, simply being treated like any other American is somehow a special favour.”

Athletes, of course, are not the only Black figures Trump has attacked this year. Trump is fresh off his assault on the integrity of a Black congresswoman who relayed how he had hurt the feelings of a Black military widow. Just prior to his inauguration, he attacked Black civil rights icon John Lewis, a Democratic congressman, as “all talk” and “no action or results” — in fixing a district Trump uncoincidentally said was “crime infested.”

Carrington was struck by the phrase Trump used to describe the Pittsburgh Penguins, an all-white mostly non-American team of Stanley Cup champions that visited the White House in October: “Incredible patriots.”

“You can be a white Swede or white Canadian,” he said, “and in Trump’s eyes you can be more of a true patriot than an African-American basketball player, because you’re white.”

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