How South Carolina women’s basketball became the Great Black Hope

NCAA Women

OPINION: There’s always been a racial component to sports, so there’s nothing wrong with rooting for everybody Black.

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

On July 4, 1910, exactly 134 years after the founding fathers unanimously declared their belief that all men were created equal, America’s white sports fans took it back.

A Black West Virginian who was “beset by a mob and hanged” was just one of the hundreds of Black people across the country who were attacked, shot or killed during one of the bloodiest national race riots in history. A New York mob clubbed a Black man to death; another blockaded the doors to an apartment building in a Black neighborhood and set it afire. An Omaha, Neb., man was smothered to death in a barber’s chair. And in Houston, “Charles Williams, a negro fight enthusiast, had his throat slashed from ear to ear on a streetcar by a white man, the negro having announced too vociferously his appreciation of Jack Johnson’s victory at Reno.”

The Great White Hope had lost.

Black joy inspiring racial hatred is not unique to the Johnson-Jeffries race riots. Despite what “cowardly dog” expert Emmanuel Acho believes, nothing in American society has ever been “gender neutral” or “racially indifferent.” Like politics, music and every aspect of American culture, there has always been a racial component to American sports. After Jackie Robinson broke the color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Black baseball fans in other cities flocked to Dodgers games. The NFL’s gentlemen’s agreement to limit the number of Black players allowed the upstart American Football League to gain a stronghold, ultimately resulting in the interleague matchup known as the “Super Bowl.” The college rivalry between 1979’s Most Outstanding Player, Magic Johnson and the “Great White Hope” Larry Bird, ushered in a new era of professional basketball.

So when the University of South Carolina faced off against the University of Iowa in the NCAA women’s basketball championship on Sunday, everyone knew which team African America wanted to win. In most team competitions, there are usually only two sides; Black Americans are no different than any other sports fans. In a country where a level playing field has never existed, it’s understandable why Black Americans root for quarterbacks, coaches and players who look like them and share a common background. Identifying with someone because they look like you or share your heritage isn’t necessarily racist.

The same is true for white people.

While the people who “don’t see color” (except for Celtic green and the hues in confederate flags) think that talking about race will melt the polar ice caps, it is perfectly fine to acknowledge the individual cultural, racial and ethnic differences that make up the American tapestry. It’s only natural that white people wanted Caitlin Clark to emerge victorious. And since there are more white people in the country, it’s no mystery how a white, Midwestern “girl next door” on a majority-white team from a majority-white state became the darling of her sport. Plus, Clark is really, really good. Black people didn’t hate the new Great White Hope of women’s hoops any more than they hated Jim Jeffries or the Celtics or the Green Bay Packers; they were simply rooting for everyone Black.

Furthermore, It’s not Caitlin Clark’s fault that white people went too far. White America turning Iowa’s opponents into villains to justify their fandom was not her doing. She probably disagreed with Los Angeles Times columnist Ben Bolch referring to the LSU Tigers as “dirty debutantes” and the social media trolls who called the Gamecocks a “poverty college franchise.” Clark didn’t ask her supporters to demonize Black women as “ghetto” and “classless” when Angel Reese taunted her trash-talking opponent. Iowa players had nothing to do with CNN’s post-game headline that mentioned Caitlin Clark instead of the actual Most Outstanding Player, Kamilla Cardoso. Clark didn’t tweet obscenely racist insults about S.C. coach Dawn Staley and her players; her fans did. Clark probably still wonders where the hell all these Iowa fans came from.

To be fair, most of the passengers on the Caitlin Clark bandwagon appreciate her for altruistic reasons. Listing her college records would require a separate article, and she is worthy of every accolade she has received. Her admirers have a legitimate case for calling her the greatest women’s college basketball player of all time. But it is also undeniable that white privilege adds to the legend of Caitlin Clark. As excellent as she has shown herself to be, the “mainstream appeal” she enjoys is a reflection of white America’s admiration for one of their own.

Perhaps this is where the confusion lies. Benefiting from white privilege is not necessarily racist; it’s natural. Just as Clark didn’t ask the referees to make a last-minute foul call that helped her team defeat its Final Four opponent, there are white people in Ivy League classrooms and executive suites who had no hand in creating the systemic advantages that propelled them toward their goals. It’s not their fault that America constructed a pedestal to elevate whiteness.

But because of history and their lived experience, Black fans are keenly aware of the racial dynamics at play. For them, the Gamecocks’ literal perfect season is more admirable when one considers how they navigated the combination of hate, sexism and white supremacy. The Black fans of women’s college basketball cheered for Staley’s team in the same way as previous generations of Black sports enthusiasts rallied around the Dodgers or the Lakers or the Kansas City Chiefs. They recognize the animus that comes with the pursuit of Black excellence. Even the prospect can unite a country into a nationwide murderous mob. It can make an entire nation reject history, truth and democracy itself.

Ultimately, sports are just a microcosm of society. No matter how hard we try, history cannot level the playing field where the competition takes place. This is why Black America exploded in exultation after the New York Times predicted a Black heavyweight champion would make “his ignorant brothers … misinterpret his victory as justifying claims to much more than physical equality with their white neighbor.” It’s also why Edward L. Blackshear, the principal of historically Black Prarie View A&M College begged the boxing commission to cancel the Johnson-Jeffries fight the day after the Times published that racist article. “But if Johnson wins, the anti-negro sentiment will quickly and dangerously collect itself ready to strike back at any undue exhibition of rejoicing on the part of negroes,” Blackshear wrote. “Race prejudice is already sufficiently acute in the United States. The fight ought to be called off.”

And no, Caitlin Clark didn’t ask for any of this. She didn’t seek to become America’s Great White Hope any more than Black America wanted to bear the burden of white supremacy. But Clark’s status as the “tender star player” is part of the privilege that she enjoys. Meanwhile, Angel Reese, the tournament’s reigning Most Outstanding Player, was reduced to “the one who taunts” in an epic battle of “good versus evil.” Among many Black fans, this is just another example of the latent bigotry Black women carry in silence.

In former NBA player and college basketball legend Rex Chapman’s memoir, “It’s Hard for Me to Live With Me,” the high-flying basketball wunderkind recounts the story about “the worst thing he has ever heard.” As a high school sophomore, Chapman realized why his all-white basketball team “never plays in a gym that isn’t completely full.” One night, a big, gruff-looking white man with a long “ZZ-Top-style beard,” embraced Chapman after a game in rural Kentucky as if the two were old friends. While the man wanted to express why he loved watching Chapman, the remark also illustrates America’s admiration for Caitlin Clark, the privilege that whiteness affords and the casual bigotry that Blackness inspires — even on the most level playing field of all.

“I love watching you play,” said the stranger.

“You play just like a nigger, but you get to be white.”

Michael Harriot is a writer, cultural critic and championship-level Spades player. His NY Times bestseller  Black AF History: The Unwhitewashed Story of America is available in bookstores everywhere.

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