Black Olympic Gold Medalists
“Olympic Dreams in the midst of an American Nightmare. Or why Black lives should matter every day and not once every four years”
[dc]“D[/dc]on’t let anyone ever tell you that this country isn’t great, that somehow we need to make it great again. Because this right now is the greatest country on earth!” Said Michelle Obama in her powerful speech at the Democratic National Convention.
There is no doubt that having an African-American president waking up every morning in a house built by slaves shows how much the United States has changed. The Democratic Party convention celebrated diversity while repeating over and over again how great the United States is. Yet, for the vast majority of nonwhites, America neither looks nor ever was the greatest country on earth.
The openly racist turn the Republican Party has taken with Trump’s nomination, highlights a reaction to the enormous achievements minorities have accomplished. The slogan “Make American Great Again” makes a call to bring back the country to an era of legal discrimination and segregation, signaling a racist backlash against the advancements minorities have achieved through their struggle and hard work despite having all odds against them.
Before we continue to use these great athletes and their achievements as tokens of America’s diversity and possibilities, we will do good to remember that they are not the product of the American Dream, but rather the exception to the American Nightmare.
Adding to the celebrations initiated at the DNC, the Olympic Games came, and hundreds of African-American and Latino US athletes showed the world the power of diversity in America. The differential treatment received by Gabby Douglas, who was harshly and unfairly criticized, compared to the lenient way in which the Lochte affair was covered, shows that discrimination is still present. Yet, when most of US medals were won by nonwhite athletes, it seems we can go back to our colorblind dreams and keep believing in this land of opportunity. The American Dream is alive and well. As long as you work hard, and keep fighting, you can win your gold medal, become president or whatever you want.
However, before we continue to use these great athletes and their achievements as tokens of America’s diversity and possibilities, we will do good to remember that they are not the product of the American Dream, but rather the exception to the American Nightmare. And this makes their achievements even greater.
In a country that tells them that their lives don’t matter, these athletes broke almost impossible barriers. In order to understand the greatness of Simone Manuel’s gold medal, we need to remember not only that African-Americans were forbidden to use public swimming pools several decades ago, but that in 2015 Texas police officers violently attacked African-Americans having a swimming pool party.
Michelle Carter’s accomplishment of becoming the first American woman to win a gold medal in shot put, becomes even greater when we consider that African-American women are at risk of being stopped, threatened to be tased by a police officer, then arrested, and end committing suicide, as it happened to Sandra Bland.
For a country considered to be the “land of the free”, holding the world record in incarceration should be startling. The United States has approximately 2.2 million people in prison or jail, a 500% increase over the last four decades. The US also leads in rates of incarceration with a rate of almost 700 per 100,000 inhabitants, more than Rwanda, Russia or Brazil. According to data collected by The Sentencing Project, more than 60% of people in prison are nonwhites. One in every ten black men in their thirties is in prison or jail on any given day. While Black youth constitutes 16% of all children in the United States, they make up 28% of all juvenile arrests.
Even though there is no significant disparity in drug activity between whites and nonwhites, nonwhites are arrested and convicted in higher rates and receive longer sentences than whites. Danell Leyva or Nico Hernandez’s Olympic success is even more remarkable considering that Latino men are 2.3 times as likely as white men to be incarcerated. When the Guardian praises US Latino medal winners by stating that they “showcased the best of America,” we should remember that in November this country may choose a president who considers those coming from the South of the border as criminals and rapists. In 2015, according to the Immigration and Custom Enforcement agency, 96,045 non-criminal undocumented people were expelled from the US, the vast majority came from Latin America; a significant drop from the 200,000 expelled in 2012. During Obama’s tenure, more than two million people were deported.
If we observe the data on income inequality and poverty, we see higher poverty rates among African-Americans and Latinos. According to the Census Bureau, 26.2% of African-Americans and 23.6% of Latinos were below the Federal poverty line in 2014. The Brookings Institute reported that 51% of African-Americans born into the lowest fifth of the earning distribution remain there at the age of forty. Furthermore, intergenerational social downward mobility is more common among African-Americans than whites.
The hours of hard work, dedication and sacrifice elite athletes go through is remarkable by any standard. If we add the fact that many of them belong to communities which have lived under constant threat an oppression, their success has greater significance. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, in her book From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation contends that the argument that Black inequality is a product of Black culture and lack of working ethics has been reinforced by the visibility of the Black elite. In other words, the success of African-Americans has been used to condemn African-American communities for their fate, as if the socio-economic structure and white supremacy had no responsibility. Mainstream America praises African-American individuals so long as they contribute to the ethos of the American Dream, and allow them to fuel an ideology of colorblindness that purposefully ignores raise while keeping white supremacy intact.
Therefore, I apologize for not joining the celebrations that portray the Olympic achievements of nonwhite athletes as a symbol of the greatness of this country. I would rather celebrate the accomplishments of these athletes by acknowledging how, in spite of the socio-economic and racial structure that renders nonwhite bodies as disposable, these incredible group of people were able to overcome the odds and reach greatness. I will join the celebration when Black lives begin to matter every single day and not once every four years when they bring gold.