Up Next

Commentary

Sterling Brown video proves fame and fortune won’t protect athletes from police abuse

Indeed, there’s a long history of success increasing the chances of being targeted

Those rich, spoiled, pampered athletes haven’t any need to complain about America’s supposedly poor treatment of people of color. NFL players who protest racial injustice by not standing for the national anthem often hear this criticism hurled at them.

The police brutality experienced by Sterling Brown, rookie guard for the Milwaukee Bucks, exposes this lie and provides a window into how money and fame don’t inoculate black folk from racism.

For one, this misguided criticism presupposes that the stature of famous black folk will be known by those who may seek to harass and malign them. The Brown incident exemplifies this issue, as the police seemingly did not know who he was. Near the end of the video footage released by the Milwaukee Police Department, an officer said, “Sorry, I don’t follow the Bucks. I didn’t recognize you. I didn’t recognize your famous name.”

Something similar happened to Utah Jazz forward Thabo Sefolosha. In April 2015, outside of Manhattan’s 1 Oak nightclub, Sefolosha called an officer a midget. Then, later, as he was giving a panhandler a $20 bill, he was taken to the ground by police officers. In the encounter, Sefolosha suffered a broken leg. New York City settled his lawsuit against the metropolis for $4 million.

Professional athletes, used to people treating them deferentially, are far more unwilling to shower police officers with the reverence they often demand from black men during street encounters. In these circumstances, then, when athletes are not recognized, they are in fact in greater danger because they tend to be much bigger than the average person, leading officers to believe they have a license to apply extra force to subdue a nonexistent threat.


Even when black folk’s success is known by their antagonists, that doesn’t prevent them from becoming victims of racism. In many instances, success exacerbates it.

Janet Sharp Hermann, in her book The Pursuit of a Dream, recounts frightening tales of misery suffered by well-off black folk in Mississippi in the early 1900s. Hermann writes of a black man who operated a printing shop and published a newspaper. He lived in a nice home and counted a piano and horse and buggy among his possessions. A white mob chased his family out of town and made him sell his home. A black grocer, likewise, deserted his business because whites threatened to kill him. A black man who owned a carriage was forced to sell it and walk instead; white folk refused to allow him to enjoy such a nice possession.

I report these accounts to demonstrate that successful black people have long faced racism, sometimes more so than the black poor, because their success elicits the fury of white Americans who base at least part of their self-identity on the notion of their supposed racial superiority. High-status black folk set fire to the false portrait of white supremacy, an image many cherish as their most valuable asset.

Well-to-do black folk serve a unique purpose today — their achievements are used to bolster the myth that America has fixed its race problem. Whenever they opt against being complicit in this ruse by opposing bigotry, they invite animus, something we must consider to be racism. Indeed, if a professional athlete who protests racial injustice can no longer find employment because white fans abhor him for it, we must deem that an instance of racism.


Michael Dawson, a University of Chicago political scientist, sought to understand why upper-class black people voted for the same politicians that middle-class or poor black people did. Why don’t they vote for whoever, for instance, will cut their taxes the most?

In his book Behind the Mule: Race and Class in African-American Politics, he provided the answer — black people believe their individual futures are inextricably linked with the future of the race. Dawson called this “linked fate.” As Theodore R. Johnson wrote in The Atlantic, “black voters prioritize the well-being of the group over their individual interests, and consider what’s best for the group as a whole because history has shown them that ‘we are in this thing together.’ ” Black people, simply put, remain convinced that what’s good for black folk is good for them individually and what’s bad for black folk is bad for them individually.

Denying that rich and famous black folk feel the burn of racism ignores how they view the world: through the eyes of the race. Yes, a well-to-do black man is unlikely to endure a cop’s bullets surging through his back as he flees police brutality, but those bullets tear through his spirit just like they tear through the spirit of a black person who just might endure them tomorrow.

Living in a land where people who look like you suffer because they look like you never ceases to be tough.

We should not expect the Sterling Brown incident to disabuse critics of the NFL protest to cease employing the obviously false charge that professional athletes are not harmed by racism. We should, though, use it to further understand that no matter how high black folk climb, racism can find us.

Brando Simeo Starkey is an associate editor at The Undefeated and the author of In Defense of Uncle Tom: Why Blacks Must Police Racial Loyalty. He crawled through a river of books and came out brilliant on the other side.