Ballers, Political Shot Callers and the ‘Show Your Papers’ Movement
An outbreak of racist taunts continues to be a problem at NCAA basketball games.
by C. Richard King and David J. Leonard
The past month has witnessed a series of racist cheers at sporting events. Fans at a University of Minnesota at Duluth mocked the visiting University of North Dakota hockey team, jeering “Small Pox Blankets”—a chant that belittles the school and Native Americans through a reference to its mascot, which converts the reality of genocide into a sporting smack down. In Pittsburgh, during a recent basketball game, fans (as well as players) from Brentwood High hurled racial epithets at Monessen High players. Three fans dressed banana costumes surrounding the primarily black Monessen team, as the left for the locker at halftime, yelling epithets while making monkey noises. Some parents reported that members of the Brentwood squad joined in, calling its opponent, “monkeys and cotton pickers.”
More recently, students at the predominantly white Alamo Heights High School celebrated the defeat of the largely Latino Edison High School with a chant of “USA, USA!” So, it was little surprise in the round of 64, members of the pep band from the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) yelled, “Where’s your green card?” at Kansas State University freshman Angel Rodriguez (who was born in Puerto Rico) as he took foul shoots.
Administrators were quick to apologize following each transgression, offering some variant on the standard refrain: we regret any offense…this is not us…we are not racist…we will take appropriate action. And to be fair, these chants are brief, spontaneous, and passing utterances. They lack sanction and surely do not represent the image that these schools hope to project. Their apologies to the contrary, in an historic moment marked by the rhetoric of color blindness, but not the alleviation of structural racism, the eruption of overt bias, particularly in the guise of clichéd hate speech and “jokes,” far from being abnormal actually reveals the norm, offering keen insights into historically white institutions and the persistence of white supremacy.
While taunting a fellow American citizen by inquiring about his green card exposes great ignorance (Puerto Ricans are US citizens and have been since 1917) and reflects deep antipathy toward Latinos, it is actually in keeping with the history of the University of Southern Mississippi (and countless other colleges and other universities). In fact, USM epitomizes the arc of white supremacy in college sport. Founded in 1910 as an institution devoted to training teachers, USM was like most peers in the South segregated. And like many other public spaces in the USA, students at USM were enamored with Indianness, despite (or perhaps because of) the historic removal of embodied Indians to make way for settler society in southern Mississippi. They choose Neka Camon, “a Native American term meaning ‘The New Spirit’,” as the title for the school’s yearbook. Later, the student body opted to formalize the moniker of the sport teams, selecting the Confederates in 1940. A year later, a slight modification, the Southerners, was substituted. Although in light of the better known history of Ole Miss, this is not surprising, the mascot chosen for athletics a decade later is: USM did not name an anonymous rebel or plantation owner; no, it enshrined Natan Bedford Forest, the infamous leader of the Ku Klux Klan, as its mascot. Desegregated in 1965, USM changed its moniker and mascot to the Golden Eagles in 1972. USM is a quintessential institution of higher learning: historically white, segregated, playing Indian, and celebrating the Confederacy in defiance of the civil rights movement.
The jeer from members of the pep squad (or band) also suggests that USM remains typical, and, despite protestations from administrators, that what is chanted at a basketball game says much about the social landscape of Mississippi today and much about all of us today.
The students chanting, “where’s your green card” were not alone this day, with the state’s politicians legislatively demanding the same of Latinos throughout the state of Mississippi. The state’s House of Representatives passed the “Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhood Act,” a copycat bill to Arizona’s anti-immigrant legislation. Among other things, the bill mandates the police verify immigration status for any person arrested
Mississippi’s Latino population has grown in recent years as the state and its businesses have sought (exploited) Latino labor to rebuild in wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. With a downturn in the economy and the rebuilding process done, scapegoating and demonization has become the new song of the south. Governor Phil Bryant, who has endorsed the bill and will sign into law once the state senate passes the legislation, has said that the bill addresses the state’s “massive, uncontrolled” problem. Similarly, Rodney Hunt, chairman of Mississippi Federation for Immigration Reform and Enforcement, voiced support for the law because, “Illegal immigration eliminates a lot of jobs for people who want to provide for their families. Passing this bill will open up more jobs and lower unemployment for the state.”
The proposed law, which uses the term “alien” over and over again, would require police to check the immigration status of people who are arrested. It would also require proof of legal citizenship (or entry) for any business transaction, including securing a driver’s license and a business license. Any violation of “business transaction” portion of the statue constitutes a felony punishable by up to five years in prison or up to a $5,000 fine. The legislation also seeks to regulate education, requiring:
Every public elementary and secondary school in this state, at the time of enrollment in kindergarten or any grade in such school, shall determine whether the student enrolling in public school was born outside the jurisdiction of the United States or is the child of an alien not lawfully present in the United States and qualifies for assignment to an English as Second Language class or other remedial program.
Evident here, and with other parts of the legislation, is how this might as well be renamed the “Show Your Papers” Act.
Although 85 percent of Mississippi’s immigrant families are U.S. citizens, with estimates of paltry number of undocumented workers (25,000), the criminalization of Latinos has become commonplace in Mississippi and throughout country. Although undocumented workers are essential to the economy, particularly in the construction, services, and poultry processing industries, the legislation, chant, and overall climate illustrates an antipathy and level violence that erases the financial, cultural, and social contributions of entire communities. It thus no surprise that we see a chant such as this because it reflects a growing sentiment that Latinos are not valuable members of society; even those citizens, whether it be a Puerto Rican basketball or Mexican-American poultry worker, are seen as outside the grips of U.S. citizenry.
While comforting to dismiss the chant as the South being the South, this framing does not account for what has happened during other sports events and the overall resurgence of public displays of racial bigotry. The commonplace refrain of “What would you expect from South,” and or “that’s typical of the South” does little to advance a conversation about the impact of the heightened level of anti-Latino bigotry throughout the United States and its impact in every aspect of society. The efforts to isolate or explain the issue in relationship to the South elides the larger question as to why we are seeing an increasing willingness of people to vocalize racist sentiments in front of the whole world. As Carmen Lugo-Lugo, associate professor of Critical Culture, Race, and Gender Studies at Washington State University, noted, “Asking for a green card to a Puerto Rican, is like asking a Hawaiian for a birth certificate.” As we have seen in all too many locations, from Honolulu to Jackson, the “show your papers” tide is sweeping the nation and clearly waves are targeting people of color. While it might only be a game, how it is played and how fans cheer and jeer continue to tell us much about the persistence of white supremacy and the ease with which many deny it.
C. Richard King is the Chair of Comparative Ethnic Studies at Washington State University at Pullman and the author/editor of several books, including “Team Spirits: The Native American Mascot Controversy” and “Postcolonial America.”
David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He is the author of “Screens Fade to Black: Contemporary African American Cinema” and the forthcoming “After Artest: Race and the War on Hoop” (SUNY Press). Leonard is a regular contributor to NewBlackMan and blogger at No Tsuris.