Remember the Alamo (Heights)
How an inflammatory chant at a high school game is deeper than basketball.
by David J. Leonard and C. Richard King
The Texas Region IV-4A high school boys basketball championships that pitted San Antonio Edison High School against Alamo Heights High School ended with a handshake and a celebration. It also ended with a racial and nationalist taunt from several fans from Alamo Heights, who chanted “USA, USA, USA” to celebrate its primarily white team and the school’s victory over the mostly Latino squad. While the Alamo coaches tried to quiet the crowd, the damage was done.
“Our kids try real hard and work extra hard to get to the regional tournament, and then we have to worry about them being subjected to this kind of insensitivity,” noted Edison coach Gil Garza. “To be attacked about your ethnicity and being made to feel that you don’t belong in this country is terrible. Why can’t people just applaud our kids? It just gets old and I’m sick of it. Once again, we’re on pins and needles wondering what’s going to happen.”
This incident was not the first anti-immigrant outburst on the floor in San Antonio. In 2011, Cedar Park High School, a predominantly white school with an equally white basketball squad, battled Lanier, a high school with an all-Latino squad. During the course of the game, Cedar Park fans chanted a myriad of anti-Latino chants, including “USA, USA.” They also cheered “Arizona, Arizona,” a clear reference to SB 1070, legislation that institutionalized anti-Latino racism. And, fans yelled “this is not soccer, this is not soccer” clearly linking their teams success (and ultimate victory) to their whiteness over and against a group of foreigners, marked as such because of their project affinity for and ability at an un-American game. Stereotypes about Latino and soccer reduced the basketball court to nothing more than a competition for racial superiority, another opportunity to police the border through the assertion of white nationalism.
The chant represents a brief, local reiteration of the long-standing equation where USA equals White within the national imagination. It reflects and is a consequence of the vitriol and the anti-immigrant sentiment that dominated the national landscape in recent years. The chant should not be surprise in a moment when presidential candidates “joke” about immigrant deaths or wish they would just deport themselves, when state legislatures make culture and skin color probable cause, and when public officials declare ethnic studies illegal. The chant reflects the same sentiments as those articulated by Rush Limbaugh, who has described America’s immigration in the following way: “[S]ome people would say we’re already under attack by aliens—not space aliens, but illegal aliens.” It is an outgrowth of a historic sentiment that imagines Latinos irrespective of citizenship as foreigners and undesirable. It reflects an increasingly ferocious anti-Latino sentiment that both represents and treat Latinos as “illegal aliens” neither welcome nor deserving of the legal protections of the United States. It should come us no surprise given this larger history and the ramped up anti-immigrant sentiment in recent years. It embodies as Tanya Golash Boza, assistant professor of sociology at University of Kansas, told one of us: “In the white American mindset, the only group that gets an unhyphenated American identity is white.” It should come us no surprise given this larger history and the ramped up anti-immigrant sentiment in recent years.
According to Alexandro José Gradilla, an Associate Professor in the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies at Cal State Fullerton, the chant embodies “a new political climate of ‘papers please’” where all Latinos are presumed to be outsiders, threats to the national success of the United States. The racial hostility and the nationalist celebration at these high school basketball games, notes Gradilla, “signal a new racializing paradigm of conflating Mexican Americans with Mexican Immigrants—hence the chants of USA USA were appropriate to use against these possibly ‘illegal’ and ‘alien’ people.” Given the history of sports, so often a place to authenticate national superiority, play out racial tensions, and exhibit masculine prowess, the efforts to nationalize the basketball, to use the victory as evidence of national/racial superiority, is reflective of the political orientation of sports.
The staging of anti-immigrant sentiments at a basketball game and the ease with which chanting for a predominantly White team slides into rooting for America is not surprising. The outrage and the ultimate apology from the school district (“Unfortunately, after the game, we had a handful of students who made a bad decision and we’re very sorry it happened. They made a mistake and we’re going to use this as a learning experience…”) has prompted conservative commentators to argue political correctness run amuck and to otherwise deny any racial animus. According to The Blaze: “Joe ‘Pags’ Pagliarulo—a nationally syndicated radio host based in San Antonio and frequent fill-in for Glenn Beck—on Wednesday blasted the local media coverage of the controversy, saying reporters demonized the ‘U-S-A!’ chant, rather than presenting the story as students misusing it as a taunt.” Similarly, Fox’s Eric Bolling defended the players and questioned any need to apologize: “The political correctness of what they are doing… They are apologizing for chanting USA, within the USA, playing another team from the USA, who likely has legal American citizens on their basketball team!”
Equally predictable has been the apology that essentially said this is not who we are: we are not racist. Others have gone as far as to accuse students Edison of chanting “Alamo-all white,” almost force the students from Alamo to respond unkindly. Absent from the initial reports and without video corroboration, this suggestion reads as a post facto allegation meant to get the Alamo Heights people off the hook—“they are racist too and perhaps were racist before we were racist.”
At the same time, others have identified this situation as a teachable moment. The efforts to deny any malice, to label as a joke, to deflect, deny and minimize represents a dual move. At one level, the deployment of the race denial card and the focus on jokes endeavor to exculpate individual students as well as the school. At the same time, depicting the chant as an aberration (“kids made a bad decision”), as out-of-character for the students, school, and country, the chant becomes an instance where education and discipline has the potential to right any wrongs. It can be corrected, thereby erasing the structural inequalities evident in anti-immigrant legislation and the larger history that both scapegoats Latinos and imagines people of color as never true citizens.
Words matter. The chant uttered at this high school game isn’t just a phrase but one saturated with meaning, history, and violence. In his brilliant piece on language, H. Sammy Alim reminds readers about the consequences of words and language. Writing about efforts to rid public discourse of the term “illegal,” Alim, a professor at Stanford University, argues:
Pejorative, discriminatory language can have real life consequences. In this case, activists worry about the coincidence of the rise in the use of the term “illegals” and the spike in hate crimes against all Latinos. As difficult as it might be to prove causation here, the National Institute for Latino Policy reports that the F.B.I.’s annual Hate Crime Statistics show that Latinos comprised two thirds of the victims of ethnically motivated hate crimes in 2010. When someone is repeatedly described as something, language has quietly paved the way for violent action.
When Latinos are continually labeled as foreigners, as “aliens,” as un-American and as otherwise not part of the national fabric, it is no wonder that Latinos are subjected to both racist taunts on the basketball court and “papers please” profiling throughout the country.
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.
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.”