By now, most of us have seen the video of former NFL running back Ray Rice knocking out his then-fiance/now-wife Janay Palmer Rice and dragging her out of the elevator by her legs. The horror of the video is apparent. What struck me was the clear lack of remorse or regard for her condition as Rice literally drags her lifeless body out of the elevator. His lack of remorse remains as he is now attempting to appeal his indefinite suspension from the NFL.
The atrocious way this entire case has been handled by the NFL, the criminal justice system and the media is the clearest statement on how Black women are devalued in this society. For it goes without saying what would have happened to Rice and how this case would be handled if Janay was a white woman. What is equally egregious is the lack of outrage within the Black community, for we also know how loud the response would be if Ray was a white man. And it is there, in the heart of that contradiction that Black women live out their lives. It is there, in the heart of that contradiction that Black male domination has rooted itself within the Black community. A domination that is indefensible.
What is also true, yet not given adequate attention, is the fact that all of this is occurring within a power dynamic that is not controlled by Black people. In the system of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy as defined by bell hooks, Ray Rice, as an exploited wealthy Black male athlete, is the commodity to be protected. His value is based in the millions of dollars he makes for his owner. And it is that fact and power relationship that matters most to Roger Goodell, the NFL Commissioner, whose job is to increase the profits for the owners of the 32 national football teams across the United States. We should then not be surprised but nonetheless outraged by the NFL’s effort to wish this controversy away or their more recent claim of not having prior knowledge of this brutal incident even though they have had the video in their possession for quite some time now.
The NFL presents itself as a benevolent patriarchal institution. Every October they parade their athletes in pink and deck out their stadiums in ribbons to show their support for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. But even that is just a ruse. Of all the crimes committed by NFL athletes, domestic violence leads by a wide margin. Yet the NFL has no campaign addressing that. This contradiction exposes the NFL’s breast cancer awareness efforts as a corporate-driven campaign to woo women into their stadiums and to solicit their support every Sunday as their husbands and boyfriends lounge in front of the television to watch their games. In a sport that openly objectifies the bodies of women, their concern for women seems to be just a concern for the parts of women’s bodies that titillate the sexual fantasies of their main consumer – heterosexual men, as it is clearly not a concern for the health and well-being of women overall. Wearing pink laces on the field in the name of supporting women’s health as you knock women unconscious off the field is a contradiction that should not be condoned or tolerated. Where are the mandatory domestic abuse trainings for NFL athletes? The PA’s against domestic violence and for counseling? If the NFL was sincere about its concern for women, these suggested efforts and much more would be in place by now.
But what is most appalling are the various efforts being made by Black benevolent (and not so benevolent) patriarchs to defend Ray Rice and/or justify or explain what we all saw in that video.
Last week on ESPN’s First Take, Steven A. Smith went on a rampage against NOW’s call for Roger Goodell’s dismissal. The National Organization Women’s statement that was released the day before stated, “The NFL has lost its way. It doesn’t have a Ray Rice problem; it has a violence against women problem. The only workable solution is for Roger Goodell to resign and for his successor to appoint an independent investigator with full authority to gather factual data about domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking within the NFL community and to recommend real and lasting reforms.”
This is in part how Steven A. Smith responded: “I’m sorry, I think this woman is off her rocker. I think she’s lost her mind. That’s right, I said it. … This is the most ridiculous nonsense I’ve ever heard in my life. Roger Goodell deserves to lose his job? Why are you acting like he’s Ray Rice? Roger Goodell didn’t hit Janay Palmer Rice. He hasn’t hit any women. And by the way, the last time I checked, Skip, why are we talking about the NFL as if it’s some cesspool for domestic violence? There’s a few cases. It’s being dealt with.”
Not only was Smith’s response full of outright lies (the NFL has done nothing substantial to adequately address violence against women among its players, coaches and owners), his behavior on the air is the perfect example of the kind of hot-headed rage-induced reaction that leads to the very kind of violence women experience at the hands of men. Even Cari Champion the Black female host of First Take is seen wincing and looking away in apparent disgust and disbelief as Smith ignored her request to conclude. It was Steven A. Smith who “lost their mind” that day.
A more “benevolent” approach was taken by hip hop legend Chuck D when he stated the following on Twitter: “Would RayRice type of things happen to daughters who’ve been raised ( really raised) by fathers in their lives? That fear is greater than…” Here Chuck is suggesting that this incident and incidents like it would not happen if women were raised in homes with their fathers. The statement is insulting and makes grand assumptions about Janay Palmer Rice’s relationship with her father. It presents an argument that is problematic on many levels that go far beyond Janay’s parental past. The idea that “if more men were in the home, these incidents would not occur” is to say that men in the home are never abusive, when we all know that many women have left men for being abusive in the home. His failure to consider that fact in his effort to put forth his own agenda puts on full display the backward thinking of such rhetoric.
Perhaps he is suggesting that had she been “really raised” by her father, she would have known better than to raise her voice or hand to a man. Such implying is just cover for what is not stated: calling for women to know their place and, thus, to accept whatever behavior or abuse comes their way. Rather than seeing men as the problem – whether in the home or not – he is using this incident to call on men to reclaim their “rightful place” in the home. Such a Black nationalist project (as nice as some might consider it to be) has no promise of reducing domestic violence. Daughters raised by their fathers is no protection against abuse. In far too many cases, it has been the cause.
Film and TV actor and former NFL player Terry Crews presents one of the best responses I have come across by a Black male celebrity yet. In a passionate and poignant conversation with another Black man, ET host Kevin Frazier, (that I encourage everyone to view in full) Crews lays it out with an honesty that is insightful:
“When I saw the video I was immediately taken back to my childhood. This is the way I grew up. I used to watch this happen over and over again. It was a post-traumatic stress experience for me. I used to watch my father hit my mother in the face and watch her go down … The NFL culture, the sports culture, has decided that they are more valuable than women … I’ve heard people laugh about keeping their pimp hand strong and keeping her in control so that she knows her place. But think about how evil that is for one man to think that he’s actually more valuable than a woman, because as a human being you’re worth is immeasurable.”
As Terry Crews exemplifies, it is only when we allow ourselves as men to bear witness to the violence we inflict on the bodies, minds and souls of women through the unchallenged lens of their experiences can we change and the healing of our communities begin.
Benevolent patriarchy has no solution for the violence women experience at the hands of men. Its positions are riddled with contradictions. Benevolent patriarchy’s central mission is to justify male control over the lives of women. In this way it is not an alternative to male domination, but a justification for its barbarity. As long as the Black community silently embraces rhetoric that places a premium on the bodies of Black men at the brutal expense of Black women, we will continue to be caught in this position of indefensible contradiction. Our double standard as a community stares back at us through the battered eyes of Black women who live under a doubly oppressive system of racism and sexism that will tolerate a white California highway cop beating a Black women in broad daylight and a Black professional athlete knocking his Black fiance unconscious in a public elevator.
In 1999 I had the opportunity to participate in a Black Male/Female Relationships conference in Atlanta. After two days of meetings and workshops, I found myself featured on the final panel with self-help author Iyanla Vanzant. In her final remarks Iyanla encouraged the women in the audience to go 48 hours without saying a negative word about Black men. When the mic was passed to me, I said to the men, “And brothers, let us spend the next 48 hours without giving Black women a reason to say something negative.”
15 years later, that statement remains my best advice.
Ewuare X. Osayande is the author of Misogyny and the Emcee: Sex, Race and Hip Hop and editor of Stand Our Ground: Poems for Trayvon Martin and Marissa Alexander.