TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 27: Simone Biles talks with Jordan Chiles of Team United States during the Women's Team Final on day four of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Gymnastics Centre on July 27, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 27: Simone Biles talks with Jordan Chiles of Team United States during the Women's Team Final on day four of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Gymnastics Centre on July 27, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

African Athletes, U.S. Patriotism & White Supremacy

During the 2020 Olympic games (which due to the pandemic, are being carried out in the summer of 2021) gymnast Simone Biles suddenly withdrew from competition for the U.S. team. Biles, who has been so dominant in her performance over the last several years that she has earned the title GOAT, has been so outstanding that many judges have admitted being confused about how to properly evaluate other gymnasts in comparison to her incredible capabilities. 

Biles, apparently feeling pressure to justify her decision to withdraw, took the painful step of revealing publicly that she has struggled with depression and needed time away from the sport to manage her mental health. She expressed that the depression results in large part from the abuse she experienced for an extended time from her coach. Neither her dominant performance in gymnastics nor her admission about the reasons for her withdrawal have muted the incredible level of criticism that is being waged against her by a large swath of people who are calling her a coward and accusing her of abandoning her teammates at the Olympics. This harsh criticism hasn’t just originated from random people. It has been echoed by national media personalities, politicians, etc. These people are exhibiting zero empathy for her suffering whatsoever.

We have seen this same scenario many times as it relates to how African athletes are evaluated. Professional athletes like Barry Bonds and Kevin Durant are often criticized for their demeanor during press conferences and interactions with the public. They are often called “ungrateful” and “spoiled” because of their unwillingness to be everything the general public wants them to be at any given moment. Meanwhile, fellow professional athletes like Larry Bird and Aaron Rodgers, both European (white) will never win any magnanimous personality awards. Neither has a shining reputation for being patient and engaging with the public, yet neither has been subjected to the venom that comes for Bonds, Durant and other African athletes on a daily basis.

Another instance revolves around San Francisco Giants Baseball Pitcher Jay Jackson. An African relief pitcher, Jackson had performed well for the Giants this season, up to last week of July when he had three consecutive rough outings. Jackson was batted around by the opposition in three games and for that he received such a barrage of racist hate mail that the Giants baseball organization felt the need to respond to repudiate the racism directed at Jackson.

What ties all of these incidents together is the underlining white supremacy that operates on a systemic level within every crevice of every function within this society. The foundation of rightwing pundit Laura Ingraham’s admonition to LeBron James last year to “shut up and dribble” is the belief on behalf of millions of people in this country that every breath we take as African people is somehow a privilege that we have not earned, but has been provided to us by the glorious United States of America— the citadel of freedom and democracy. This belief is firmly rooted in the myth of white supremacy that advances the notion that African/Indigenous, and other colonized people have never contributed anything to the “development” of this country. Instead, this myth argues that we have been the benefactors of the hard-work, values, and ordained blessings of white Jesus on this great European nation. And, as a result of this lucky position we find ourselves in, we should consider ourselves fortunate to have the opportunity to earn money playing a sport for the entertainment of large, mostly European crowds and owners. We should be honored that Europeans, the only true “Americans”, even permit us to represent their great country because certainly, we have done absolutely nothing to earn such an honor.

This white supremacist thinking explains where the venomous response to Silver medal winning Shot-putter Ravin Saunders medal stand protest (against injustice against colonized and oppressed people) comes from. It also explains why fans at professional basketball games feel perfectly justified cursing at players, throwing popcorn and spitting on them (Atlanta’s Trae Young and Washington’s Russell Westbrook). It also explains why tennis player Naomi Osaka was met with the same disdain for pulling out of the Wimbledon and Olympics tournaments for similar reasons as the ones Biles provided. This marginalization of African athletes, whether anyone admits it or not, is rooted in the white supremacist notion that we are nothing beyond the tools of European capitalism, to be used completely to their satisfaction. Beyond that, we have no agency they need to respect and the idea of viewing us as complete human beings is as absurd as suggesting during the enslavement of our ancestors that they were full human beings. 

I love sports and baseball is one of them. I’ve been a fan of my San Francisco Giants (my city of origin) since being a little boy. As I listened to the Giants game earlier this week when pitcher Jay Jackson was having a difficult time getting opposing batters out, I was keenly aware of the rancor being directed at him by the announcers, who are allegedly supposed to always be objective. They were talking about how “horrible” the pitches he was throwing were and how poorly his approach was to trying to get hitters out. I have played, watched, and listened to thousands of basketball, football, baseball, etc., games over the years. Anyone else who is familiar already knows that bad performance is a part of sports, but all one has to do is compare the sentiment expressed around it when African athletes struggle compared to their European counterparts to see the glaring contradictions.

The underlying issue is that African people are not respected as human beings. Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, we are viewed as show animals. Pay attention to how African athletes, regardless of what country they “represent” are labeled and analyzed. Clearly, the values of chattel slavery are still very evident today. The dehumanization of African people is an essential part of maintaining the capitalist system. They have to separate us from our humanity because to see us as fully functioning human beings would bring into play the contradictions that exist within this society. Contradictions that, if fully exposed, shine bright lights on the international capitalist system that depends upon those contradictions to continue to exploit and profit from our human and material resources, particularly in Africa, but everywhere African people exist. 

The positive thing is these examples illustrate clearly how the manifestations of capitalism work. Nothing falls outside of the realm of white supremacy. Not a single thing. From a single gymnast in the Olympics to the performance of a sanitation worker to Hollywood actors, white supremacy permeates every crevice of this society. And the only thing that will change this reality is when the African masses demand and achieve the respect we rightfully deserve. The only thing that will ever produce this result is the liberation and unification of Africa (under one continental socialist government) = Pan-Africanism

As we currently exist, even an African gymnast or shot-putter in the U.S. doesn’t fall outside of these parameters. A professional basketball player playing in the U.S. who was born and raised in Greece doesn’t fall outside of this. Nothing and no one does. And, for those who doubt Pan-Africanism is our solution to these problems, just stop and think for a moment why it is that you will never hear the same disrespect and dehumanization being leveled at athletes (or anyone) from any European country or even China (where they are engaged in a process of nation building that we need for Africa). This is irrefutably true, whether athletes from those countries have failings in their performances (which they do) or not. As long as African people in general, and Africa in particular, are disunified, even being a famous millionaire athlete is never going to be enough to protect anyone from the ravages of this backward system. And if Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka are subjected to this inhumane treatment, just imagine the experiences of the everyday masses of African people. What we are seeing with how our athletes are being treated is another very clear example that individualism, regardless of how much money it generates, is never going to be the solution for us to acquire the dignity that no amount of money on earth will ever be enough to purchase. As Kwame Nkrumah correctly articulated, our problem is political, not economic. Political in the sense that we need organization of our people. Even the silly Olympic games provide insight to how unity would show our power. Imagine a team representing a united Africa. Where Africans born in Brazil, Jamaica, the U.S., Britain, and every country of Africa are on the same united Africa team against the rest of the world. It would be a struggle for anyone else to win even a single bronze medal in anything except the few sports that African people don’t participate in like that silly horse jumping nonsense. And, that’s just the Olympics. The same dynamic would be in play for international politics and economics and every sphere of life that African people currently struggle to gain a seat at the table. It’s past time that we recognize this because even if we don’t, the people brutalizing us understand this clearly. This is the reason they come at us as hard as they do because they know that the moment we recognize that playing by their rules will never benefit us is the day they know their days are numbered.

More from this Writer

Ahjamu Umi is revolutionary organizer with the All African People's Revolutionary Party, adviser, and liberation literature author.