The Racism of Redemption: Of White Saviors and Black Activists.
(Originally posted on December 12, 2019)
Imagine for a moment a man who commits a crime. He is arrested, convicted, jailed, serves his time, and is released. He then begins touring the country talking about his crime and trying to convince others not to follow in his footsteps. Does he get an opportunity to redeem himself? Should he be able to move about the world and know success?
Now imagine that man is black.
This is the case of Michael Vick. Yes, Michael Vick tortured animals. Also, however, Michael Vick was arrested. Michael Vick was convicted. Michael Vick went to jail for his crimes. He spent twenty-three months of his life in jail. Then he got out, went back to work, and has toured the country talking about his mistakes, owning them, and trying to convince others not to follow in his footsteps.
Look, I am not a football fan, by any stretch. And the football community has a lot of work to do with respect to holding domestic abusers accountable, which is a major issue of mine. (Much improvement has been made and this shouldn’t go unsaid). But this outrage over Michael Vick’s nomination for the Pro Bowl 2020 smells an awful lot of racism. When a black man builds on his career after paying “his debt to society,” and subsequently uses his experience as a teaching tool for others (which he has no obligation to do) somehow we’re supposed to withhold forgiveness.
That, right there, is the racism of redemption. Only the few are entitled to it, and they happen to be Caucasian.
When people juxtapose the way the NFL treated Colin Kaepernick and the way the NFL is treating Michael Vick, the narrative just misses the point. The way the NFL treated both of them is reflective of our society’s values. Colin Kaepernick’s infraction was against “white society.” He rightfully called us out for allowing law enforcement to kill black boys and men with impunity. Note that what he was calling attention to was not the narrow issue of the killings taking place. It was the fact that after the killings take place, there is no punishment for the perpetrators. He was protesting the injustice of lack of justice. Michael Vick’s situation is entirely different, which underscores how disparate their treatment is. He engaged in poor conduct. He was punished for it. And he is making an example of himself. That fits the nations’ narrative to a “T.” Black man goes to jail and then the “good white folk” give him “another chance.” The NFL as an apparatus is white. They’re fine with being the “white saviors,” and society will give them a pass for it, but no way will they (and we) be called out for being the “bad guys.” This is pageantry and as long as people play roles US society has been comfortable with, the NFL will play along.
The problem with Colin Kaepernick is that he is genuinely a good guy, and a black man, calling out the white perpetrators. He is being “uppity” and needs no saving. That is unforgivable.
But there is another side to this story.
I was going to write “Michael Vick is entitled to forgiveness,” but just saying that is part of the problem. I have no basis or authority to make that statement. I am nobody to pass that kind of judgment. I am nobody’s “white savior.” Michael Vick has a job to do and, apparently, his employer believes he did that job well enough to deserve praise. Cool. He also committed crimes, for which he was punished, and for which he actively tries to make amends. Great. What I can say as a member of society (and a lawyer) is that the punishment should fit the crime. In this case, it appears that it did and Vick gets to move on with his life. That’s justice.
Those who are up in arms about Michael Vick’s new nomination are making the decision that he does not deserve to be redeemed. They are making the decision that a mistake, which he fully owns, should cost him his career. When has that rule applied to white men? This country loves comeback stories. We make movies about them. We love politicians for it. We give people chance after chance to redeem themselves. Sexual predators and cheaters and domestic abusers get untold chances to “get it right.” Why shouldn’t Michael Vick get that?
And in a strange twist, here is where Michael Vick’s and Colin Kaepernick’s stories dovetail again, in a surprising way. If you or someone you know is mad about Michael Vick being able to move on with his life, were you or that person also mad about police officers getting back on the job, getting commendations, and getting promoted after they killed unarmed black men? Because in the case of the black man, Vick, the judicial system took him and punished him—for hurting animals. But in the latter case, the judicial system patted representatives of the law on the back and did nothing to stop them—from hurting people. (As an aside, in the US the leading cause of death for young black men is death-by-police, 1/1000).
All we’ve ever asked for is justice, for all. And while redemption is part of justice, impunity is not. So what are you really mad about?