In 1988, a theatrical television commercial showcased two black men in profile, inches apart, shirtless, each staring the other down. Mike Tyson and Michael Spinks were fighters in their prime, undefeated over their professional careers to that point, both with legitimate claims to the world heavyweight title. The purse would be the richest in the history of professional boxing. After several seconds of silence, Spinks — still looking directly into Tyson’s eyes — mutters, “Thank you, Mr. Trump.” Tyson adds, “Yeah, thank you, Mr. Trump.” Their performance, a duet, concludes with them alternating the lines “Now we’ll see who’s the champion . . . and who’s the chump!” The Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino logo then fills the screen, urging viewers to order “Tyson vs. Spinks: Once and for All” on their pay per view system.
Both Tyson and Spinks stood to profit handsomely from the fight, their gratitude to Trump obviously scripted but probably not entirely unfounded given Trump’s role in setting up the fight and hawking the live and televised rights to watch it. Trump had paid $11 million to stage the fight next door to his Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, whose profits on fight night promised to be several times the norm. A relative newcomer to boxing promotion, Trump was learning to work with flamboyant industry personalities Butch Lewis, Spinks’s manager, and Don King, powerful black men whom he called “good businessmen” and “very honorable.” In hindsight, Tyson-Spinks may stand as the high-water mark for the respectability of the Trump brand among black people in the sports world.
It’s safe to say that we’ve arrived at the low point. In September, Trump told an audience in Alabama that NFL owners should fire any “son of a bitch” who didn’t stand for the national anthem. Since then, he has publicly sparred with multiple black sports personalities. They include NBA champ Steph Curry, whom Trump uninvited to the White House, SportsCenter host Jemele Hill, whom Trump blamed for ESPN’s ratings, and Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch, who did eventually stand for a national anthem — Mexico’s. Trump’s most recent target is entrepreneur LaVar Ball. Ball’s offense? A lack of gratitude for Trump’s involvement in securing the release of Ball’s son from a Chinese jail. Trump took his scorn to a new level by calling Ball an “ungrateful fool” and “a poor man’s Don King” on Twitter.
Months before, The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb called attention to the intersectional nature of Trump’s disdain for his targets; they are not just black entertainers but rich black entertainers who have transgressed. The cardinal sin in this worldview is ungratefulness: “the belief endures . . . that visible, affluent African-American entertainers are obliged to adopt a pose of ceaseless gratitude — appreciation for the waiver that spared them the low status of many others of their kind.” The collective “ingratitude” of rich black entertainers signals to Trump and his supporters that something is wrong with the system. A society that produces black wealth without producing black gratitude must be rigged.
While the predominant framing of ungrateful black athlete has been that of the unpatriotic American, examining the conflict within the context of black labor leads to fresh insights. The most important is that the stereotype of the ungrateful black athlete is the stereotype of the bad black worker.
The ungrateful black athlete stereotype complements the unqualified black hire stereotype, ascendant since the advent of federal affirmative action policies in the 1960s. “Ungrateful” and “unqualified” are two sides of the same coin. Together, they constitute a racist double bind that impugns black workers as a drag on national economic health and development. To conservatives offended by the NFL anthem protests, “ungrateful” is a potent dog whistle that reconciles seemingly contradictory archetypes of black labor — the talented black athlete and the black affirmative action hire.
The ungrateful stereotype is needed to cast black athletes as bad workers because it is impossible to do so using performance metrics. Based on his 2016 statistics, Colin Kaepernick is more qualified than almost all of the struggling journeymen quarterbacks starting this season. Yet the stereotype has successfully kept him out of the league, prompting him to sue the NFL for collusion. Team owners can refuse to sign a player if they believe his activities will be a distraction, provided there is no evidence of collusion among them or with the league office. Even if Kaepernick wins his lawsuit, his decision to sue his place of work will no doubt further entrench his reputation as a “disgruntled employee.”
The framing of kneeling black athletes as employees foremost — rather than as American citizens, say — associates them with black workers in general, stoking resentment among white Americans opposed to affirmative action. In Dog Whistle Politics, Ian Haney López describes the dog whistles that call to mind “imagined losses” for white Americans. While white Americans have taken tangible social losses after the end of de jure white supremacy in the US, Haney López argues, “these interests are dwarfed by a racial imagination that often heaps blame on nonwhites for almost every reversal in the fortunes of the white middle class over the last 50 years.” Tweets or memes critical of kneeling black athletes trigger these feelings of imagined losses.
When Sports Illustrated readers sounded off on the NFL protests, many pointed to their imagined losses as workers to justify their position. “Really, who is allowed to protest at work?” wrote Cindy Robertson. “The NFL players are at work. I really don't care what they think, just play ball.” A few readers were even convinced that players were taking something valuable away from them personally. “Make yourselves feel good about rich athletes protesting inequality all you want,” wrote Keith from San Diego, “but real people in America are working hard to live decent, productive lives, and we don't need politics infused in what was once an escape.” Michael Peters agreed. “Sunday is my escape. Sports are entertainment. I need a break from all that anger and yelling and name-calling. Now it permeates my escape.” Personal discomfort during leisure time was felt as a loss by these erstwhile fans, perhaps even a theft.
Because 70% of NFL players are black, any message portraying the NFL as a business beset by labor problems strengthens the ungrateful black athlete stereotype. Trump has fed this narrative by pairing digs at “unpatriotic” players with others mocking the NFL’s unpopularity and Commissioner Roger Goodell’s incompetence. Angry fans have led boycotts of the NFL as if the games themselves were shoddy consumer goods not built the way they used to be. Goodell’s lack of leadership was blamed even for declining pizza sales. “The Commissioner has lost control of the hemorrhaging league,” Trump tweeted on Black Friday. “Players are the boss!” In this upside-down world, somebody needs to be fired.
Enter LaVar Ball. Following the release of three UCLA basketball players from custody in China, including Ball’s son, Trump balked that “LaVar Ball, the father of LiAngelo, is unaccepting of what I did for his son and that shoplifting is no big deal. I should have left them in jail!” Ball, it appears, was “Very ungrateful!” Three days later, Trump was at it again. “LaVar,” he began, “you could have spent the next 5 to 10 years during Thanksgiving with your son in China, but no NBA contract to support you.” Trump’s fantasy of a black father and son sharing a jail cell locates the ungrateful black athlete at a single remove from the black criminal. To Trump, Ball is just another grifter exploiting a vulnerable system — and the labor of his sons — for his own personal gain, a far cry from Keith from San Diego’s “real” hard-working Americans. Trump’s first inclination has never been to question the patriotism of his enemies but to question how they do their jobs because of who they are.
In a recent Politico story by Michael Kruse, residents of an economically-distressed Pennsylvania town revealed that the national issue that upset them the most was the NFL anthem protests. Asked if he didn’t support equality, one man shot back, “For people who deserve it and earn it. . . . All my ancestors, Italian, 100 percent Italian, the Irish, Germans, Polish, whatever . . . they worked hard and . . . earned the success that they got. Some people don’t want to do that. They just want it handed to them.” He fell short of saying how NFL players were different. Kruse closes with a scene of a couple sharing their inside joke of what the letters “N.F.L.” stand for. The last two words are “for life,” and the n-word is just that.
In light of Kruse’s insightful reporting, it’s important to return to Jelani Cobb’s point that “ungrateful” is the new “uppity.” This is because, at least for now, “uppity,” like racist acronyms, is language still largely reserved for private spaces. At least for now, it’s still a bad career move for a public servant to keep a “list of no good n*****s,” especially if it includes the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. At least for now, comparing kneeling black athletes to “inmates running the prison” earns rebukes from peers and forces multiple apologies. And so “ungrateful” emerges to convey the same contempt for black people connoted by another word, one that most white Americans, only a couple of years ago it seems, would never let a journalist attribute to them.
Donald Trump did not invent the ungrateful black athlete stereotype, but he made it familiar, yoking it to bygone boogeymen of welfare queens and unqualified firefighters. The stereotype brands world-class athletes as undeserving of their station and recasts professionals at the top of their game as that black person who doesn’t know how to do their job. Maxine Waters. Frederica Wilson. La David Johnson. Barack Obama. For most public figures, the boundary of anti-black speech today is the dog whistle. “Ungrateful” is only the latest way to say that a black worker is unworthy because they are black.
Better than anyone, Trump knows that just enough people will always believe that a more deserving contender waits in the wings.