Bucking Stereotypes, Olympian Meets Controversy

Olympic speed skater Shani Davis made history and waves when he became the first African-American male to win a gold medal at the Winter Olympics. Commentator Melissa Harris-Lacewell says Davis drew criticism because he refused to play to racial stereotypes.

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GORDON: You're listening to NEWS AND NOTES from NPR News.

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I'm Ed Gordon, next time on NEWS AND NOTES; a new name has been added to the already crowded field in the New Orleans mayoral race. Louisiana's current Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu will join us to talk about rebuilding the city and his bid to become the next mayor. That's next time on NEWS AND NOTES from NPR News.

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GORDON: Last night saw the closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics. Shani Davis made history during the games by becoming the first African-American male to win a gold medal at the Winter Olympics, but Davis also met with controversy when he decided against skating at a team event to focus on his individual races. Some critics charged him with selfishness and lacking team spirit. Commentator Melissa Harris-Lacewell says the furor over Davis' decision goes beyond sports and has more to do with his bucking the racial expectations of black men.

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL reporting:

Olympic gold medal winner Shani Davis is not playing by the rules. I don't mean the Olympic rules of international competition, he has abided by those. He trained hard, practiced long, competed honestly. He should be a momentary national hero, but Davis's press is ambivalent rather than celebratory. The reason, the speed skater is not playing by the unspoken, but powerful racial rules that constrain black men in America.

Davis was labeled selfish for deciding not to compete in a team pursuit event that would have given a white teammate a chance to win five gold medals. Davis was labeled rude for his terse interview on NBC after his medal win in the 1000 meter race. He made a decision to put his personal goals for success above those of another athlete. He chose not to grin for the cameras and announce that he was heading to Disney World.

These hardly seem like headline provoking choices, but when these choices are made by a black man, the first black man of U.S. Winter Olympic glory, they provoke America's racial angst.

Black men in America face very strict constraints on their public behavior. Very powerful images of black men as aggressive, sexual predators emerge at the same time that black men first assume the role of citizens, following reconstruction. These myths were used to justify a system that terrorized African-American communities and limited black men's public expressions. Under lynch mob rule, black men could be murdered for the slightest infraction of the social code. They learned to play by the racial rules by appearing meek, deferential, and grateful in public.

Social scientific studies continue to show that rambunctious black boys are perceived as threats in our nation's classroom, while unruly white male behavior is excused. Unabated racial profiling in our nation's cities means that black men live under the constant threat of criminalization.

When Shani Davis failed to act sufficiently gleeful after his win, he was asked, are you angry? Our nation continues to read black male autonomy as frightening, angry, and aggressive.

So, what does all of this have to do with Shani Davis? It helps explain the angst about his actions. Other athletes regularly behave in similar ways. Bode Miller anyone? But the subtext here is racial. How dare you keep a white skater from reaching his goals, just so that you can pursue your own? How dare you not smile broadly for the cameras in order to reassure the nation that you are a safe black man?

Shani Davis is not a race hero. He doesn't belong, politically speaking, in the same league as conscientious athletic dissenters like Tommy Smith and John Carlos of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Shani Davis is just a world class athlete: fiercely competitive and not media friendly, and that's okay. Black men have the right to claim their victories and their humanity unconstrained by the nation's racial rules.

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GORDON: Melissa Harris-Lacewell is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago's Center for the Study of Race Politics and Culture.

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GORDON: This is NPR News.

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