During football season, I’m reminded of the changes in the game since my youth. Hits to the head, touching downfield and helmet-to-helmet contact no longer are allowed. New equipment, new stadiums and access to the game in an unparalleled variety of applications have changed things. Fantasy football has supplanted office pools and betting slips. The language of the game itself has changed.
In old-school football, there was a personal foul called “piling on.” That’s where a ball carrier was tackled, and defender after defender after defender jumped on the pile, netting a 15-yard penalty. Nowadays, the hits are so hard and sure that most folks go down decisively and the whistle blows right away. Improvements in defensive skills and the pace of the game have almost done away with “piling on” calls.
But, in some quarters, political piling on seems to be required of African Americans. Often, blacks are criticized, especially by conservatives, for supposedly not being critical of other blacks: for complaining about media images while allegedly not speaking out about the immaturity of sagging britches; for protesting police violence against blacks while allegedly remaining silent about the scourge of black-on-black crime; or for unabashedly and unequivocally supporting President Obama, even when he is allegedly pursuing the same flawed polices we decried under George W. Bush.
It would be a mistake to believe that any perceived silence connotes assent. We are just not into “piling on.” Black Americans have often criticized negative images pushed by recording artists, media millionaires and soulless conglomerates. But, we don’t raise our voices against our young people to complain about their pants or their hoodies or their music to the point where we are louder in our criticism of them than we are of criticism of those who have perpetuated negative portrayals of blacks in every corner of the globe.
We unequivocally rebuke thug life, while state legislatures refuse to fund urban schools, or healthcare, or jobs programs that would help create a sense of well-being, belonging and self-respect for urban youth. When political majorities tell our kids they don’t count, they are a bad investment and that they are a lost cause, it’s tough to get worked up about sagging pants. That would be piling on.
Conservative decision makers are, at best, equivocal about economic discrimination, arrogantly indignant about the use of race as a proxy for criminality and coldly indifferent to the indiscriminate execution of unarmed blacks for shoplifting, selling single cigarettes or refusing to obey police commands as if they were well-trained dogs.
We are the primary victims of violent crime in the black community. We loudly and frequently condemn it. We also know that the mechanisms of the justice system that we need to protect us are often unjustly working against us. Quite simply, it’s tough to be enthusiastic cheerleaders for often-flawed agencies of justice that are at least partially responsible for the unfair criminalization of our communities. That would be piling on.
When President Obama supports policies that might legitimately be questioned, in that they ostensibly fail to positively affect the lives of middle- and low-income working families, the questions we have are small potatoes when, every day without fail, the right wing posits a new mantra aimed at dehumanizing him and delegitimizing his presidency. When he is called a foreign national, a socialist, a communist, a racist, a fascist, a mongrel and a liar, any intellectual policy disagreement we might voice would be touted as justification for continuing the irresponsible race-baiting cacophony against him. We won’t be used to add volume to that indefensible, hate-filled rattletrap. That would be piling on.
In short, African Americans know that two wrongs don’t make a right. We also know that not all the obstacles we face are of our own making. So we won’t be piling on.
James H. Swain is a former assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida.