The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The ugly history of comparing black athletes and animals

Alongside Hans Christian Andersen adaptations, my family told me oral histories about famed and little-known black Americans, accounts that sounded as much like myth or fiction as many other tales I’d been told, but which always turned out to be startlingly true.

In those stories, chart-topping musicians took service entrances at the clubs where they performed and wouldn’t have been permitted to sit in the audience. Scientific experiments were covertly conducted on the brains and bodies of the black working class, the jarring procedures and results recorded as though they were done on animals. Of course, there was Emmett Till, whose story I still consider to be one of the most chilling horror tales I heard (and saw photos of) as a little girl.

And there were many wildly talented athletes who died without ever being allowed to compete in integrated professional games and others who earned medals on behalf of this country in overseas Olympic Games, only to be routinely ushered to backdoors, stripped of wide-scale recognition and denied the money that was typically attendant to success in professional sports. These stories seem to multiply; there are still so many I don’t know, so many that have never been recorded. The fact is: There are few written accounts of black stardom before 1960 that don’t feature a facet of humiliation, discrimination or injustice.

One of those stories sprang to mind on Monday when the Los Angeles Times’ main account tweeted a poll originally headlined: “Serena Williams or American Pharoah: Who’s the Real Sportsperson of 2015?” just hours after the first images of Williams’s gorgeous “Sportsperson of the Year” Sports Illustrated cover appeared online.

I thought of Jesse Owens, who was sent to Germany to compete — and win — for the United States during the Nazi regime, only to return home broke and undervalued. The latter half of his track career saw him racing a thoroughbred like a stunt performer. Because endorsement opportunities were minimal for black athletes, no matter how extraordinary, Owens ran wherever he could for money. There’s footage of this “race” on YouTube. It’s haunting, given its context.

And it would have been impossible for me not to make the connection between the indignity forced upon Owens and the one the Los Angeles Times imposed upon Williams. For a century, racism has diminished recognition and reward for black American athletes’ accomplishments. For much longer, black women have been treated like — and referred to as — mules and brood mares. A reputable American news source should have been able to discern why what may have seemed a lighthearted poll on its face would be deeply unsettling for any black reader who grew up hearing about her history in this country.

Still, after many readers expressed offense to the Los Angeles Times’ poll, the site released an explanation that did not acknowledge its role in generating that offense. It did not display any awareness of the racial implications embedded in juxtaposing images of a top-ranked woman athlete and a prize-winning horse — or in discussing them as legitimate athletic “equals” in the first place. Instead, the Los Angeles Times attributed responsibility to a few people on Twitter who apparently believed American Pharoah was robbed. The post pointed out that Williams did, in fact, lose an online poll for the title. They were merely conducting their own as a follow-up.

In nearly every childhood story about black injustice I heard, there was someone making an excuse like this: It isn’t us, personally: It’s the times. It’s Jim Crow. It’s the law. It isn’t us. It’s the slow march of progress. It’s your own oversensitivity. It’s a joke.

Apologies were far less common. And yet it’s the acceptance of one such rare apology that played a pivotal role in Williams earning Sportsperson of the Year. According to Sports Illustrated, Williams’s return to Indian Wells following a years-long boycott after an incident of racial discrimination factored into her selection for the 2015 title.

The Los Angeles Times knew that, going as far as to reference that in its write-up about its own poll. It isn’t as though these stories are part of a distant past. Barcelona’s Dani Alves had a banana hurled at him during a soccer match.  In 2006, a heckler called Dikembe Mutombo a monkey at an NBA game. Sports managers use racial slurs in reference to the black athletes on their teams.

This isn’t a climate in which any comparison of a black athlete and an animal is a legitimate, passable, humorous debate topic. It’s never been legitimate or passable. 

I am already planning the stories I will tell my daughter about the Williams sisters when she’s old enough to understand. They’re regal, sexy, formidable, vulnerable, socially aware, civically engaged. They’ve endured a great deal of indignity, even now, even in 2015. In short: They’re fully and gorgeously human.