Jeff Pearlman

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David J. Leonard

The Washington State prof and author of "After Artest: The NBA and the Assault on Blackness" tries to explain race, culture and a confusing world. POSTED April 16, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 10.49.38 AMI am not particularly intelligent.

I know … I know—big shocker. But, truly, I’m of marginal smarts. Mathematical equations get me every time. Crossword puzzles are my doom. I try and grasp concepts and angles, but usually fall terribly short. I am, sadly, pretty average in the thought department. Sigh.

That being said, I am a huge fan of thinkers; of people who tackle issues with precision and depth and emerge with theories based upon a merging of historic relevance and an ability to comprehend future indicators.

I am a big fan of David J. Leonard.

An associate professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race Studies at Washington State University, Leonard—white, Jewish, bearded, lover of funkadelic hats—has (in the words of WSU’s website) “dedicated his career to interdisciplinary scholarship, transformative teaching, and research that underscores the continued significance of race within popular culture, the structures of politics, and society at large.” He’s written books on some truly riveting subjects pertaining to race and society, and researched (among other things) Shawn’s Green’s religious/baseball identities.

One can visit Leonard’s website here, and follow him on Tumblr here and Twitter here.

David J. Leonard, welcome to Quazville …

JEFF PEARLMAN: So I just read an essay you did for Ebony about Joe Paterno, and you wrote, “The celebration of Paterno as patriarch, as the embodiment of a White working-class ethic, as a coach of a different era, sits at the core of the demoralization of Paterno.” I can hear tons of people saying, “What in the world did Joe Paterno—and Joe Paterno’s passing—have to do with race? Why even evoke that?” So, David, why?

DAVID J. LEONARD: Joe Paterno’s place in the national imagination was tied up in his whiteness. The reverence was very much tied to what he embodied: a throwback coach of a different era when college sports was about the “name on front” not the name on the back. This vision of college sports, and the narrative around Paterno, is very much tied to his white-male-working-class-identity.

Here is part of what I wrote:

The efforts to memorialize and the hyper celebration also reflect the power of white masculinity and nostalgia within the cultural landscape. Described as a “model of law-abiding sportsmanship,” “a disarming mix of a lofty diploma and Brooklyn-bred blue-collar grit,” and as someone committed to education and honor, Joe Paterno’s importance exists apart from National title, victories, or football within the national conversation. As noted by Rick Reilly, Paterno “was a humble, funny and giving man who was unlike any other coach I ever met in college football. He rolled up his pants to save on dry cleaning bills. He lived in the same simple ranch house for the last 45 years. Same glasses, same wife, same job, for most of his adult life.” The celebration of Paterno as patriarch, as the embodiment of a white working-class ethic, as a coach of a different era, sits at the core of the demoralization of Paterno. The national mourning in this regard reflects both a desire to redeem him in the face of the sex abuse scandal and to celebrate nostalgia for a different era of college sports and a heroized white working-class masculinity. As pointed out by Tim Keown, “The regurgitation of the Paterno-as-moral-messiah (-until-Sandusky) fable is what happens when people close their eyes and see the world the way they thought it was, or how they want it to be.” Or as Bomani Jones told me, “We are here because of the image we created of Joe Paterno,” because of the brand of Penn State and JoPa and its meaning in the cultural, racial, and national landscapes.

The aftermath and the response to Joe Paterno says much more about us than him. It reveals our continued difficulty, silence, and unwillingness to deal with the issue of sexual violence and abuse. It illustrates the ways in which we valorize and hero-worship football coaches and where football sits on the national landscape. It highlights the power of nostalgia and the celebration given to a particular inscription of white masculinity. Over the last year, several prominent African American figures passed away — Gil-Scott Herron, Etta James Manning Marable, Fred Shuttlesworth and Derrick Bell – whose contributions to humanity, to knowledge, to community, to justice and helping others reach [their goals] are without reproach. Why haven’t their deaths been breaking news?”

To answer your question: Why . . . because race matters; because whiteness requires critical examination; because we need to look at the ways that race operates within our every day language; we need to reflect on how these ideas are tied to dominant understandings and languages about whiteness. So often, when we talk about race we think about racial otherness, and must reflect on how whiteness is a racial construct.

Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 10.54.41 AMJ.P.: You wrote a book in 2012 titled, After Artest: The NBA and the Assault on Blackness. I’m sure David Stern—who cringes at everything anti-NBA—hated that one. Why do you think the NBA “assaulted” blackness post-the Artest fight? And can the league make the argument, “We were just trying to clean up the league … it had nothing to do with race”?  

DJL: I don’t think David Stern read my book, although he, Adam Silver, and others “leading the NBA,” should read books that are critically looking at the league and its place within a larger cultural landscape.

I also don’t think the book is anti-NBA. It is critical of the league’s and Stern’s decisions in the “aftermath of the Palace Brawl.” It is critical of the ways that the league replicated and reinforced dominant stereotypes about blackness. The decisions made—dress code, age rule, the media’s language about players—don’t exist in a vacuum but both reflect what’s happening throughout society in terms of racial stereotypes, criminalization, and inequalities. It also normalizes and naturalizes these ideas. The book is asking to think about what it means that David Stern saw it necessary to rid the league of hoodies. Yes, I am thinking about Trayvon Martin. My concern here extends beyond the league but at the ways that the league embodies and perpetuates racial injustice.

The idea that the league “needed to be cleaned” up is debatable and in itself reveals what I am saying about the desire to control, discipline, and “clean up” the NBA.

Palace Brawl transformed the league and the media coverage surrounding the league; race was at the center of this process. It transformed the league because the brawl was seen as a symptom of a larger disease plaguing the league—that the disease destroying the league and making it unpalatable to white fans and corporate sponsors was both hip-hop and the contemporary black baller; the changes in the league sought to treat this disease with a dress code, age restriction, crackdown on trash-talking, physical play, and any form of individuality; most important the NBA’s treatment plan focused on disciplining and punishing any NBA player who didn’t “get with the program” who didn’t appeal to its fan base. So, the idea that the league was interested in “cleaning up the league” (or even the idea that it needed to be ‘cleaned up’) or that it needed to deal with (white) fan discomfort or anxiety or fear demonstrates how race was always at work.

Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 10.54.26 AMJ.P.: I’m fascinated, fascinated, fascinated by your journey. I mean, you’re a white guy who went to UC-Santa Barbara for a B.A. in Black studies. So how did this happen—your fascination with race? With black culture? What is your life path, from birth to here?

DJL: This is a long a story (I will give you the cliff notes version) with a lot of moments, influences, and events that shaped not only my path but who I am as a person, how I try to live my life.

I grew up in West Los Angeles, in an integrated and diverse neighborhood.  Yet, my experiences were also defined a level of racial homogeneity—at some levels, it was very white, middle-class.

Education was a point of emphasis in the family, even though I was not a good student. Between a learning disability and a disinterest in school, my passions were not directed toward school and learning. My childhood was defined by a house full of books, parents who pushed us to think critically, and by an educational system that allowed me to eventually find my passions on own terms. My middle-class parents spent most of their income on our education because they believed in progressive education even if this ironically meant my going to overwhelmingly white and wealthy schools.

As a child, I went to a school founded by Hollywood Communists, including the likes Charlie Chaplin. The type of education I got there would become my norm; I have never attended a school where we called our teachers by their last name; I didn’t receive a report card until the ninth grade. Detention and the pledge of allegiance, much less security guards and metal detectors, were completely foreign concepts to me until high school. This educational environment established a foundation based on critical thinking, intellectual curiosity, and passion for justice; but this only tells part of the story.

I was also somewhat typical of many white kids growing up in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Blasting N.W.A, Public Enemy and EPMD, I embraced everything that hip-hop embodied, at least in my white teenage imagination. On a given day, odds are I would be wearing a Malcolm X hat, cross-colors shorts, and a Southern University sweatshirt. I sagged my pants, wore my UNLV starter jackets and walked with a swagger that conveyed a brash sense of masculinity. There was even a short period of time where my hair was braided- that is until I removed it following a basketball game that put my whiteness on full display. Every time I touched the ball, my opponents would serenade me with “Kris will make you jump.” Not surprisingly, I was never conscious of the process of appropriation, nor was I initially conscience of the inherent power/violence in “eating the other.”

I started my undergraduate career at university of Oregon. My experiences was defined by a perpetual feeling of isolation and alienation (I was the Jewish kid from Los Angeles), although I would develop several friendships with others who also felt like outsiders. It was ironically at University Oregon that I developed several cross-racial friendships. Daily conversations with African American friends, alongside of observations of racial profiling abound, pushed my thinking about race, about white privilege, and about racism.

I remember one of my friends challenged me about wearing an “X” hat, asking if I had read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I hadn’t and needed to. These lessons and challenges, along with my initial African American history class, sparked something inside of me. While I transferred to Santa Barbara City College and UC Santa Barbara, my passion and focus remained. I would read and read, only stopping to watch documentaries; this would be my undergraduate experience. Along the way, many people shaped the direction I was heading – mentors like Cedric Robinson, Kofi Hadjor, Douglas Daniels, and many others pushed guided and inspired me. The LA Uprising, my activism while at UC Berkeley, and my experiences in the classroom left a lasting imprint, making clear where and how I wanted to spend my life..

Racism and inequality remain America’s problem of the twenty-first century. My life’s work is playing whatever role I can play in participating in these conversations, trying to do work that is accountable and that may have an impact.

Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 10.55.08 AMJ.P.: You wrote a truly fascinating blog post about Madonna using the n-word, saying, “With her Instagram photo, she has become yet another white person who either doesn’t understand the meaning and history or who simply doesn’t comprehend or care about the harm, pain, and violence that comes every time a white person utters the word.” Why do you think, suddenly, white people seem so comfortable using the n-word? Where the hell did that come from?

DJL: White people have always felt comfortable using the word—power and privilege will do that. Obviously the history of the word, and its relationship to slavery, Jim Crow, and the normalization of racial terror demonstrate a history of comfort using the word. Clearly the history of minstrelsy, of blackface, of white mocking of blackness that exists in the white imagination, shows that this is nothing new.

We have seen the impact of social media, and online technologies to “expose” its [the N-word] use by whites. Whereas 15 years, whites were using it behind closed doors, within homogenous white racial gatherings/settings (see Feagin and Picca’s book Two Faced Racism), the usage is now more exposed. Social media has pulled back the curtain on racial language, on the expression of stereotypes and racial slurs. Secondly, the language of “satire” or “it’s just a joke” or “I am just copying what my favorite rapper says” is now part of the language of justification and rationalization. The “satire card” or hip hop made me do it” is about justifying because whites have been using the word for as long as it has been existence.  It is about excuse making in the face of calls accountability.  Exposure resulting from social media demands accountability—this leads breeds excuse making/ justification/rationalization. But whites have comfortably bandied the term around amongst themselves throughout history. Usage has not grown, but has hit new levels of exposure resulting in more public dialogue

I also think its usage becomes part of a moment where whites can assert power and imagine a sense of victimhood—citing “double standards.” At present, we observe a constant narrative of (white) victimhood that erases the power and privileges of whiteness.

J.P.: There seemed to be an idea in this country by many that, with the election of an African-American president, racism had magically ended, and we were all good. Obviously, that’s not even remotely the case. So what has been Barack Obama’s impact on race relations—and racism—in the United States?

DJL: I guess it depends on how we define “race relations”—so often this is defined in terms of public opinion and in terms of the level of harmony across imagined racial communities. This is a very limiting because it reduces the discussion to individuals, to feelings, and plays upon the idea that race issues are about interpersonal dynamics.

If we look at white views about racism, we see two things: 1) If you compare public opinion polls from 1960s and 2000s, much of the white community thought, “all is good.” In this sense, there hasn’t been much change because whites have and continue to benefit from our current racial configuration. 2) In a post civil rights environment, the GOP (Southern Strategy) has used race, racial fear, and the belief that the system is working against whites, to maintain power, to galvanize support for their agenda. This has been going on for 50 years so it’s almost as if the election of President Obama has allowed people to yet again scapegoat blackness for racial problems when in reality the persistence of racism, the persistence of inequalities, the racial fear mongering, and so much more predates his election.

When we look at the ‘war on drugs’, when we look at disenfranchisement, when we look at housing discrimination, when we look at health disparities, or divestment of education and investments in prisons, we see how race remains a dividing line. We see how injustices and violence are an enduring reality for communities of color. His election didn’t change these institutional realities.

J.P.: You teach at Washington State—a wealthy school with a lovely campus and a lot of money. Why do you think college has become so insanely expensive (and unaffordable)? Is money being spent rightly? Have we reached the point where maybe, just maybe, people need to reexamine whether a lifetime of student loans is worth the benefit of a degree?

DJL: Wealthy? Really? As a public university, we have experienced the impact of the recession and public divestment from higher education. So, “wealthy” isn’t an adjective I would use to describe WSU. As someone who teaches in the college of arts and science, within the humanities, and in the fields of ethnic studies and women’s and gender studies, I have little knowledge of this “wealthy university” you speak of.  The reasons why budgets have been cut is the same reason why tuitions are dramatically on the rise: a lack of investment in higher education from both state legislatures and the federal government. Whereas, colleges and universities were supported in the past, today’s colleges and universities get little funding from the state. It’s kind of of astonishing when we look at the dramatic defunding of higher education. The response from higher education is to increase tuition because the money has to come from somewhere. In many ways, public universities are becoming quasi private, reliant on tuition, grants, and donations.

With increased tuition, and less-than-stellar job prospects, universities have increasingly begun to sell “the college experience” as opposed to the degree or the educational benefits. So, it’s no wonder that money is going to recreation centers and student activities; it’s no wonder that there is so much emphasis on hotel-style dorms, parties, and fall-fun and March madness.

Our current moment requires us to demand investment in higher education. Its time for us to reflect on why critical thinking, media literacy, knowledge, and communication skills are a societal benefit, and therefore should elicit financial investment. It is no coincidence that these changes, that the systemic divestment of higher education, has come during this so-called “post-racial” moment. That is, in a moment when more racial/ethnic minorities and women are entering into the spaces of higher education than ever before, we are seeing a reversal in terms of financial, political, and cultural investment in higher education.

J.P.: You’ve researched Shawn’s Green’s religious/baseball identities. I know Shawn quite well (he was actually a Quaz). So I’m riveted—what does this mean? And what did you find out?

DJL: I have always been fascinated by the “illegibility of the Jewish athlete.” We have all heard some variation of this joke: “What does the Encyclopedia of Jewish Sports Stars look like? Answer: A Pamphlet.” This work comes out of this fascination, my own experiences, and my being a “retired” Jewish athlete. Of course, being from LA also meant that Green was someone I was always intrigued by—as a fan and as a researcher. To me, I wanted to explore how his Jewish identity was talked about and what this tells us about Jewishness in the twenty-first century. In many ways, the piece looks at how people debated and discussed whether he would play on Yom Kipur, resuscitating debates about Hank Greenberg or Sandy Koufax. Just as the discussion of what a “Jewish athlete” meant for the Jewish community embodied the fears, anxieties and questions in a post-war context, the discussion that followed Green also told us a lot about Jewish identities in the twenty-first century. There were a lot of debates about “what it means to be Jewish” and the importance of his being a role model.

I think narratives about Jewish athletes are culturally power because athletic prowess or sports success offers a source of legitimacy for ideas about masculinity, assimilation, and “making it” within the American social fabric. In this sense, Green challenged the stereotypes and the anxieties over the stereotypes with respect to masculinity.

I have also been interested in which Jewish athletes get imagined as Jewish, as representative, as role models worthy of celebration and really as part of the Jewish community. This tells us a lot about Jewish identity formation and the relationship between Jewishness, religiosity, and race. This isn’t just about Green, Koufax and Greenberg, but we can think about how someone like Yuri Foreman, Ryan Braun or Omri Caspi gets imagined, consumed, and positioned as Jewish athlete, but someone like Jordan Farmar or Taylor Mayes are read quite differently.

Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 10.55.34 AMJ.P.: Do you think it’s possible to be color-blind? What I mean is—you’re aware of someone’s race, but you 100% don’t give a shit, don’t have it impact your opinions, perceptions, anything at all?

DJL: Whether an individual can acknowledge racial difference, and see it as meaningless and as insignificant is difficult given what we know about implicit bias, about the entrenched nature of stereotypes. This is why I often challenge people who say, “that person is ignorant” because when in reality their acceptance of a stereotype, with a particular worldview, reflects their knowing these ideas, stereotypes, and visions of the world that are circulated daily; from the media to school, from family to religious institutions, from the world of sports to the worlds of popular culture, we are learning and teaching what “race” means so it is hard to imagine it not impacting someone. We can resist, we can challenge ourselves- and others, when these prejudices are articulated … but they are everywhere. We can be particularly vigilante in challenging the value judgments, and of course when those ideas translate into discriminatory actions, policies, and interactions.

I also wonder why we think that “not seeing” is a good thing given the ways that race operates within our society. In some ways, we are saying “your identity, your experiences, your community, your sense of self, don’t mean shit” and that of course is a problem on so many levels.

To address racism and inequality requires color consciousness. It requires recognizing implicit and explicit bias, it requires looking at both institutional racism and the ongoing legacies of American racism. The idea that ignoring will lead to change is naïve but worse destructive because it perpetuates inequalities and injustices. If we think about the criminal justice system, do we really think justice will come about if the prosecutor, judge, and jury take a colorblind approach given the racist nature of the war on drugs, given racial profiling, and given stop and frisk? We have to be aware of how racism operates at every level, and figure out ways to challenge its historic and present operations.

J.P.: I’m Jewish. And I know many Jews who believe we have a kinship with African-Americans. Minorities, struggles, stereotyping, etc. Yet I’m sort of of the belief that blacks, generally, don’t feel the same way. Am I being wacky?

DJL: There have been many books written about this but lets put it this way: while American Jews have experienced a history of discrimination, of hyper stereotypes, and of exclusion, many Jews (we have to remember that in the U.S. there an estimated 100,000 Black Jews (studies estimate between 50,000-500,000) so even the idea that Jews “kinship with African Americans” presumes that there are not black Jews) have benefited from their whiteness. So, while we can see shared histories, and we can most certainly see a history of coalitions, from the NAACP to Freedom summer, it is a history of many Jews benefiting from their perceived whiteness.

We also have to push conversation to think in complex ways. So, while clearly stereotypes about Jews remain widely known and are circulated, do those stereotypes have impact on the life chances and choices of the Jewish community? Do these stereotypes lead to racial profiling: NO! Do stereotypes of Jews as “greedy” lead to higher suspensions or expulsion rates? NO. Do “Jewish sounding names” lead to hiring discrimination? Again the answer is NO. We must be mindful of these very different experiences, the ways that privilege operates, the ways that many Jews benefit and have benefited from their whiteness, and how this impacts communal relations.

Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 10.55.52 AMJ.P.: I hate “black” movies. What I mean is, films come out that are for “black” audiences—and they almost always cater to the lowest common denominator, with stereotypes and insults and someone in fat person drag. Why is this so common? And is there a cure?

DJL: It sounds like you hate stereotypical movies—movies that rely on classic stereotypes, clichéd humor, and childish banter. I wonder if we describe the movies of Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen, Judd Apatow …. “white films” or do we call zombie movies and Twilight “white youth films”?

I would say you are watching the wrong films and should go watch Pariah, Middle of Nowhere, Fruitvale Station, I Will Follow, Daughters of the Dust, Mississippi Dammed, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, and Yelling to the Sky. There are so many amazing films that offer a range of representations that offer powerful stories, which speak to a myriad of issues.

We also need to ask, why certain films get major platforms, get distribution that puts them in every theater and every city, whereas the films I mentioned above are considered obscure and/or are (were) unevenly distributed by (within) the film industry.

Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 10.48.04 AMQUAZ EXPRESS WITH DAVID LEONARD:

• Did Manning Marable’s Malcolm X biography—which showed much of the autobiography to be exaggerated or false—wound you in any ways?: I actually have a confession. I haven’t read Marable’s book. Every time I look at it on my shelf, I am overwhelmed by its length and know I need ample time to digest the book – and that reading it will lead me to read other books that have been critical of the biography. I have always found Malcolm to be a complex person; he had his flaws and contradictions . . . like everyone else, so I don’t think it would wound me.

• Rank in order (favorite to least favorite)—Coors Light, Dale Murphy, Bell Biv Devoe, Toledo, Natalie Wood, “Oh Sherrie,” pork chops, Tommy Herr, grape juice, Tyler Perry, Len Bias, Posh Spice, L.L. Bean catalogue: Is there a way to re-imagine this question as a couple of favorites followed me least favorite and then “no thank you” because “least favorite” doesn’t capture my feelings of some on the list? Bell Biv Devoe (although Ralph T was always a favorite); Len Bias (RIP), Toledo (home of Max Klinger and Tony Paco’s, the L.L. Bean catalogue (backpacks) ….. , “Oh Sherrie,” Natalie Wood, pork chops, grape juice, ……………….. Tommy Herr, Dale Murphy, Tyler Perry………………………………………………………………… Posh Spice …………………………………….. Coors Light.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: No, but have had moments where I was like “oh, fuck … that turbulence is a little much.”

• Five all-time favorite singers/groups?: Five?! Wow… Marvin Gaye, Ella Fitzgerald, Ice Cube, Nas, Don Henley (I feel like LeBron must have felt with Mt Swishmore b/c I know I forgot someone.)

This is one of my all-time favorite songs. What do you think?: If we are ever in the car together, I am in charge of the radio.

• The absolute best dunk you’ve ever seen was …: I am a Lakers fan so I am sure these are the best but for me best is about joy, pleasure, nostalgia, memories and all things Lakers—every Coop-a-Loop ever and Kobe’s lop to Kobe in Game Seven against the Trailblazers.

• Three memories from your fifth-grade class?: I have no idea . . . three great friends: Jenny, Quinn, and Erin—I am still in touch with two of them.

• Three skills you don’t have: Given my last answer . . . clearly I lack of the requisite skill to remember my childhood, ability to relax, and at this point I have neither a right nor a left hand on the basketball court.

• Best joke you know: I don’t know any jokes. Seriously but my 6-year old likes to tell jokes whenever he meets new people – while getting his hair cut, at stores, at parties, so here’s one: What do you get when you cross a turtle with a porcupine? A: A slow poke.

• Who wins in a 12-round fight—right now—between you and Ray Leonard with one hand tied behind his back?: Ray Leonard wins in a one-round fight; Benny Leonard also knocks me out in a hurry.

  • Sebastian Moraga

    Great Quaz. I am a WSU alum and I once attended a lecture by Mr. Leonard. He was fantastic. Kudos to him for his frankness. I was also surprised to hear WSU described as wealthy. Thank you, Jeff for digging out all these wonderful characters for your Quaz.

  • Wangchuck Pasha

    David J Leonard benefited from Jewish privilege his whole wife, not white privilege–Cops never targeted him because they knew who runs the District Attorney’s office, and they didn’t want to be blamed for the 2nd Holocaust or something.

    Just pointin’ that out.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life