This week on In Black America, producer and host John L. Hanson, Jr. speaks with journalist Howard Bryant, Senior Writer with ESPN.com, National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition correspondent, and author of Full Dissidence: Notes From An Uneven Playing Field.
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Speaker 2 [00:00:15] From the University of Texas at Austin, KUT Radio, this is In Black America.
Howard Bryant [00:00:23] For dissidents, to me, the bottom line with that project was it really was an outgrowth of my last book, The Heritage, where I started to ask some different questions. I think that as a Black writer, you certainly look at situations over the past decade. More importantly, you look at Ferguson, you look at Eric Garner, you look at Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin and all of those things happening. You’re looking at the backlash of the from the Obama presidency and then the election of Donald Trump. And I think that it was important for me to start to look at another question that I had asked in the Heritage, which was talking about these Black athletes, whether it was LeBron James or or Derrick Rose or the rest of these players talking about their power, Malcolm Jenkins in the Players coalition. But then asking another question in the wake of Colin Kaepernick, which was how much power do you actually have if you lose everything or if you risk everything for taking on a Black position?
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:01:22] Howard Bryant, senior writer with ESPN.com, NPR’s Weekend Edition correspondent and the author of Full Dissonance Notes from an Uneven Playing Field, published by Beacon Press, where the issues are protest, labor, patriotism or class division, is clear that professional sports are no longer simply fun and games exposed in history as a hotbed of fractured and inequities that reflects or even drives some of the most divisive issues in our nation today. Bryant, for a better part of three decades, has covered professional sports. Now, in his ninth book, he provides insight into a cultural. African-American continues to navigate the sharp edges of whiteness as citizens who are always at risk of being told to go back from where they came from. His essays covers the player owner relationship, the mineralization of sports and the myth of integration, just to name a few. I’m John L Hanson Jr., and welcome to another edition of In Black America. On this week’s program Full Dissonance with Howard Bryant. In Black America.
Howard Bryant [00:02:30] They think it’s a compliment when you’re when they’re saying these things to you. But it really in some ways, it doesn’t sound like a compliment when somebody tells you that they’re colorblind. How can you be colorblind in this culture and and protect me at the same time? You can’t be colorblind. You have to be as one of the great writers as Ibram Kendi says, as in quoting Angela Davis, You have to be anti-racist. You have to realize that the color does matter. And it’s very, very important because it’s going to inform how you see the world around you. Sometimes acting like you’re colorblind or using those terms. In some ways, it’s the equivalent of putting your head in the sand. You’ve got to be active and realize what what these terms mean and what the implications are if you’re going to actually have real friends.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:03:12] Within the nine essays. Howard Bryant of Biden, His latest book, Insightful Dissonance. He draws directly from his own life. He underscores the casual betrayal inherent in his white friendship, romantic and otherwise, and traces his and other family’s sacrifices in addressing the advantages of whiteness, particularly with regards to education. Much of his book is not about sports, but the ever changing landscape of what it means to be African-American in this country. Bryant underscores the degree to which White believe they are the only true Americans, and our others are just winners. Born and raised in Boston, he graduated from Temple University in 1991. He earned his master’s degree from San Francisco State University in 1993. Bryant began his career at the Oakland Tribune in 1991. He worked at The Washington Post before joining ESPN in 2007. Brian’s prolific baseball, writing on a variety of topics affecting the game. And that’s why In Black America caught up with him before the COVID 19 break out at spring training in Florida. You got in spring training.
Howard Bryant [00:04:24] Spring training in Tampa today with the Yankees for the next few days. And then we’ll go over and go see the other teams, go see the Astros and go see the Nationals and then back to Arizona to do Dodgers and A’s and Giants and everybody else. It’s that time of season.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:04:39] So how’s it been looking?
Howard Bryant [00:04:41] It’s good. It’s good. Obviously, the big story, of course, is is the Houston Astros and Dusty Baker and taken over. And with all this scandal taking place, it’s been interesting to see how the players are dealing with each other and how they deal with cheating and baseball and everything else. And and I’m always concerned about Dusty. You know, he’s the most successful Black manager the sport’s ever had. He’s in an incredibly difficult position, taking on an issue that’s not really his. But I’m hoping that he’s going to be able to manage it. If anybody if anybody can do it, Dusty can.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:05:10] And your thoughts on did the Astros handle it well?
Howard Bryant [00:05:13] No, I thought they handled it very poorly, I thought. They handled everything about it poorly. I think they especially handled the fact that they hired Dusty to clean up their mess for them, and they gave him 1a1 year contract. And then the general manager that they hired, who has no experience, they gave him three years. So once again, it’s it’s a hard position for for Dusty to be in. And I think that you’re going to see, I think, the commissioner of baseball and company. I don’t think they handled it as well. Neither did the Players Association. So I think you’re going to see a lot of frontier justice issues. You’re going to see some players getting thrown out. You’re going to see some stuff on the field and we’ll see how they handle the other part of this, which is if it turns out that you find out that a lot of other teams have been doing the same thing.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:05:54] So what led you to write your ninth book?
Howard Bryant [00:05:56] Well, for dissidence, to me, the bottom line with that project was it really was an outgrowth of my last book, The Heritage, where I started to ask some different questions. I think that as a Black writer, you certainly look at situations over the past decade. More importantly, you look at Ferguson, you look at Eric Garner, you look at Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin and all of those things happening. You’re looking at the backlash of the from the Obama presidency and then the election of Donald Trump. And I think that it was important for me to start to look at another question that I had asked and the heritage, which was talking about these Black athletes, whether it was LeBron James or or Derrick Rose or the rest of these players talking about their power, Malcolm Jenkins in the Players coalition. But then asking another question in the wake of Colin Kaepernick, which was how much power do you actually have if you lose everything or if you risk everything for taking on a Black position? If you had real power, then your your career wouldn’t be in jeopardy simply for trying to defend Black people.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:07:02] When did we come to the notion or a realization, if one is discontent, that equates to being unpatriotic and un-American?
Howard Bryant [00:07:12] Absolutely. And where does that put Black people? Since we’re constantly we’re constantly fighting for our rights, we’re constantly fighting for a place here, It always puts you in a disadvantageous position. It puts you in the position. Now you are now you’re being pitted against the entire country. And it made me ask myself one of the questions that that is central in the book, which is, are you a renter of the American Dream or are you an owner? And I make the conclusion that we’re renters because every time you say something, people feel like they can tell you to go back where you came from. And you can’t do that if you’re an owner. If you own something, people don’t tell you to go back because it’s yours. And so I sort of felt like I just started to reach a period of exhaustion and I felt I felt very nervous about where we are as Black people in this country because I’m nervous about where we are as Americans in this country. And, you know, when something happens to everybody, Black people get it worse. And so I was especially thinking about a lot of those young Black kids who are and I don’t mean to call them kids, I’m just older than they are. But, you know, for for the ones who 28 was their first election and they thought it was different and they thought that, okay, you got a Black president and how much stock in import did we put into that? And then you go from that to this, it’s like it’s like getting punched in the face.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:08:30] I found it interesting to a point where we’re basically living in two different Americas. And when you talk about the perception of the police from a white point of view versus the perception of a police and police departments from an African-American point of view, does I guess to some extent, does television have a lot to do with this?
Howard Bryant [00:08:55] Absolutely, it does. And I think in one of the essays I wrote called Cop Agenda, which is all about police propaganda in entertainment, you recognize how much education people have about their police departments from television, how much they learn about it, how much they believe in that relationship, all from that mass media of the, you know, cop buddy movies and TV shows and sitcoms and the rest of it. And you see how both that and Post-9-11 America has really played out into this idea of the inherent goodness of police, that the police are the good guys, and the Black experience is antithetical to that. And the Black experience is very, very different. And so you start asking yourself, where do you have this? You know, why is this gap so wide? And I think one of the arguments that I was making was in this the reason why this book is titled Full Dissidence, it’s that you find out all of these people in your supposedly integrated, you know, community and your integrated workplace and everything, and you come from the same values and you make around the same money. You kind of come from the same place. Then you start talking about policing and you realize it is that two Americas that you’re talking about, you realize that all of a sudden you do look at it very, very differently. And this is one of the reasons why it’s. So different and so difficult to have accountability and to have justice and all those different things because the the viewpoint, the life experience is just so different. Like, for example, we’re talking about, you know, in this presidential campaign, you’re talking about Michael Bloomberg and the tape of him talking about throwing kids up against the wall and this assumption that Black kids are all carrying guns and everything. Or you look at that, that video in Orlando of a six year old being arrested, a six year old being handcuffed. And I grew I mean, I grew up around white people. I grew up and after we left Boston as a kid, I grew up in, you know, third and fourth grade up until graduation in a predominantly overwhelming white community. They didn’t even have any real money. And then as a you know, as an adult now, you know, my son goes to those same types of schools, although they’re a little bit higher up I fluently, you would never, ever, ever handcuff a white six year old. You wouldn’t you just don’t do that. And so you look at this and you start to look at your white friends and on the one hand, they look all horrified, but on the other hand, they still can’t make that leap. They still look and say, look, you can’t do this. You shouldn’t do this. And somebody should be held accountable. They’ll find all the different ways in the world to act horrified, but they will not change their minds about what is this actually say about police and policing.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:11:39] As you say that I remember a passage in the book where one of your friends said, I don’t know the relationship you had with her, that she doesn’t mind you being Black.
Howard Bryant [00:11:50] Yeah, that was when I was a kid. That was one of the things that used to happen all the time when you and, you know, you grow up around all those kids and they. They wanted to make it sound like they were doing you the biggest favor in the world by treating you like a human being. Well, you know, it’s okay. My parents aren’t. They don’t mind. They don’t care that you’re Black. I’m like, Well, that’s good. That’s good. I care that you’re white. How about that? And so you start looking at these things differently and you realize I think the thing that’s interesting about it, too, and it’s not necessarily to be confrontational, it’s to think about how we treat each other in terms of language. Think about what you’re actually saying. It they they think it’s a compliment when you’re when they’re saying these things to you. But it really in some ways, it doesn’t sound like a compliment when somebody tells you that they’re colorblind. How can you be colorblind in this culture and and protect me at the same time? You can’t be colorblind. You have to be as one of the great writers, as Ibram Kendi says, is quoting Angela Davis, You have to be anti-racist. You have to realize that the color does matter. And it’s very, very important because it’s going to inform how you see the world around you sometimes acting like you’re colorblind or using those terms. In some ways, it’s the equivalent of putting your head in the sand. You’ve got to be active and realize what what these terms mean and what the implications are if you’re going to actually have real friends.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:13:07] I found it interesting how how you made the connection between Colin Kaepernick and Nike and his commercial and the National Football League and its relationship with corporate America.
Howard Bryant [00:13:22] Well, I was concerned at first because obviously when Colin took the knee and you saw what was happening to him, there was no question about his politics and about him trying to do something for Black people to draw attention to where we are as a country in terms of policing and not just Black people, but the lack of accountability on police. Go go look up the video of Daniel Shaver, the you know, the white pest control guy who was who was essentially just shot to death by police at point blank range. He’s a white man. So it’s not just a racial thing. It’s a policing accountability thing. And and then I started to get worried about it on the other side because I saw that that, you know, Colin hadn’t given any interviews in, you know, almost three years and he hadn’t spoken. And I was worried about what this meant. And I heard, you know, and he and I had spoken a couple of times and we had texted and I, you know, was really concerned by saying to him, you know, are you allowing other people to speak for you by not speaking, by not giving interviews? Are you letting people shape you in a way that you don’t want to be in a way that you don’t want to be shaped? And and then I heard from a lot of grassroots activists who were frustrated with Colin as well, because they were like, well, how come he’s not saying anything? And we we need him and we want him to be out front on all these things. Is he walking away from us? And so I was worried about that. And then the Nike commercial happened and then he got rehabilitated and he did that commercial, which was a harmless, inspiring, excellent commercial. And you saw what some of these law enforcement departments did across the country. You saw some of these people try to boycott Nike. You saw retailers trying to boycott Nike. And it made me ask a question, If this is the land of the free and it’s okay to have opinions, why is it so important not only to destroy this man, but now you’re going to go up against one of the biggest corporations in the world simply by letting him do a 32nd commercial? I mean, the. It seems so disproportionate. And that told me if you’re willing to go out of your way to boycott a massive billion dollar corporation, if you’re willing as law enforcement to put felons or to put suspects in Nike gear on their mug shots, which a few of them did around the country. Then that told me that Colin Kaepernick needs even more support because this is an active campaign to try to ruin this man. It’s bad enough he’s not even playing, so he doesn’t even have a job. Now, you don’t even want him to have a livelihood at all. So I thought the response was so disproportionate and it told me that I was wrong about Colin. It told me that he needed more support in many ways because the opposition to him was so overstated that it told me that that my mind had to change.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:16:04] If you’re just joining us, i’m Jenny hansen jr. And you’re listening to In Black America from KUT radio. And we’re speaking with Howard Bryant, senior writer for ESPN.com and sports correspondent for NPR’s Weekend Edition and author of his latest book for Dissonance Notes from an Uneven Playing Field. How When does a certain level athlete gets to the point where they think they aren’t African-American when and when, in essence, they are?
Howard Bryant [00:16:35] Well, I don’t think it’s that they don’t think they’re African-American anymore. I mean, it could be that. I think they recognize that it’s easier for me to walk away from this or that. My industry is telling me I got to walk away from this. And you’ve seen that through line exist for over 50 years. And you’ve seen it with O.J., You saw it with Tiger Woods. You see it with the new tennis player, Madison Keys, where you have these players. And of course, the biracial aspects of it changed as well. But these players know what’s happening. They see what happened to Muhammad Ali. They see what happens to the Colin Kaepernick’s of the world and the Mahmoud Abdul Rauf. They see what happens to them and they also see what’s difficult in their own lives. When somebody reporters come to them and talk to them, ask them about racial questions, they see what happens in the news cycle and they don’t need the grief and they back away from it. They don’t want anything to do with it. And so you realize that even in this massive multibillion dollar sports world that we’re in, it’s an incredible level of anti-Blackness where the leagues are telling you what’s going to happen if you take on these controversial positions. And my issue has always been, why are they so controversial? All you’re doing is supporting it’s it it’s not like you’re advocating the overthrow of the government. What you’re really doing is you’re asking for the same accountability that we say that we want for everyone. But the price is so enormous.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:17:54] I know. That’s right. What were you trying to express or did express in the portion that dealt with mediocre white boy?
Howard Bryant [00:18:03] Well, there are a couple of things about that section. The biggest thing that I was trying to get across in that essay was this this place of being trapped that I find African-Americans to be. And, you know, especially, you know, even thinking about my own life and my own career in journalism, where on the one hand, when you are when you’re not doing well, people say you’re you’re draining the system. And then when you do well, people say, oh, well, you were an affirmative action hire. You only got your job because you were Black. So you’re ruining you’re ruining the country because you’re Black, but you’re also only succeeding because you’re Black. And you listen to this this idea of this meritocracy. It goes out the window for you. We try we are told to do the right things, go to the good schools, get the education, pay attention, pay your dues. And then when you do those things, people say, oh, well, you know, you’re just an affirmative action hire. And it’s incredibly demeaning and it’s insulting and it’s humiliating. But the other part of it that I was trying to get at in that in in that essay is the phenomenon that I that I that I refer to as the assumption of competence. Whereas the white men in that business, they assume their own competence. They assume they belong in that room. Even when they don’t get jobs, they don’t assume that the person who got the job over them doesn’t belong in the industry unless it’s you. If it’s you, it’s like, well, you only got that job because you were Black. Did they never assume your competence? They never they never say, Well, he’s really good, He’s really good. And he paid his dues and he’s been doing the same job I’ve done. And he was just better than me on this one. Instead, there’s always this sort of racial resentment that you can’t escape that you can never be unstuck from. And so what I was getting at in that essay was also to say, well, you know, there are very, very few people of any race, of any gender in any color that are truly, truly exceptional. So you have to accept your own mediocrity as and sort of the the the white foundation of these industries as well. But that never happens. The only time you assume incompetence is when somebody Black gets a job that you think you should have had.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:20:08] This is not in the book. But how do young people navigate this? Confusing. And sometime contradictory world that we live in.
Howard Bryant [00:20:17] Yeah, it’s a good question. John and I and I didn’t address it. And part of the reason I didn’t address it was because I don’t know the answer. Hmm. And I, I, I don’t resent it. I don’t mean to sound resentful because I’m. I’m really not. I’m just thinking about the ideas in my life right now. I just felt it hard to come up with an answer. I felt like. It’s. It’s not. Is it my job to also give you hope? Where is the hope coming from? I wish I knew. I found it. But where I found the hope in this world was in recognizing the con of it. In recognizing that as Black people, we do not need your approval in order to move forward. We don’t have to buy into all of these different tropes that ultimately do not serve us. That the that what really is your salvation in a lot of ways is to see through this and to not have to listen to it. I think that the area where, as I said, I was very, very concerned was in talking especially to some of these affluent Black kids out there that are going to the Harvards in the Yale’s and the Ivy League schools and then get that bucket of cold water in the face there to where it’s like, well, wait a minute, I thought we’re the elite ones. And you realize that you’re not. I think to me, what I really find the most hopeful also is in the area where you have an opportunity to speak, you feel comfortable doing so. I think that it’s interesting to me where you have some of these folks having what I refer to as their sort of full dissidence moment, like the NFL coaches right now where they’ve they’ve paid all their dues and they’re not and they’re not getting that pay off. They’re supposed to be a pay off for paying your dues. What are we going to do when you realize that that pay off doesn’t apply to me? I’m hoping that we get more voices and I’m hoping that there’s an opportunity for people to express themselves and maybe carve out new paths. Maybe the hope comes from the recognition that you asked me to lean into this. You ask me to buy into it, and now there’s nothing here. So we’re going to create something new for ourselves.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:22:15] I found it somewhat comical and then somewhat personal when you wrote about the appreciation days with law enforcement and these appreciation days being commemorated around tragedies of of citizens. And I was wondering, you know, when a radio or a journalist going to have Appreciation Day at some of these ballparks and the airlines and other resorts.
Howard Bryant [00:22:40] Was one of the things that I’m concerned about. When I talk about being concerned about this country, we only accept heroism if you’ve got a gun in your hand. Mm hmm. And those are the heroes. We are. And there’s an essay in there as well called It’s okay to criticize the military where you’re talking about sort of the American priority. And we never question if you look at what’s happening in the country today. So you have, um, whether it’s the Elizabeth Warren Medicare plan or whether it’s a Bernie Sanders Medicare plan or whether it’s a Pete voting age Medicare plan, the first thing people say is, how are you going to pay for it? Or if it’s a student debt plan, how are you going to pay for it? But if it’s more and more and more weapons, nobody asked that question. And if you if you do some research, if you hop on Brown University’s done this wonderful study called The Costs of War, which is how much money it’s cost us to be fighting since 911, this country is drowning in enormous military debt. It’s drowning in debt. And that debt is not going to get paid off. And yet we seem to think that there is in a bottomless pit of money for the Defense Department. And you look at what’s happening to your college graduates who are who are stuck in debt and who are doing worse than their parents and who are living at home, where is this country going to go if you do not have the opportunity to have a career? And you look at those percentages, I mean, just hop on and look up anything on student and student debt, especially some of the government statistics. And you’re looking at the future. You know, my son is 15 years old and I’m looking at these numbers and I’m going these this generation is doomed. And at some point, something’s got to be done about it. But the narratives fueled by media in a lot of ways is that we’ll talk about an $800 billion defense budget. But if you try at all to talk about education or health or improvement in other ways that don’t include killing, we make it sound like it’s an impossibility. And it’s not. It’s just a difference in priority.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:24:35] When you have an opportunity to talk to these young ballplayers, are they finding themselves walking a tightrope or being unenthused when it comes to political issues or social problems?
Howard Bryant [00:24:48] Sometimes? Sometimes I think it depends on what kind of protection they have. The NBA, it’s a little bit different because you got LeBron there, and when you’ve got the best player talking about this stuff and they’ve got a little bit more cushion because they’re not isolated, it’s like, well, LeBron said, how come I can’t say it? So it’s not that bad when you’re in a position like baseball where you don’t have any African-American players, you only have 65 Black players in the whole sport anyway. And the Black players that you do have are not very. Eager to talk about racial or political issues. Yeah, it’s very, very, very difficult. The same is true for football when you see the chilling effect of what they did to Colin Kaepernick. There’s a there’s an acceptable way to talk about issues in football, and that is to be part of the players coalition. And then there’s a way to essentially lose your whole career, and that’s to align yourself with Colin Kaepernick, even though Eric Reid is back out there playing. So I think that the players have a greater awareness of it now, but I think they are very much trying to navigate, okay, how do I maintain my Blackness? How do I maintain my citizenship? Right. Without risking my entire career that I’ve worked my whole life to build?
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:25:53] Looking forward, Howard, you talked about the tremendous debt, and I use that that particular word intentionally tremendous debt that the military is, is putting upon our young people in the next generation. But is there light? That’s a tunnel. Are the other corners to be turned in this lesson?
Howard Bryant [00:26:12] Well, I think it depends on the leadership. I think it depends on on what this country chooses to value, what direction it chooses to go in. I think even if you go back and listen to the conversations about the military, even from Dwight Eisenhower back in the 1950s when he was president, he’s a Republican talking about how if we were how we’re essentially caging ourselves, we’re making a prison out of this country in terms of being too too heavily invested in war. And so you realize that it’s not necessarily a partizan issue as much as it is a priority issue within that partizanship and the attitude that we have today. You asked me earlier about the, you know, how you get pitted against your own country. This post-9-11 attitude that we have, which is now for my entire life, I’m 51 years old for my entire life. The American flag has always been aspirational. White people, Black people, Latinos, Asians, everybody said the same thing. Maybe we’re not perfect yet, but we’re getting there. That we have a dream to aspire to, whether it’s the Statue of Liberty and all of these different things that we talk about. You know, like, you know, things were better than they were. And I don’t feel that today. I feel today that when people talk about the American flag, it’s simply a symbol to be obeyed. And if you don’t obey it, whatever that it is, then you’re unpatriotic. And that’s a very, very different message from the America that I’ve grown up in.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:27:38] Howard Bryant, senior writer with ESPN dot com, NPR’s Weekend Edition correspondent and the author of Four Dissonant Notes from an Uneven Playing Field. If you have questions, comments or suggestions, ask the Future In Black America programs. Email us at In Black America at KUT dot org. Also, let us know what radio station you heard us over. Remember to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. The views and opinions expressed on this program are not necessarily those of the station or of the University of Texas at Austin. You can hear previous programs online at KUT.org. Until we have the opportunity again for technical producer David Alvarez, I’m John L. Hanson Jr. Thank you for joining us today. Please join us again next week.
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