WHETHER USED TO promote sports or justify the police state, the predominant black male image in America is one of anger and aggression. In the right time, emotion sells as passion (a Ray Lewis pregame speech, a Kevin Garnett guttural roar-and-dunk), and glistening muscles sell as dedication and athletic-gene perfection (see Dwight Howard). But in the wrong time -- when a black man is walking down the street, wearing a hoodie or a suit; or when Dez Bryant is yelling on the sidelines -- the muscles become frightening, the passion transforms into anger and the same images used to glorify and monetize the black athlete end up justifying belief of his danger.
Even with a Harvard-educated black man occupying the White House, the conception of black masculinity still revolves around the primal, not the intellectual. The first skill any African-American man learns in navigating the white world is how to make white people comfortable. He must be nonthreatening. Before he can profit from the snarl, he must first soften them with a smile. These tactics predate Matt Barnes' tweeting of the N-word; they predate the NFL, Jay Z and the Civil War.
Yet no matter the tactic, no matter how powerful or savvy a black man might be, manipulation of his image remains a shadow currency. LeBron James was the first black male to gain the cover of Vogue, in 2008. His portrayal conjured images of King Kong -- it was him roaring at the camera with a white woman, Gisele Bundchen, in his arms.
These old constructions, very much alive, were returned to light by Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito. Here was a case in which a white man used racial slurs to a Stanford-educated teammate who comes from a two-parent, Harvard-educated home. And more than anything else, the root issue was the eternal difficulty this country has in allowing black men to live in full dimension. Martin didn't look the part. He didn't conform to the accepted code of black masculinity, exposing the fault line that has always run underneath the American soil, transformative president or not.
On the Dolphins, Martin wasn't seen as a real man. Uncomfortable with the strip clubs, he wasn't trusted as one of the boys. And because he represented the images of scholarship and manners, of dignity and higher education -- reputable qualities generally associated with white mainstream America -- he was inauthentic in the eyes of black players, but no more authentic in the eyes of whites. His teammates preyed on Martin's economic class and demeanor, viewing each as weakness, his education as a mimicry of whiteness. (It's telling that John Elway and Andrew Luck, also Stanford grads, have never been accused of being soft.)
Meanwhile, Incognito became "honorary black" not for any great contribution to African-American history or society but by personifying the negative attributes that American culture usually assigns to black men: the thug, the sex-club swagger, the tough-guy bravado. The images shifted, twisted and flipped, and the person embodying the stereotypical N-word was actually the white man, to the point where Incognito's black teammates saw themselves in his behavior more than Martin's.
Martin and his family may be what politicians and teachers say is the American ideal, but the actual rewards -- the acting jobs, the record deals, the social acceptance, the money -- largely go to the African-Americans who exemplify the N-word, who embrace the suffocating, limiting image of male blackness. The decision to perpetuate this image isn't made solely by the black community but by the white suits who decided long ago how the part is supposed to look and what black behavior they will compensate; think of that LeBron cover again. Corporations seem to doubt the authenticity and marketability of black men who live outside the primal construct.
This represents the ultimate victory of racism: the belief that exists among both whites and blacks that being educated, being articulate, having manners, is the sole province of being white. It is why Jonathan Martin appears so foreign, so threatening, to his teammates, and why a nothing like Richie Incognito makes them feel right at home.