In 2010, scholar Tim Wise and rapper-activist Jasiri X called upon their readers and listeners to imagine “If the Tea Party was Black"—how might their perception, reach and behavior be received if the race of the people involved changed?
Two years later, I think we should play this game again, but with NASCAR. Like the Tea Party, NASCAR is overwhelmingly White (there have been 5 Black drivers in its 64 year history), male, and tied to a particular set of reactionary politics. Can you imagine if NASCAR was Black?
Can you imagine the reaction to fans in "Black Power" shirts lining racetracks, as red, black and green flags and Black Panther Party imagery blanked NASCAR events? Whereas the Confederate flag—a symbol of secession and White supremacy—are commonplace at NASCAR events, symbols of Black pride would surely bring about major criticism and attacks.
What if it was an African-American driver who purposely crashed into another driver’s car, sending him airborne as Carl Edwards did to Brad Keselowski in 2010? Can you imagine if Barry Bonds, Metta World Peace, or Terrell Owens was a race car driver and how the public might respond at the sight of intentional crashes, trash talking, fist fights, and helmet throwing? Would it be “boys will be boys” or "that's just NASCAR"? Or would the talk to turn to criminality, thugs, and "gangstas?" One has to wonder if hip-hop would take the blame, even though nobody blames country music for this type of behavior from White NASCAR drivers.
Take a recent incident involving Kyle Busch and Ron Hornaday during a Camping World Truck Series race. After bumping each other, Busch proceeded to rear-end Hornaday’s truck into the wall, ostensibly wrecking his car. While Busch received a 1-race suspension and a 50,000 fine, can you imagine the outrage, moral posturing and punishments had the driver not been White?
Although a recent study highlighted the connection between NASCAR viewing and “aggressive driving,” with no such study on the impact of watching hard fouls, one has to wonder what people are actually scared about. If an elbow from Metta World Peace and a hard foul from Udonis Haslem prompts national outrage that focus on how the foul could have killed someone or that if someone did on the street would have been in jail, a Black NASCAR driver would lead to similar statements about “cars being weapons” and “out-of-control” drivers who are obviously crazy and therefore unsafe and off the track.
Can you imagine if NASCAR fans that were overwhelmingly (if not entirely) Black booed the First Lady of the United States, what might the reaction be? Whereas White fans can boo Michelle Obama and Jill Biden during an appearance at Homestead-Miami Speedway, which it is hard to imagine Laura Bush and Lynne Cheney receiving similar treatment at a Black NASCAR event; certainly such disrespect would elicit national outrage and condemnation. Can you imagine the reaction from Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, who actually thought the incident to be justifiable given the Obamas' “uppity-ism?"
That sort of disrespect wouldn’t fly if NASCAR were Black, nor would a group of drivers refusing to meet with the president. Just this year, several White NASCAR drivers passed on an invitation to the White House, citing scheduling conflicts. We don’t have to guess what might happen given the experiences of Craig Hodges, who in 1992 while visiting the Bush White House not only wore a dashiki, but also “handed the President a letter that asked him to do more to end injustice toward the African-American community.” He was soundly denounced in the media and shortly thereafter he was out of the league.
What if NASCAR had Black team owners; how might it impact the diversity of the sport; would the media and fans be so comfortable with the close relationship between the owners and politicians? Would politicians still be likely to court NASCAR voters; I can’t remember the last time I heard about NBA voters or hip-hop voters and the efforts to reach out into those communities. If NASCAR owners were Black, would there be such an effort from the Border Patrol or the U.S. military to support these cars with sponsorship? If the U.S. military gave $136 Million to a Black NASCAR driver as it did to Dale Earnhardt Jr., would people see it as advertisement or maybe a handout, welfare, or affirmative action?
Can you imagine if it was an African American NASCAR fan that donned a t-shirt that said "NHIN or NCIN– No Honkies or Crackers allowed in NASCAR?" While clearly not even in the same galaxy given the violent history behind the N-word, it is telling that fans can be seen wearing a shirt like: NNIN – “No N***** in NASCAR” or that such slogan might appear on a van. It is telling that the media response is often to deny racism within the sport or society as a whole. In this case, as with so many others, we cannot even fathom or imagine the “reversal.”
Can you imagine if NASCAR was Black? It seems pretty impossible. Given the entrenched Whiteness of NASCAR; given how symbols of Whiteness are as important to NASCAR as the cars themselves; given how important White masculinity is to the sport and how it gives life to the very culture of NASCAR, it is hard to imagine it any other way. NASCAR without Whiteness is just a car going fast in circles.
David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He is author of After Artest: Race and the War on Hoop (SUNY Press, spring 2012).