Whitewashing ‪Muhammad Ali‬: Our Racist Past, Present, and Future

Throughout my ‪social media connections, in the wake of Muhammad Ali‬’s death, a warning and a prediction were common: do not allow Muhammad Ali‬ to be whitewashed and watch as people whitewash Muhammad Ali‬.

On ESPN radio, during a show soliciting people to call in about Muhammad Ali‬, I listened as George Foreman shared an anecdote about Muhammad Ali‬ and Foreman discussing God, reaching the conclusion that Muhammad Ali‬ transcended race.

Muhammad Ali‬ did not transcend race. A black man, he was race. He punched racism in its cowardly face.

This whitewashing of Muhammad Ali‬ has a long history, in fact. It is what we do in the U.S. to mask our racist past, to deny our racist present, and to insure our racist future.

In 2012, Michael Ezra explained: “[Muhammad Ali’s] emergence as boxing’s eminence grise, one of the country’s most beloved figures, tells us much about how Americans construct the past to make sense of the present.”

After outlining Muhammad Ali’s tumultuous fame and infamy, Ezra concluded about the resurrected and recreated Muhammad Ali: “But Ali’s return to glory has come at a price; it is predicated on the whitewashing of his past and the silencing of his voice.”

Under the weight of disease and now shrouded in death, Muhammad Ali has been subsumed by the very demon of the U.S. that he chose to fight with dire consequences to himself and his career as a boxer.

Muhammad Ali has been reduced to a caricature to suit white America in the same way Martin Luther King Jr. has been trivialized as a passive radical.

“Transcending race,” “post-racial,” and “I don’t see race” are codes that blind of progressive racism, of what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls “elegant racism.”

The most vile examples came when Muhammad Ali died and mostly, but not exclusively, right-wing political leaders—who are racists, who court racists, who are xenophobes, who court xenophobes, who are Islamophobic, and who court Islamophobes—offered effusive praise for Muhammad Ali as the Greatest of All Times, quoting his butterfly and bees line in the same shallow way white America embraces King’s “I have a dream.”

Muhammad Ali was far from perfect—but being flawed matters only about people with minority statuses in the U.S.—but Muhammad Ali was never Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods, apolitical (as in, the safe sort of whitewashed market “political”) Nike pitchmen.

Ask Richard Sherman or Marshawn Lynch about being a political black athlete today.

Muhammad Ali has to be whitewashed because he did not gain his historical importance from “speaking his mind” (all sorts of blowhards and moral vermin “speak their minds”), but from being on the right side of morality about racism and militarism in the U.S. 

If you are uncertain about race and racism in the U.S. right now, and want a peek into how racism will endure into our future, read the comments here.

Also right now you can witness the most insidious forms of whitewashing through the political and media manipulation of inexcusable hate and violence, which Clint Smith confronts:

Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it would seek the death penalty in the case of Dylann Roof, the twenty-two-year-old accused of walking into the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, last year and murdering nine black members of its congregation after spending the preceding hour praying alongside them.

Smith challenges the call for the death penalty, highlighting the support from the political Left and concluding:

Those who support the death penalty are accepting a practice that is both ineffective and fundamentally flawed. It means supporting a system that not infrequently kills those with serious mental illness. It means supporting a system in which an execution is far more likely to take place when the convicted murder is black and the victim is white, than it is when the victim is black and the killer is white. It means supporting a system that has sentenced, and continues to sentence, innocent people to death. In our impulse to rid the world of those we find reprehensible, we forget that we are also ridding the world of those who have done nothing wrong.

Instead, Smith acknowledges:

Roof is not a historical anomaly as much as a representation of a past that America prefers to sweep under its rug rather than commit to cleaning up….Killing Roof does nothing other than soothe the moral conscience of a country that would rather not reckon with the forces that created and cultivated his ideology.

The real and complicated Muhammad Ali offered the U.S. who we could be, but we are dedicated to whitewashing instead.

We remain unable to see that Donald Trump and Dylan Roof are who we have been, who we are, and who we are likely to be—as long as we refuse to see, we refuse to act with the sort of moral conscience that a black Muslim chose instead of playing the game demanded of him.

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