Updates at 12:35 p.m. Thursday with Tweet showing NASCAR image of noose in garage at Talladega Superspeedway:
NASCAR called it a noose. The FBI called it a noose, even when it didn’t call it a hate crime.
A garage door pull tripped up NASCAR and caused even more controversy for Bubba Wallace at a time where his voice has been one of the most powerful in all of sports.
Wallace became an instant figure for his stand against the Confederate flag and his support of Black Lives Matter, a reflection of the pleas for racial injustice around the nation. He gave his profession a unifying moment and a beautiful post-race interview at Talladega.
And then it got complicated for him, for NASCAR and for all of us.
Effort has been poured into one question throughout Wednesday: Who’s to blame for the way the story unfolded?
But it would be better spent trying to understand another: How do we talk about this situation to better help our collective understanding?
Arwin Smallwood, the department chair of history and political science at N.C. A&T, earned his doctorate from Ohio State University in early U.S. and African-American history. Smallwood said given Wallace’s outspokenness as of late, a little more thoughtfulness might’ve been helpful given the situation.
Photos on social media emerged on Tuesday night of that same garage stall from late last year with its uniquely fashioned knot. There’s a certain sensitivity that should be applied to avoid the symbols that have long stood as threats against Black people.
“I’m sure you can interview many African Americans who experienced that will tell you that there were things that were done to send a message to them, that they either weren’t wanted or there was some hard feelings about the fact that they were there or the fact that they had said something that wasn’t appropriate,” Smallwood said, pointing toward resistance of integration during the 20th century. “At a minimum, it’s still a teaching moment of being aware and conscious of how something might appear.”
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Blacks accounted for nearly three-quarters, or about 3,500, of all U.S. deaths by hanging, according to the NAACP and WBUR.org. Lynchings became a representation of white supremacy and the noose a symbol of intimidation.
That might explain why a team member of NASCAR’s only Black driver took it as a noose in the first place – Wallace has been a beacon of praise and criticism since he first asked NASCAR to ban the Confederate flag, another symbol that hatred has festered. It was one person looking out for the benefit of another, the way it should be.
On Monday, before the GEICO 500, fellow racers pushed Wallace’s car to the starting line as a display of unity, circling around him. It was a collective moment for a sport that roughly two months ago suspended one of its rising stars, Kyle Larson, after he blurted out a racial slur during a iRacing event.
That march, a flash point of progress, can be the kindling for change, said Omar Ali, dean of the Lloyd International Honors College at UNCG.
“All we can do, and as an educator all I can do, is create space after space for people to step in and learn how to have new kinds of conversations where we’re not simply pointing fingers but relating to the best in others,” Ali said. “And have it be grounded in history.
“. . . You can’t begin to appreciate the pain that that causes when people are presented that or that appears in your garage or whatever. This is an appeal to learn history, to also be co-producers in history, with a posture that’s radically inclusive.”
The history for this country is complex, at times ugly. A Civil War hero can be lauded while looking over his slave-trading past. Statues still stand today for people who were particularly brutal to their fellow man.
But it’s also peppered with progressive steps that finally break down old and flawed ideals. The killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black people remind us we still have a way to go.
Wallace brought that ongoing conversation to the sports world, and it will continue to grow as our professional leagues return. Ali, a Columbia Ph.D. grad, said it’s pivotal that these tough conversations are now more frequently born on the playing field. And the tough discussions athletes will continue to bring forward will be more than worthwhile to our society.
“There’s a long history of issues of racism in the sports world, and I think it offers a new vista and new conversations,” Ali said. “I think it’s going to be really, really hard emotionally.
“If you want to develop, you have to let people say how they’re doing, (and) what they’re thinking because people are shutting each other down and people are feeling like they have to come out and say the definitive statement against racism. And that’s fine, but to me the more important work is creating conversations and not just issuing statements.