DeSean Jackson and America’s Gang Hysteria

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DeSean Jackson has been the subject of recent controversy due to an NJ.com report over his alleged “gang ties.” (Image source: http://www.ballerstatus.com)

By NAVID FARNIA

Who do you know?  Who did you grow up with?  Who are your friends?  Who are your affiliates?

DeSean Jackson had to deal with these questions after news came out that his employer, the Philadelphia Eagles, were looking to trade or release him.  The Eagles eventually released the wide receiver, and he signed with Washington soon after

Why did these questions surface?  On March 28th, the website NJ.com published a story speculating about Jackson’s “gang ties.”  The article was released after weeks of public prognostication regarding Jackson’s future in Philadelphia.  That same day, the Eagles released Jackson. 

Why does it matter who Jackson’s “associates” are or with whom he hangs out?  Although I feel Jackson’s choice in friendships isn’t newsworthy, I realized the answer is obvious.  It matters because NJ.com and the Philadelphia Eagles want fans to consider Jackson’s life beyond football.  Since Jackson’s talent is undeniable, fans are confronted with questions about his behavior and character instead.  This is why the writers at NJ.com set the agenda at Jackson’s alleged gang connections.  Ultimately, Jackson’s private life matters because NJ.com made it so. 

Beyond the article’s problematic details and assumptions, which I’ll get into, its overarching thesis is to devalue Jackson’s talents by undermining his character and dehumanizing him.  At best, columnists Eliot Shorr-Sparks and A.J. Perez initiated a smear campaign against Jackson, supporting the Eagles’ efforts to get rid of him with their amateur sleuth journalism; at worst, they collaborated with the Eagles (which some say leaked information about Jackson to NJ.com) in a character assassination.

Building a Smear Campaign

The NJ.com article fabricates a story from several loose strands of information.  Shorr-Sparks and Perez explain:

Sources close to Jackson and within the Eagles’ organization say it originally was Jackson’s off-field behavior that concerned the front office.  A bad attitude, an inconsistent work ethic, missed meetings and a lack of chemistry with head coach Chip Kelly were the original reasons for his fall from grace, sources told NJ.com.

            And when the Eagles looked more deeply into why Jackson was missing meetings, they found that his friends were becoming a more powerful – and negative – influence in his life.  

The writers focus the rest of the article on substantiating that last statement.  In particular, they explore Jackson’s relationship with Theron Shakir, “a purported member of the Crips,” the article states.  They examine why Jackson supported Shakir after he was charged with murder in 2010.  Instagram photos – in which Jackson and Shakir are seen together – accompanying the article are apparently supposed to incriminate Jackson.  Yet, the article fails to mention that Shakir and Jackson were childhood friends.  “I was raised with Theron; we grew up together,” Jackson said in an ESPN interview.  But this doesn’t fit the article’s narrative.  Instead, the column establishes Jackson’s guilt by association. 

However, in a great plot twist, the writers manage to include the small fact that Shakir was actually acquitted of his murder charge.  In literally two sentences, the article proceeds from labelling Shakir as “an alleged killer” to admitting he was acquitted.

The article builds up a sensation that Jackson’s friends are murderous gang members in order to validate the assertion that they have an increasingly negative influence in his life.  But are we really to believe that his friends are suddenly a “powerful and negative influence” because Jackson flashed the Crip sign in a football game last year?  Or should we gather that from the Instagram photos?  The writers jump to conclusions based on little real evidence, thereby using egregiously non-sequitur logic.  As such, the haphazard argument exposes a smear campaign that’s either instigated by these columnists or the Eagles’ organization. 

A Racial Double Standard

When Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper uttered the words, “I will fight every n***** here” at a Kenny Chesney concert last year, nobody questioned his past or present affiliations.  There was no exposé probing his character.  His racism was perceived as a mistake, and he was sent to counseling during Eagles’ training camp. 

Rather than being muddied, Cooper’s humanity was upheld through the fire.  He subsequently had a career year, and after the season, the Eagles gave him a new contract.  At no point did the organization outcast him.  Nor did the media smear his character.  This is the difference between being Black and white in the NFL.  Jackson is a “problem child” with “gang ties”, and Cooper is a human being who makes mistakes. 

Despite the NJ.com article’s flimsy accusations, the subsequent public response was so damaging that Jackson had to clear the air in an interview with ESPN analyst Stephen A. Smith.  Of course, the interview prompted a follow-up article by Shorr-Sparks, in which he discusses five things that Jackson and Smith supposedly “got wrong.”  One of these points is the following:  “Smith implied the story about Jackson’s alleged gang ties was leaked by the Eagles to NJ.com.”  

This is noteworthy because Shorr-Sparks and Perez make numerous implications and assumptions about Jackson’s life in the original article.  The columnists basically establish Theron Shakir as a murderer before finally mentioning he was never convicted.  The entire piece implies Jackson’s guilt by association to an implied (but not actual) murderer.  Yet, the writer takes issue with Smith’s interview? 

This journalistic double standard is only possible because the NJ.com writers act as mouthpieces for the Philadelphia Eagles.  Media characters are free to imply whatever they want about athletes’ lives in order to advance a team’s cause. 

We live in an image-oriented society, and the writers at NJ.com know this.  So does the Eagles’ organization.  By smearing Jackson’s image, both the Eagles and NJ.com benefit from each other.  NJ.com makes it easier for the Eagles to release one of their best players by capturing fans’ racist imaginations with a story involving gangs and murder.  Conversely, the Eagles help NJ.com sell the demeaning story by revealing their intentions to get rid of Jackson.

Both organizations feed off society’s gang hysteria and exploit Jackson’s background to fabricate a narrative that serves their interests.  In truth however, this story is not about image or Jackson’s associates.  It’s about his skin color and class background. 

Gang Ties or Ties to Community?

Having grown up with DeSean Jackson, Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman was naturally compelled to share his opinion.  Sherman discusses the reality that many football players hailing from inner-city neighborhoods probably know people in gangs.  Having been subjected to racist comments a few months ago for his post-game interview after the NFC Championship, Sherman can relate to Jackson’s situation.  While the buzzwords surrounding Jackson are “gang ties”, Sherman’s detractors labelled him a “thug.” 

Unsurprisingly, Sherman and Jackson are both targets of coded racial animosity.  But their situations aren’t entirely the same either.  When Sherman experienced that racist backlash, many commentators, journalists and even scholars reacted swiftly and justly by supporting Sherman and denouncing the racism. 

Unfortunately, Jackson’s cause lacks the same widespread appeal.  Most observers have either tiptoed around his situation or ignored it altogether. 

So what’s the difference?  Many defended Sherman by alluding to his Stanford education, his almost flawless grades in high school and college and his intelligent outlook, most evident in his writingSuch qualities apparently make Sherman a “good guy.”  This attitude implies that his success and education, and not his humanity, earns him our support.    

Jackson had a different path to success.  Through the years, Jackson has been stigmatized as a “problem child”, someone who is in the league strictly based on his talent (although Jackson did attend Berkeley).  Critics claim he has attitude issues and is a “me-first guy” in the locker room.  Hence, Jackson’s merits are cancelled out by his alleged behavior.  

Given the circumstances then, people apparently think Sherman is smart and successful despite his Blackness and working class upbringing.  While many commentators perceive Sherman as having transcended his community, they see Jackson as being held back by that same community.  This logic scapegoats Jackson’s racial and class background for his “bad behavior.” 

David Leonard criticizes this racially loaded position. He explains, “The constant references to his ‘inability to sever ties,’ despite the potential ramifications, reflect the pathologizing of Jackson, as if this decision reflects bad judgment that COULD have severe consequences. In refusing to turn his back on his family and friends, on his community, Jackson refuses the narrative of success resulting from escape, from living in a new world, and from starting over.” 

Moreover, Sherman’s words support Leonard’s argument, as he shows how he and Jackson are more alike than the media portrays.  “Go ahead and judge DeSean for the company he keeps. While you’re at it, judge me, too,” Sherman exclaims.  “I still live in Los Angeles, and my family does, too. We didn’t run from where we grew up. We aren’t afraid to be associated with the people who came up with us.”

Sherman also recognizes how Jackson was made a racial target:

Commit certain crimes in this league and be a certain color, and you get help, not scorn. Look at the way many in the media wrote about Jim Irsay after his DUI arrest. Nobody suggested the Colts owner had “ties” to drug trafficking, even though he was caught driving with controlled substances (prescription pills) and $29,000 in cash to do who-knows-what with. Instead, poor millionaire Mr. Irsay needs help, some wrote.

            But DeSean Jackson is the menace, right? He’s just as bad as those guys he parties with because he threw up a Crip sign in a picture and he owns a gangsta rap record label. If only all record label owners were held to this standard, somebody might realize that Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg weren’t the bosses behind NWA. Jim Irsay lookalikes in suits were. 

Unlike most commentators, Sherman understands the racial hypocrisies evident in media coverage of certain situations.  Moreover, we should also analyze speculation about Jackson’s “gang ties” through a racial lens. 

America’s Moral Panic over Gangs

Media attention to Jackson’s affiliation with gang members reflects a moral panic.  In his book Folk Devils and Moral Panics, scholar Stanley Cohen describes moral panics as occurring when “[a] condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests.”  Jackson’s case reveals the racial and class anxieties present in American society concerning gangs. 

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Campaigns like this one shown in Palm Beach, spread anti-gang messages, scapegoating them for the persistence of violence. (Image source: http://www.palmbeachpost.com)

Gangs have been the subject of moral panic for decades.  The panic’s severity has coincided with the implementation of anti-gang laws around the country.  Former president Bill Clinton even called for a “war on gangs” in his 1997 State of the Union speech.  Gangs have become synonymous with violence and criminal activity, which both results from and contributes to America’s moral panic. 

However, this is an incomplete picture.  Journalist Caspar Walsh explains that gangs themselves aren’t the problem.  “It’s when gangs start using violence to control turf and territory and make money that we need to take action.  Young people join gangs because it is a crucial part of growing up.  Gangs do not always revert to violence.” 

Gangs represent underground social institutions where young people who don’t have access to formal social spaces can galvanize.  For denied youths, gangs aren’t organized crime syndicates.  Rather, they can provide spaces for growth and comradery where such spaces aren’t otherwise available.  These underground institutions are embraced because society marginalizes or excludes young people of color.  Undoubtedly, some of Jackson and Sherman’s childhood friends found solace in gangs because social capital wasn’t available elsewhere. 

As Walsh explains, the problem isn’t gangs themselves.  The corrosive forces within gangs that trigger violent activity result from external influences, most notably the lack of resources in poor communities.  This doesn’t justify gang violence.  However, gang violence is absolutely overstated; gangs are scapegoated for many broader social issues. 

Most well-known gangs have long been corrupted by the same values that inhabit Wall Street, Washington and Hollywood, which all have exponentially greater power.  Violence, crime and corruption are not endemic to gangs.  The anti-gang narrative is fabricated by those perched high in society’s formal institutions because alternative social organizations threaten their power and authority.  It becomes necessary to close off the few spaces afforded to young people of color by infiltrating them and criminalizing its members and so-called affiliates like Jackson. 

America’s gang hysteria is no hysteria at all.  Since racism predates this country’s existence, how can we see racially loaded issues in that way?  As isolated incidents, we may think these issues reflect a gang hysteria.  However, they actually signify a larger theme of racial oppression.  

Devaluing Black Athletes and Dehumanizing Black People

DeSean Jackson is the latest victim in the moral panic over gangs.  Jackson was made an example by both NJ.com and the Philadelphia Eagles – who benefited from his services for years without concern for anything but his performance.  This is no surprise, as sports teams and the media establishment constantly turn profits by dehumanizing Black people. 

To the Eagles, Riley Cooper (47 receptions, 835 yards, 8 touchdowns last season and 93 receptions, 1,514 yards, 13 TD’s for his career) is worth $25 million, while DeSean Jackson (82 receptions, 1,332 yards, 9 TD’s last season and 356 receptions, 6,117 yards, 32 TD’s for his career) doesn’t deserve a job.  Meanwhile, the writers at NJ.com complain about others implying that the Eagles leaked information to the website, but freely implicate Jackson over and over in their meaningless yet, damning article. 

The implication is that DeSean Jackson should be fired from his job for his friendships and affiliations.  The implication is that he should be fired because he has “gang ties”, and people with gang ties are threats.  The implication is that he should be fired because he grew up in South Central Los Angeles, a “rough area”, and maintains connections to his community.  The implication is that Black athletes raised in working class neighborhoods should sever all community ties to ensure their professional success.  The implication is that a white man with a racist history, Riley Cooper, is more worthy of a job than Jackson.  Finally, the implication is that DeSean Jackson’s Blackness is a liability and his having a job is despite his race. 

When people came to Richard Sherman’s defense months ago, most did so for the wrong reasons.  Sherman’s humanity isn’t granted because of his education, beliefs, work ethic or intellect.  It’s granted because of his existence. 

Most importantly, Sherman’s Blackness affirms his humanity.  And despite media propaganda that says otherwise, the same can be said for DeSean Jackson and all other Black athletes. 

 

Navid Farnia received his Master of Arts degree from the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University in New York.  He is an Iranian American who was born and raised in Oklahoma.

Follow on Twitter @OvertheLine1 and contact at overthecolorline@gmail.com

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