Alexander: A reprehensible act that could be a positive turning point

The pushback toward Bubba Wallace was predictable, I suppose. The nature of the pushback – the noose surreptitiously placed in the garage of NASCAR’s only Black driver Sunday at Talladega, as cowardly as it was vicious and reprehensible – sort of tells you everything you need to know about those who feel compelled to display or support the Confederate battle flag, which NASCAR decided to ban largely because of Wallace’s efforts.

And the scene before Monday’s rescheduled NASCAR race in Alabama was hopefully a reminder to those folks that theirs is still a minority view, no matter how loud they are. All of Wallace’s 39 competitors, and their crew members, helped him push his car to the front of pit road, and all of them stood behind Bubba during the pre-race invocation and National Anthem, living up to the message stenciled on the infield grass: “#IStandWithBubba.”

Maybe this was a turning point. Maybe the show of support from his fellow drivers, which Wallace followed up with a 14th place finish, sent a message to the as yet unknown perpetrator or perpetrators – who will be banned from NASCAR once discovered – and their sympathizers that bullying that falls under the hate crime statute won’t intimidate them. You’d like to think so, anyway.

And yes, this response to Wallace’s efforts to get the Confederate flag banned from NASCAR events and facilities likely will be considered a hate crime. NASCAR president Steve Phelps said in a teleconference early Monday that the Birmingham office of the FBI had already begun its investigation of the incident.

“They will be banned from this sport for life,” Phelps said of the perps. “There is no room for this at all. And we won’t tolerate it and they won’t be here. I don’t care who they are. They will not be here.”

NASCAR’s disassociation with that flag still seems like a tough hill to climb, especially for a sport that has strived for a national profile but still draws much of its support and identity from the Southeast. It is difficult enough with no or few fans in the stands or in the infield; this weekend, with just 5,000 fans allowed on the grounds, a plane flew over Talladega Speedway Sunday towing a giant Confederate flag and a sign, “Defund NASCAR,” and a parade of cars sporting those flags drove past the facility.

So what happens when NASCAR opens its facilities to full capacity and the RVs in the infield start breaking out that flag? This may get uglier before it gets smoother.

And there was this Monday, from a fan identified as Luke Johnson who told an Associated Press reporter that he felt that flag should continue to fly at NASCAR tracks and added, when asked about the noose: “I thought it was funny myself.”

If someone finds lynching imagery funny, this also should tell you all you need to know.

“I lived down in Alabama for a little while,” said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino. “There are still, particularly in that part of the country, those who rally around the Rebel flag.”

And, he said, it’s worth noting that a banner originally displayed by secessionists in support of slavery was dusted off in the era “from about 1915 to 1926,” when segregation was hardening, and then again during the civil rights battles of the ’50s and ’60s.

“In other words, they were taken out of the props department as a particularized message against civil rights.” he said.

“Part of this is cultural. And what I mean is there’s still, down South and in other parts of the country too, a neo-Confederate movement which has existed for some time, that has tried to whitewash the atrocities of slavery and the Confederate States’ defense of it.”

But it’s worth noting that, in a sport where sponsorship holds so much sway and the drivers tend to limit their controversies to whatever feuds are happening on the track in a given week, Wallace stepped out and followed a different trend: The athlete who is willing to take a stand.

It could be LeBron James and the many NBA players who have spoken out against racism, or WNBA players like Maya Moore, who stepped away from her sport for two seasons to work toward criminal justice reform. It could be NFL players who convinced commissioner Roger Goodell to revise his stance on protests. Or it could be any one of a number of college football players who, even beyond the name/image/likeness question, have spoken out recently about coaching staffs who have been racially insensitive at least, abusive at worst.

“Athletes are beloved cultural figures,” Levin said. “And when they speak, particularly in a sport (like NASCAR) that is so devoid of African-Americans, it’s going to have resonance, particularly now. Timing is everything in this world.”

There almost certainly will be blowback and ugliness, which has become a routine part of this country’s continuing cultural wars. As Levin put it, there will invariably be one step back for every two steps forward.

The trick is to follow that step back with two more steps forward. The pre-race scene in Talladega Monday was one. The scene captured by Fox after the race, when Wallace crossed the track to the stands to greet fans, was another, and it included this comment:

“You can’t take away my smile. I’m going to keep on going.”

This time, the bullies and bigots didn’t win.

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@Jim_Alexander on Twitter

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