Quarterback Russell Wilson Sets A Milestone, And Everyone Shrugs

Feb 3, 2014
Originally published on February 3, 2014 7:52 pm

It happened again.

Last night during the Super Bowl, Coca-Cola aired an ad that featured snapshots from a multicultural America — a family sitting down for dinner at a restaurant; children on a road trip, pointing at mountains; teenagers tap-dancing on the street; dads roller skating. The scenes were overlaid with a rendition of "America The Beautiful," with lyrics sung in several different languages.

This ad set the teeth of some Twitter nativists on edge — This is America! Speak English! — which shouldn't be surprising by now. Bigots gon' bigot. We saw it with that Cheerios ad from last year. We saw it with the Miss America pageant. We saw it with that cute kid who sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the Spurs game. We saw it with the casting of Rue in the first Hunger Games movie. Racism on Social Media is a genre of news story at this point, so we're not going to do it each time it happens.

People have always said and will always say these types of things. What's changed is the way social media allow us to see what were once strangers' closed conversations. Is it happening more or less than before? (Probably less, but who really knows?) It's just more visible now.

But a different, more interesting race-related thing happened last night: Russell Wilson became just the second black quarterback to ever win the Super Bowl. The knock on black signal-callers had always been that they were insufficiently cerebral and bad leaders — "natural athletes," the euphemism went, suggesting they got by on instinct rather than practiced skill. Lots of black kids who were standout quarterbacks in college were refashioned in the pros, moved to positions that were seen as better fits.

That was definitely the tenor back in 1988, when Washington's Doug Williams started in Super Bowl XXII in 1988 against the Broncos. Not too long before, Jimmy the Greek, a CBS sports commentator, had caused a firestorm when he argued that black people were more athletic than whites because of the way slave owners bred them. There were questions about whether a black quarterback could lead a team to victory. (Williams was also the first black quarterback ever selected in the first round of the NFL draft.) Williams was a complete anomaly then, and, according to Snopes, he was asked for his opinions on a bunch of racial issues in the lead-up to the Super Bowl.

Doug, do you feel like Jackie Robinson?

Doug, would you have been able to handle all of this, especially the black thing, if you had made the Super Bowl a few years back, say, when you were 25?

Doug, has there been much progress in this country since 1970, when the schools you grew up in were finally integrated?

Doug, do you feel because of the black quarterback issue, that the whole country is looking at you and saying, "Well, what are you going to do?"

Doug, would it be easier if you were the second black quarterback to play in the Super Bowl?

Doug, why haven't you used being the first black quarterback as a personal forum for yourself?

Doug, will America be pulling for the Redskins, or rooting against them because of you?

This go 'round, though, Wilson's starting and performance didn't seem to warrant much attention. As the New Yorker's Sam Freedman points out, Wilson was one of a platoon of black NFL quarterbacks.

"During some weeks of the 2013 regular season, as many as nine black quarterbacks started for the N.F.L.'s thirty-two teams, setting a league record. Three of the four quarterbacks who started in the N.F.C. divisional playoffs are black—Wilson, [Colin] Kaepernick, and Carolina's Cam Newton."

And even on Twitter, where it's not that hard to find ill-considered extemporaneous musings, there wasn't much apoplexy about Wilson. His blackness was mentioned by ESPN's Stuart Scott as an aside, shoehorned in between postgame analyses.

So we're going to get all #slatepitch-y with this and say: Progress! Some people may not see the multiplicity of languages spoken in America as legitimate, but no one bats an eye at a black quarterback's fantastic play in the Super Bowl.

But perhaps your nativist uncle is still upset about "America the Beautiful" being desecrated by Coke's polyglot rendition of it. You know, something like this Twitter user's outrage.

"I promise I'm not racist but that song was written to be sung in English. Not Spanish. Not Hebrew. Not Hindi. ENGLISH"

Considering that "America the Beautiful" was originally set to the melody of the hymn "O Mother Dear, Jerusalem," maybe singing it in Hebrew would have been truer to the song's roots.

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