Cam Newton might be Superman, but he’s finding out that speaking honestly about race just might be his Kryptonite.
The issue of race has swirled around the Panthers megastar all year, even during a historic season which has led to the franchise’s second Super Bowl appearance, this time against the Denver Broncos, the same franchise Doug Williams beat in 1988 to become the first black starting quarterback to win the Super Bowl.
Open talk of a black man’s cerebral ability to be a quarterback is a thing of the past. That doesn’t mean what Newton said last week isn’t true.
“I’m an African-American quarterback,” he said during a press conference. “That may scare a lot of people because they haven’t seen nothing they can compare to me.”
It’s also true that not a few white fathers would love to have Newton as a son, or son-in-law; countless white women want him as a husband or boyfriend; that he has been praised by white NFL analysts as the best player in the league and is a likely runaway choice for MVP.
It’s also true that Newton’s current status is more privileged than 99.99 percent of the people who have ever inhabited Earth.
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t also face the kind of scrutiny most of his white peers don’t.
But neither does that mean racial animus is the driving force behind the criticism.
It may be more a matter of tradition bias – a reflexive preference for the way things have always seemingly been, pre-dabbing – rather than the much-discussed, yet little understood racial kind.
Too many people, though, don’t allow for the kind of nuance that productive discussions about race demand to think beyond one soundbite.
This response from a reader on the Observer’s website was indicative of what I saw elsewhere:
“[I]t always comes down to race. Never thought about it until he felt compelled to bring it up. ... Time to get off that co dependency. … I’m sure [if] he loses it will be the fault of race.”
Maybe that reader never did think about Newton’s race. But because of the way our brains process information, none of us has to think about race to be influenced by it in ways we don’t fully understand. The white woman who feared for her daughter because Newton danced on the field probably never thought about his race.
The good cop who reflexively shoots a young black man – black men are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than white men, according to an analysis by ProPublica – likely isn’t thinking about race, either.
Neither is the administrator who expels the black pre-schooler because he is a perceived threat.
That’s why racial perceptions are so hard to uproot in a post-Civil Rights world. We get to pretend that because we don’t think about it that race plays no role because there are no dogs and water hoses and lynchings by the old oak tree to remind us – even though neuroscience and social science and a bevy of deeply-entrenched racial disparities tell us otherwise.
Newton is judged differently because of race. Fortunately for him, he’s Superman. And just like the comic book character, it may slow him down every now and again, but never really stops him from flying.
That’s why whether it is tradition bias or racial animus driving some of the criticism Newton receives, I’m not worried about him. He’s going to survive and thrive.
I’m wondering how it affects the young black and brown kids who aren’t yet bulletproof.
Bailey is a former columnist and editor for the (Myrtle Beach) Sun News. On Twitter: @ijbailey