What Simone Manuel’s Gold Medal Comments Say About Race in America

Johnson: There’s no compartmentalizing your experience when you’re so intimately familiar with injustice. Why her statement on police brutality is especially timely.

The #blacklivesmatter movement has been no stranger to controversy. In its short existence it has garnered a reputation for being anti-American, a race-baiting organization, and, most recently — tapping into the fear zeitgeist for many white Americans — a domestic sleeper cell of terrorists. Reaction to #blacklivesmatter has at times even transcended racial identity, with critics accusing it of being “uncoordinated,” “loud” and “ineffective,” or reducing its most visible torchbearers — the protestors who have clogged everything from highways to brunch spots, to city hall, to the DNC — with derisive claims that they are shiftless, unthinking, unemployed, idealistic people with lots of energy and little planning in much the same way that the country has discredited other system disruptors like the Bernie and Occupy camps.

It has also spawned another type of reaction too; the most popular combative rhetorical retorts to #blacklivesmatter have been across-the-aisle brand battle cries of #alllivesmatter or #bluelivesmatter. It’s made the conversation around it all feel like we’re wading into increasingly turbulent waters while one side yells “Marco!” and the other side yells “Polo!,” all resulting in a stalemate. That the conversation on race now feels inescapable for folks only begins the long road toward empathy about the everyday experience for many Black Americans who feel we’ve had no choice but to navigate this country’s implicit and explicit unequal racial codes. From schools, to employment, to voting, to police interactions, it’s always been a sink-or-swim experience for us, and given the racial animus here, it’s often felt more like sinking. To quote David Foster Wallace (out of context): “this is water.”

That’s what I thought about when 20-year-old Simone Manuel emerged from the pool — breaking the surface and making history when she not only set a new Olympic record in the women’s 100-meter freestyle swimming, but also became the first African-American female to win gold in an individual swimming event. 

Shortly after, as she was interviewed about her accomplishment, and Manuel remarked, “it means a lot, especially with what is going on in the world today, some of the issues of police brutality … this win hopefully brings hope and change to some of the issues that are going on. My color just comes with the territory.” Her remarks came at the tail end of weeks of black women taking and owning the stage. We’ve seen black women ranging from First Lady Michelle Obama here in Philly, to the WNBA players, to the mothers who lost their sons at the hands of police brutality, all take and subvert their respective stages, delivering pointed, painfully true messages right to the heart of an America that still silences them at every opportunity.

Each time, they persisted in bringing the issues of racism and racial injustice to the forefront; their stances, actions, comments and remarks unflinching. The reaction has often been the same; that these women should have been happy to be invited to the party and not upset the crowd with their antics about racism and America’s ugly, sustained history. But asking these black women to compartmentalize their history, identity or experiences is a classic deflection tool; it’s the idea that they are, again, breaking an implicit code of conduct that I’ve written about before — but increasingly it’s falling apart for black people everywhere as the toll of injustice has become too much to shoulder anymore.

Manuel’s pool accomplishment comes a year after her home state of Texas experienced racial turmoil around pools. In June 2015, a video recording captured the chaotic circumstances around a pool party in McKinney, Texas, the main controversy centering on the violent exchange between then officer Eric Casebolt and 15-year-old Dejerria Becton. Casebolt is caught on film grabbing and painfully pinning the black teenager to the ground, and then pulling his gun on two nearby black teenager bystanders. The incident sparked yet another national conversation around police brutality, but also asserted that the conversation hasn’t given due space to police brutality cases involving women. Becton’s incident was a reminder of the need for another phrase that’s been just as persistent and vital to the #blacklivesmatter conversations: #sayhername.

There was a rigorous outcry for justice in this incident. Many called for the removal of Casebolt as an initial step for accountability, with others, such as Becton herself, asking for even more punitive measures to be levied. But here, the reflexive action of the blue wall raised up; while he was summarily dismissed from his position, a grand jury did not bring charges against him — leaving many feeling once again let down by a system that constantly swirls itself to take care of its own. The teenage Becton may now pursue suing the city of McKinney to continue seeking justice for the harm she suffered at the hands of Officer Casebolt. Meanwhile, Casebolt’s attorney was quoted as saying he wouldn’t “be surprised” if his client, still unemployed, tried returning to law enforcement.

Not a week ago in Baltimore, Maryland, Korryn Gaines, a black 23-year-old mother was shot and killed by police in her apartment, an altercation that included her 5-year-old son being shot by police in the crossfire, too. Already, the police report of the shooting has been rightfully scrutinized for its inconsistencies because none of the officers seemed to be wearing their body cameras, and whether the level of firearm aggression and escalation — Gaines was initially engaged due to outstanding traffic violations — was part of a wider pattern around excessive authority and policing by the Baltimore police. Soon after, a DOJ report was released detailing the findings of an extended investigation of Baltimore’s police force — the findings citing that “BPD makes stops, searches and arrests without the required justification; uses enforcement strategies that unlawfully subject African Americans to disproportionate rates of stops, searches and arrests; uses excessive force; and retaliates against individuals for their constitutionally-protected expression.” That this comes in the immediate aftermath of incidents like Gaines and the murder of Freddie Gray is not only sobering but numbing for many black folks while still serving as a splash of cold water to the face of many other Americans.

Can the system turn its head toward justice and accountability for its most policed citizens? It seems impossible to believe so, and harder to tell at what point the true crimes get addressed. Even locally we’ve seen the futility of holding police accountable. After being involved in an assault incident caught on film in 2012 at the Puerto Rican Day Parade here where he was filmed punching a woman in the face, Philadelphia PD officer Jonathan Josey was promoted to captain after battling with the department to get a promotion he felt he’d earned. The arbitration included having his grievance represented by the local FOP who argued that Josey’s prior history was being unfairly levied against him as he tried to advance in his career. Aida Guzman, the woman he hit, has since become part of the backdrop in the whole matter, as even Josey’s initial firing by the department was overturned in 2013, bringing him back into the force.

These are the currents that Manuel and so many women of color swim against every day in America. It’s what undoubtedly prompted her speak on police brutality when she pulled herself out of the pool. Here it is; her biggest, shining moment in life on the international stage and the same focus she used to win the race provided her the presence of mind to deliver that poignant, brief observation. It’s a reminder that there’s no compartmentalizing your experience in the country when you’re so intimately familiar with injustice. You’re awash in it all the time — there were reports of how little coverage her win garnered by NBC — like Manuel said “my color comes with the territory.”

What more should we expect though at this point? This is America. This is water.

Tre Johnson writes at Dearth of a Nation.