The Real Lesson That We Learned from the Juwan Howard Incident: A Black Man Still Has No Rights That Require Respect

                                                                                                        "A Black man had no rights which the white man was bound to respect,"

Chief Justice Roger B. Taney


On Sunday afternoon, I spent a little time after preaching and meeting the congregation with a bit of tv time, mostly playing in the background. But since I do have a master's degree in Social Work from the University of Michigan and I am currently a doctoral student in the Joint Sociology and Social Work program at Michigan, I tend to lift up the old Go Blue banner. I'm not a sports fanatic by any means. I couldn't tell you who is good and who is terrible. I have no athletic records memorized and I really can't remember whose team won the last national championship. However, I enjoy sports. I played them as a youth and I enjoy playing sports even today, so much so that I wake up twice a week at 5:00 am to play pick-up basketball. If you played pick-up basketball with no referee, you already know the physicality and intensity that can come with that kind of game. However, when it's over, we slap hands and walk away in peace or anger.

I play pick-up basketball at a private club. The benefits of the private gym actually have less to do with the exclusivity that most would initially assume, but primarily the convenience–geographically it is between my work and home. In short, I love the place. I've referred friends and become a bit of a fixture over the last eight years. But like many places in the world, it's one of those places where I am a minority, and in this circumstance, I'm a super minority by way of race and class. Simply put, I’m Black and not financially well-off. Reverend Charles E. Williams IIReverend Charles E. Williams II

With all that I love about the club, there are limitations to my privileges that other members have the full right to enjoy. To cut right to the chase, being able to experience my full range of emotions is hampered. Understand me, I'm not looking for an opportunity to be an angry man, but I'm a Black man who doesn't have the privilege to be angry. This means at all times, at least in the presence of others, it is essential for me to maintain the presence of a happy Black man. Therefore, my experiences on the basketball court include me masking any emotion at any point in time that would or could be perceived as threatening. 

One would ask, why am I holding a membership at a place where I have to negotiate my feelings in this way? I would respond that toxic positivity is a practice that Black men have to engage in wherever we are, including when I'm in Ann Arbor with folks at the University of Michigan, pulled over by police, or simply walking into an office setting. Hiding from the racist trope and stereotype that I'm an angry, barbaric Black man is a way of life. This is where Dr. W.E.B Du Bois reminds us of the "double consciousness".    

This is why when watching the Juwan Howard incident, (by the way, I can't call it the Greg Gard incident because no one would know who and what I'm talking about) I literally became physically ill. Watching Coach Howard try to negotiate anger the best way he could when walking down the handshake line, makes me flashback to every single moment in my life when I got to my car, or made it to my office or left the conflict and literally thanked God that I got away without having an emotional to physical blackout. Going through the motions, putting on your mask, is exhausting, but we do it. Many Black folks who rise to the most successful spaces in society do it really well.

For as good as any of us are at biting our tongue, smiling instead of frowning, or learning the crafty art of disappearing before anyone notices we are gone, there is an invisible line, and that line is an unwanted physical touch. That is where masking ends, and nothing is left but the rawest response. Then they (white folk) ask, where did that come from? When the incident happened at that basketball game, we saw that response from Coach Howard. He was grabbed and confronted and that sent his body into shock. To add insult to injury, Coach Gard is supposed to be his colleague–he is not his coach, boss, parent, nor the police, so he had no reason nor right to touch him. So, Coach Howard checked out. I've been there. The problem is once you've crossed over the optics of respectability, constraint goes out of the window. This is where you see the continued engagement. Even after being broken up, Coach Howard slapped an assistant coach. He felt threatened, his mind was already violated, and his body was also violated. He said this in the post-press conference, yet nobody heard him.

Institutions say they are listening, but never hear us. The institutions involved, except for the BIG Conference (known as BIG TEN), have statements on their web presence that suggest that they want to be anti-racist and have a culture where people are supported. The University of Wisconsin's Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion website says that they understand the importance of listening, elevating, and following the lead of Black and brown people as we shape our collective future. The University of Michigan's Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion website also suggests that they are committed to establishing, supporting, and maintaining a culture where all U-M Students, Faculty, staff, and visitors feel safe and supported. Words that sound really good, but the Black students and faculty know this means they will hire a DEI director and give out some anti-racism scholarships. Meanwhile, these institutions provide a fertile ground for structural racism to grow through their denial of the violence that we experience in our mere existence in white spaces. Deaf ears and denial of one’s truth when that wounded voice speaks is a prime example of how racism acts. Throughout this entire week, none of these institutions have said to coach Howard “We see you. We hear you. We apologize and we need you to help us see how and why you got to this point”. Only victim bashing because a 6’9 Black man ain’t got no rights that bear respecting.

So how did the institutions involved miss this moment with all this university DEI and anti-racism grandstanding? Why did everybody involved rush to dismiss Coach Howard's actions without listening to his words? Racism. Why did Wisconsin totally deny they had any part in what happened on Sunday afternoon. Racism. Why did the University of Michigan issue a release chastising Coach Howard? Racism. Why did the BIG conference issue fines that were inequitable? Racism. I don't know the politics of timeouts at the end of a losing game, but I do know that Coach Howard felt that it was unnecessary and personal. No matter how much Wisconsin tries to downplay the unwanted touch by Coach Gard, it made Coach Howard feel uncomfortable. Just like we should be attentive to pronouns for the LGBTQ+ community and responsive to actions when men make women feel uncomfortable, if a 6'9 Black man says he felt attacked, we should listen. To not do so is racist. I know this is uncomfortable for white folks and Black folks who work for white folks, but if we keep missing the opportunity to have an authentic and raw conversation and most importantly take the correct actions when we see racism, it makes Blacks in these institutions feel uncomfortable and unprotected, causing us to have little faith in institutions making good on their DEI and anti-racist policies. This is not merely a moral failing or mental breakdown by a coach who let his anger get the best of him. If we let this die in that space, then all three of these institutions have only participated in promoting the racist tropes of Black man barbarism. That's racist.

Lastly, everybody talks about how these coaches should show good leadership for the student-athletes. I don't deny that's important. It is also important for these institutions to not be hypocritical and show good leadership also.  What are we teaching them? Well, as is, we have enshrined in them several notions. Your feelings don’t matter, your body doesn’t matter, and if you want to play basketball and excel in elite spaces, you better figure out now your name is Toby, not Kunta Kinte. Shut your mouth and shoot the ball.


Reverend Charles E. Williams II is senior pastor of the Historic King Solomon Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan. He is also the chairman of the National Action Network Michigan and a doctoral student at the University of Michigan.