The Benefit Of The Doubt

After an intense fortnight of racial tension within Motorsport, Dre breaks down why the fight for change is more important than ever.

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Read time: 10 mins

So… anything interesting happen in the last week?

This has been the most intense, and most open period of discussion regarding race, and racism in Motorsport, that I’ve ever seen. If there has been one good thing to come from the disgusting murder of George Floyd by the knee of America’s police, it’s that it has shattered the walls of race being a taboo subject in many areas. Motorsport is one of them. It was hardly the first landmark death of a black person via police brutality, but this… this one has felt different. More people than ever have sat down and looked in the mirror. They’ve been listening, learning, challenging. It gives me a glimmer of hope.

But that hasn’t come without setbacks. Challenges from within the very sports I love. We’ve done nearly 250 episodes of Motorsport101 as a Podcast. It’s our sixth anniversary in October. This week’s show, headlined by Bubba Wallace and Talladega, was just the third time ever the main event topic was NASCAR. The other two were Ryan Newman’s awful accident before the COVID-19 pandemic, and the early days of Kyle Busch’s ex-girlfriend being a trained assassin. No, seriously, look it up.

You know the Bubba Wallace story by now, so I’m not going to repeat all the details here, but where the focus and attention ended up was startling. Jussie Smollett was used as a stick to beat him with. The one time a black man hoaxed a hate crime, compared to the hundreds, if not thousands of times a black man had been a victim, or the many times’ white people have called 911 out of baseless “fear” from an innocent black man, or cops themselves faking their own abuse so they can be the victim themselves. Too easy. 

Bubba, overcome with emotion after the paddock decided to push his car to Talladgea’s track, united.

I saw in my own YouTube comments, our own Social Media, just how far some people were willing to go, taking every bit of context and information and throwing it out of the window because that’s always easier than acknowledging that maybe Bubba Wallace just might have been a victim of a hate crime. To the point where the act of solidarity the sport has had with him, was seen as “pandering” by other sports YouTubers. Or former ESPN and soon to be FOX Sports broadcaster Will Cain, who couldn’t wait to hop on First Take with his “Monopoly of Truth”, and throw NASCAR under the bus for *checks notes*… giving their only black driver the benefit of the doubt, for the first time ever.

It’s like someone seeing a shark fin at the beach, shouting for everyone to get out of the water, then having a go at the person shouting because that fin wasn’t real, but ignoring the REAL group of sharks 100 yards away. Because that’s what this was. For all the talk and dismissal on what was ultimately not a hoax OR a genuine hate crime, there was only 10% of the same coverage on the very real racism that still took place that weekend. Members of the Confederate Veterans marching down to the track car park to wave their flag, the same flag the sport banned only three weeks ago. Or the fact that someone hired a crop-duster to fly over the track with the flag, and “Defund NASCAR” written next to it, a direct response to the Black Lives Matter movement and their aims to defund the police. 

Bit too easy to get wrapped up in the “noose” story when THAT flys overhead the same weekend (Credit: John Bazemore)

The double standard of Richard Petty, a man who beamed when Ronald Reagan was there to celebrate his 200th win. A man who threatened to fire his own staff back in September 2017 for protesting during the national anthem and said: “They shouldn’t be in the country” for doing so. This time, he came down to support his driver. Petty, now an 82-year old man in the middle of a global pandemic, risking his health to do it. Man, I’d love to know what changed. This is a sport that will never admit it but embraced racism to move the needle and grow. A sport that even after multiple diversity and inclusiveness programmes, still sends money to racist, sexist and misogynistic Barstool Sports, the worst of frat boy culture masquerading as unaccountable, “uncancellable” journalists. Without a doubt, NASCAR is the most fundamentally and openly segregated sports in the world. 

A hate crime, in the above environment? Totally plausible. You’d be ignorant as fuck to deny it. And that’s what made Bubba’s story so powerful, yet so totally frustrating. The very idea that white people associated with the sport get a constant “benefit of the doubt”, proven by how defensive the sport’s audience was on a large scale. But for Bubba to be believed by the masses? He had to pitch a perfect game. Bowl 300. Couldn’t miss a free throw. Anything less, his story had to be full of shit.

As a black man, I’ve heard and seen it all before. It goes hand-in-hand with what my mother once told me as a child. She had it drilled into me from a very young age, that for a black man to get that job, or to stand out from the crowd, you couldn’t afford to be mediocre. You had to be spectacular. You had to be perfect. Nothing else would do. 

Bubba Wallace was in precisely the same situation. His emotion, the tiredness, the pain, we all could see. For black people, our reactions to such blatant racism are often on trial. He’s handled this with more class and dignity than anyone I’ve ever seen in Motorsport. He got a reward. The image after Talladega, where Bubba was surrounded by black fans, many in Black Lives Matter T-Shirts, some at their first-ever race. It was symbolic, and a sign of “We got you, fam.” Trust me, us black folks always look after our own. It’ll be the most powerful image in Motorsport, maybe all of sport in 2020.

That same weekend, Lewis Hamilton announced his new commission, in collaboration with the Royal Academy of Engineering. A commission set up to investigate and work alongside schools, employers and businesses to improve diversity in Motorsport, and get to the bottom of why so many of the sports staff and drivers are white. From a person standpoint, I got very lucky. I wrote a script and made a video on both of the above. Chain Bear shared it on his channel, the wholesome F1 YouTuber with 345,000 subscribers. It was one of the proudest moments of my YouTube career. It got tainted by the sheer dismissal of 90% of what I said in the video.

“We don’t want ‘forced’ diversity!” 

“Look at the black guys getting special treatment!” 

“This sport is already so diverse, look at all the countries that have been represented!” 

“If Hamilton wants to help blacks, he needs to help Africa!”

It hurt. It hurt a lot. Seeing that same benefit of the doubt over the sport and pearl-clutching over the nonsense notion that the sport is absolutely a meritocracy when it never was, and that there was no barrier of entry for any black person to get into Motorsport. 

You try not to be angry about it because sadly, that’s another black person stereotype we have to endure. But it’s hard not to be. When I made that video, I backed up my points with numbers. As said in the video, according to Campaign for Science and Engineering in 2014, you’re 27% less likely to be employed in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) career, if you’re of an ethnic minority background. Only 4% of the UK’s engineers are women. And according to the government’s own website from 2015-18, by household, Black and Mixed-race homes were more likely to be making £400 a week or less than any other race in the country. I use £400 as a figure because that’s just below the UK average of £25k a year before tax. 

Behind the McLaren endorsement and Blue Peter appearance, Hamilton’s road to the top was harder than most.

These numbers took me 5 minutes to find. This isn’t hard. Black people have been screaming about this for YEARS. And the most baffling part of all this is that if you’d paid any attention to Lewis Hamilton’s career journey and knew his story, you’d have seen it with your own eyes. Lewis grew up with divorced parents. Slept on his Dad’s couch at age 12. His dad Anthony had to take redundancy as an IT Manager and took on three jobs just to keep his son’s karting dream alive. That first kart? Not even second hand, it had four previous owners, found in the classifieds in the back of a local newspaper. 

Why did I mention those household numbers earlier? Because Karting is an expensive as hell hobby. If you have to work three jobs to fund and support your child’s future, the system has FAILED you. That is not normal. It’s fucked up, and it shouldn’t come down to that for anyone, let alone a black, single parent, working-class man. Lewis Hamilton is a walking miracle. Another example of just how spectacular you have to be to “make it”. And the best/worst part of that, is that he knows it too. That’s why the commission has been set up in the first place. Because he’ll be damned if he’s just the one prominent black man in a sport after 54 years of F1 as we know it.

Because diversity is so much more complicated than just coming up with a quota. Hamilton, and now F1’s #WeRaceAsOne initiative, are going right down to the ground floor, from schools and up, to try and rectify this. That’s the beauty of diversity, by inviting and giving more opportunities to people, you get more of those quality candidates that fund that meritocracy insecurity that so many Motorsport fans have. It’ll be up to us within the media to hold them to account as this goes on. This won’t be a quick fix, it’ll take years, maybe decades to make a quantifiable difference, but if F1 is truly sincere that it wants a sport that resembles modern-day society, it’s a step it needs to take NOW.

Walking proof of that was the Mercedes team, who earlier this week, announced that their famous Silver Arrows livery will be black for the entire 2020 season in support of ending racism. Very east to swoon over the gesture – I mean, it’s gorgeous. But so many were quick to either ignore or diminish the reasons why they’ve changed liveries. “Sticking to Sports” Twitter has a field day. But then Mercedes openly said in a statement alongside the announcement that they themselves as a team, were 97% white, and 88% make. I’m glad they used the livery reveal to announce a new diversity and inclusiveness programme. I’m also glad they were the one team with the balls to admit “Yeah, we’re part of the problem” here and admit to their own numbers and shortcomings. 

There’s a lot more to Mercedes changes than virtue signalling and a new coat of paint.

Again, we need to keep them in check going forward, but, without doubt, a step in the right direction. If the sport itself, a multi-billion dollar operation can admit fault… and if the reigning six-consecutive time, Double World Champions can admit they’ve gotten this wrong, why can’t you, man with Union Jack emoji in his Twitter name?

I also sincerely hope that the media themselves look in the mirror and see if they can do better. It’s been joked about in the open, but the point remains serious – The media itself is just as reflective of the sport at the moment. I still remember seeing inside shots of F1’s media room and seeing an overwhelming amount of white men in there.

And when the monolithic Motorsport organisations write about what they can do to rectify the problem, I find it ironic that it’s a white man put in charge of the piece, whether it be by lack of internal diversity or even worse, by choice. Don’t think this is a sly “Hire me, Daddy” dig. My aspirations to be a professional writer have long since passed, and I’m fortunate to have a decent job that pays the bills. The fact remains that I see very few BIPOC people in my space, and that’s alarming. People of my colour deserve a seat at the table, and I’m more adamant than ever with Motorsport101 and using our platform to reach as many as possible. It’s a network made by all walks of life, FOR all walks of life.

We as fans should probably be a bit more reflective too. I joked on Twitter yesterday over Carlos Sainz wincing every time he hops in the new McLaren livery (Now with 200% more rainbow!), and people were still tweeting me about why. They simply didn’t know about Carlos’ xenophobic remarks about China on his Instagram during the lockdown, a video produced with Estrella Gallica. We let Daniel Ricciardo drop an N-Bomb in a video blog for Canal in 2016 and let him get away with it because he was singing. And as many know, he’s got one of the sport’s biggest cult followings on the Internet. 

And on a sidenote for just a minute, I had to speak out for Erica North after a bunch of Incels enabled someone to send her rape threats because she had the sheer audacity of… selling nudes on the Internet. Some of those same fans who followed and endorsed me for that blocked me for holding Sainz to account. I know members of the media who were muzzled for pushing McLaren to comment. I had to speak out against Mark Webber’s transphobic comments last year, too. We don’t want to address these issues when it’s over people we like, and that has to change too.

It shouldn’t just have to come down to Lewis to lead the fight for change.

As much as this fortnight has been painful, difficult and frustrating, there is hope. Like I said, Bubba Wallace dapping up black fans at a NASCAR track, the same morning the entire garage walked him to the track, is something I never thought I’d see, and moved me to tears. The biggest Motorsport series of them all, as well as arguably its greatest ever team, and arguably its greatest ever driver, have all come together, have all come together to acknowledge that they’re part of the problem. They’re all doing something to make Motorsport a more fair, diverse, and open sporting system. That’s massive. It’s proof that they’re listening. So if you’ve been out there campaigning, in the streets and on your phones and computers, KEEP GOING. This feels different.

The reality of the situation is that if we want to see true, meaningful change, we’re going to have to make a lot more white people uncomfortable with what they deem to be their escape from the world. And as much as that world sucks more than ever, nothing says white privilege more than being able to check out of those hard conversations and situations, to just whack on Sky Sports F1 and headbang to Brian Tyler’s theme. 

Black people haven’t got that luxury, in just about any circle of life we walk in. Every day can feel like a new battle. A new comment section, demoralising. Every stop and search, every video of another of their fellow man in cuffs, more heartbreaking and anger-inducing than the last. Every micro-aggression, every “All Lives Matter”, the more disappointing.

The more white people recognise that this is never a fair fight, the better it’ll be for everyone. 

“The time for platitudes and token gestures is over.” – Lewis Hamilton

About the Author:

Dre Harrison

Somehow can now call himself a Production Coordinator at the Motorsport Network, coming off the back of being part of the awkward Johto Era at WTF1. All off a University Project that went massively out of hand. Weird huh?

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