Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
October 24, 2020

NASCAR has a long road ahead of it in the fight against racism

By MATTHEW RITCHIE | June 23, 2020

bubbawallace

COURTESY OF SEAN GARDNER VIA GETTY IMAGES

Wallace, who drives the no. 43 car for Richard Petty Motorsports, is currently the only Black driver in NASCAR's top division.

Late Sunday night, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) was home to a horrific incident of racial intimidation and harassment. The auto racing body said it is fully investigating after a noose was found in the garage stall of racer Bubba Wallace, who is NASCAR’s only Black driver, on Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway in Lincoln, Ala.

According to ESPN’s Marty Smith, Wallace never saw the noose. A member of his team first saw it and immediately reported it to NASCAR, who promised to find whoever was responsible for the act and “eliminate them from the sport.” Wallace tweeted his own statement of his own, indicating that while he was saddened at the action, he remains driven and resolute in his fight to push the sport forward in its fight for equality. 

This clear act of racial hatred comes in the wings of a slew of concrete, progressive actions by NASCAR, which owes much of its popularity to the southern region of America. Earlier this month the sport banned the Confederate flag, a constant member of the crowd at races, from being displayed at official events. 

This strong and decisive move came at Wallace’s behest. He’s been championing for change in the sport — he donned an “I Can’t Breathe / Black Lives Matter” shirt a couple of weeks earlier at a race in Atlanta and drove a car with the “Black Lives Matter” paint scheme to promote racial equality. NASCAR has been completely supportive of Wallace and has been taking clear steps to move forward. 

Sadly, there’s been reactions of racism and hatred in response to NASCAR’s movements for change. Even with the ban on Confederate flags within the race facility, racist fans of the sport still found ways to rebel against equality. On Sunday before the noose incident, vehicles lined the boulevard outside the track at Talladega waving the flag of losers and traitors. A plane even flew a Confederate flag over the track dragging the slogan “Defund NASCAR” behind it.

It isn’t just fans outside the gates who disagree with NASCAR’s decision to promote racial equality. A notable helmet artist who worked with former champion Jimmie Johnson and Wallace was dropped by the drivers after using his Twitter account to lambast NASCAR’s choice to ban the flag. NASCAR Truck series driver Ray Ciccarelli, who has never won a race and has only finished in the top 10 once, promised to quit the sport after the company made the decision to allow protests during the national anthem. 

This type of response is indicative of the atmosphere that the sport has fostered for the entirety of its lifetime. NASCAR has been a safe haven for racists for many years, allowing ignorant and hateful members and fans to dig their claws into the sport and claim it as their own. The sport has been complicit in its position as a racist “Garden of Eden” in the sports world. Very few pockets of the modern American sports landscape have had the persistence of racist symbols and exclusion of black bodies like NASCAR. 

The sport and its racers are now speaking out against racism, saying that the Confederate flag has “no place” in racing. This sentiment is unequivocally false. It has. For decades now. In the past, NASCAR has rolled out the red carpet for racism. No other sport in the last 50 years has had a widespread issue with bringing the Confederate flag to its events — not including Ole Miss and their love for racist symbols. And now that NASCAR has decided to attempt to right its past cowardice in dealing with racism and hatred, it faces a long and arduous battle. 

American racism’s attempt to fight back against progress and equality is often through violent images of intimidation and suppression. Take the Confederate monuments that are now being taken down hastily by gregarious protesters and embarrassed city councils. These statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson did not primarily arise right at the end of the Civil War. The two main periods when these monuments to failure arose were in the early 1920s, with the beginning of Jim Crow laws, and the 1950s and 1960s, right in the middle of the civil rights movement.

The erecting of these monuments came as reminders and warnings to Black Americans who sought to better their lives. Each statue was built as a symbol to disenfranchise Black people, to remind them of the Antebellum racism that enslaved and oppressed them for generations. We’re all aware of the more aggressive tactics of racial intimidation, from lynchings of random Black citizens to church bombings and cross-burnings. Each method arises when racist white Americans are threatened by the mobility of Black people and fear for their self-appointed place at the socioeconomic pecking order. 

A noose being placed in Bubba Wallace’s garage is a sad, appalling instance. However, it is not unsurprising. It’s an attempt to remind Wallace that he’s nothing more than a Black body who shan’t dare to step out of line. It’s a reaction that is rooted in the history of racial relations, one that has been aided and abetted by the lack of accountability by the system. With the swath of Black men and women found hanging from trees across America in the past couple of weeks, it is an especially violent symbol.

Wallace and NASCAR have made the decision to attempt to join the fight against racism and right the wrongs of the sport. In response, those who have thrived and enjoyed the luxuries of being racist in the sport of racing feel threatened. Thus, like petulant and spoiled children, they will go kicking and screaming into the night to avoid losing their racist nook of society. The noose is a reminder of the deeply entrenched racism within the sport of NASCAR. It’s a warning sign for what lies ahead and foreshadows the tremendous amount of work that it will take to move forward in the battle for equality. 

Editor’s note: Since the publishing of the article, the Bubba Wallace situation has progressed. The FBI finished its investigation determining that there was no hate crime involved, stating that the noose was formed from a garage pull rope from October 2019. This granted relief to those in NASCAR about the safety of Wallace, also championing celebrations on social media who thought the whole situation was a hoax. 

On Thursday, NASCAR completed its own investigation and released a photo of the noose in question. NASCAR President Steve Phelps said “the noose was real” and defended the racing body’s vigor in protecting and supporting their driver. Phelps also said that NASCAR conducted a sweep of every garage area in all 29 of its tracks, a total of 1,684 garage stalls. Only 11 stalls in total had a pull-down rope tied in a knot, and only one was tied like a noose—the one found on Sunday in Bubba Wallace’s garage. NASCAR was unable to determine who tied the noose. In total, the findings of the investigation only provided relief that a hate crime hadn’t been committed. 

NASCAR appropriately defended and supported its driver in a time where it seemed necessary. The point of this article is unchanged, as it’s obvious, based on the outcry to lambast Bubba Wallace and NASCAR for their reaction to this noose, that the sport has some real problems to deal with. When it was reasonable for people to believe that hate crime was committed, fans of the sport were looking for ways to discredit, all whilst turning a blind eye to those flying Confederate flags outside of the venue the same day.

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