On Saturday afternoon, I joined tens of thousands of protestors on Pennsylvania Avenue marching from the Capitol Building to the White House demanding justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other victims of police violence. On Sunday afternoon, I sat down to watch NASCAR’s race in Atlanta.
Two activities that could not seem more detached from each other. However, the impact of protests was immediately visible in the day’s events.
NASCAR and its fans are not typically at the forefront of racial justice. It was not until Wednesday afternoon that NASCAR banned the display of Confederate flags by fans at races.
When events were paused due to the COVID-19 pandemic and races were limited to computer simulations, NASCAR had to directly address racism from one of its youngest stars. Kyle Larson was suspended from the sport after saying the n-word over what he thought was a private channel but was broadcast to all the participants in a race. Larson, who is Japanese American, had been part of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program, designed to bring more people of color into the sport.
Right now, only one active driver in NASCAR’s top-level series is black. Bubba Wallace currently drives the iconic #43 car, previously driven by Richard Petty, NASCAR’s most winning driver.
As the camera panned to him on pit road during the opening prayer and national anthem, Wallace stood wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt. In addition, Kick Price, one of the few African American NASCAR race officials, took a knee on pitroad with his fist raised in the air. But NASCAR didn’t let Wallace and Price stand alone. At Wednesday’s race in Martinsville, VA, Wallace’s car’s paint scheme had #BlackLivesMatter prominently displayed over the rear tire. The hood of the car featured a black and white hand clasping each other and the words “Compassion, love, understanding.”
As cars circled the track on their pace lap, NASCAR’s president, Steve Phelps, brought them to a stop. Crew members stood solemnly on the pit road wall as he spoke over the radio. “Our country is in pain, and people are justifiably angry, demanding to be heard. The black community and all people of color have suffered in our country. And it has taken far too long for people to hear their demands for change. Our sport must do better. Our country must do better.”
The statement was followed with a video pledge from the sport’s most prominent drivers, along with Dale Earnhardt Jr, who retired several years ago, to educate themselves and “advocate for change.”
Following the video, Jeff Gordon, the sport’s most winning driver of the modern era and now a commentator on Fox, proclaimed, “I’ll never know what it’s like to walk in Bubba’s shoes or the shoes of anyone that’s experienced racism. I do know I can be better; we can do better to create positive change. We need to step up now more than we ever have in the past. We are listening. We are learning. We are ready for change.”
It was less than three years ago that Petty said in response to Colin Kaepernick’s protest, “Anybody that doesn’t stand up for that ought to be out of the country. Period.”
Richard Childress, the owner of the car that once was piloted by Dale Earnhardt Sr, said, “Get you a ride on a Greyhound bus when the national anthem is over.”
This weekend the driver of the car once driven by Petty wore a Black Lives Matter T-shirt, his car displayed the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter and Childress’s grandchildren, who are both drivers, participated in the video committing themselves to change.
NASCAR is certainly not becoming a bastion of progressivism, but the act itself suggests how racial justice advocates have mainstreamed their demands. NASCAR, unlike most professional sports leagues, is a privately held corporation under the control of the France family. Its participants are not unionized, and there is little outside power or transparency in its decision-making. The sport’s fan base is mostly white and conservative, and NASCAR’s political speech most commonly involves support for the troops. Its 2020 season began with Donald Trump serving as grand marshal of the Daytona 500, taking a lap around the track in the presidential limousine.
It is clear that NASCAR, as a corporation, did not act because of the speech of politicians, and they did not act simply out of moral conviction. They acted because, like other powerful institutions in the United States, they felt pressure from the people on the street, led by the voices of black Americans, to act.
Of course, growing cultural resonance for a movement isn’t the same thing as material change. As protests against racial injustice develop in America, we must be wary of symbolic gestures substituting for the redistribution of power and resources to oppressed communities. For now, however, it’s worth noting — and celebrating — the reach of the protests far beyond the traditional domain of left-wing activists.