Black on Track

Tuesday, 30 April 2013 12:13

Kevin Krigger will ride into race and racing history on Saturday if he wins the famous Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, Louisville. Since 1921 only one black jockey – Marlon St. Julien – who came seventh on Curule in 2000 – has featured. The last to triumph was Jimmy “Wink” Winkfield in 1901 and 1902. Yet in 1875 when the Derby was first run 13 of the 15 jockeys were black. They won 16 of the first 28 derbies until racial segregation drove them out.

African American dominance of the world of racing until the turn of the last century was unsurprising – even if largely forgotten today. The first black jockeys were slaves; cleaning stables, grooming and training some of the country’s most valuable horses. They learned to understand thoroughbreds and ride them with distinction and superiority. There was more than glory at stake and when freedom came they were ready.

Oliver Lewis, a 19-year-old Kentuckian, claimed the inaugural Deby aboard Aristides a chestnut colt trained by a former slave. William Walker (17) won two years later. Isaac Murphy won an amazing 44 percent of all his rides – a record still unmatched – including the Kentucky Derby in 1884, 1890 and 1891. Willie Simms followed in 1896 and 1898. In 1921 Henry King finished tenth on Planet. There would be a 79-year hiatus before a black jockey rode in the race again.

Although factors like migration to the north are cited as part of the explanation, the overwhelming consensus is that black talent was forced into the wilderness by racism. The US Supreme Court played its part ruling in 1896 (Plessy v Ferguson) that separate facilities for blacks and whites were constitutional. Predictably it wasn’t long before American-style apartheid spread from the bleachers to the track.

Against this background Marlon St. Julien’s effort in 2000 was important. It was a classy performance proving that ability was not the issue. It confirmed what St. Julien knew; he was only struggling to get rides because of his colour. Thirteen years later Kevin Krigger, a 29-year-old from St Croix in the US Virgin Islands gets the chance to become the first black jockey to win the Kentucky Derby in more than a century. He rides Goldencents. They earned their place in arguably the world’s most prestigious horserace by winning the Santa Anita Derby on April 6.

In their book “Black Winning Jockeys in the Kentucky Derby” James and Monica Saunders note that the celebrations surrounding Derby Day in Louisville remain largely segregated. The $800 a couple Lexington Ball and $300 a ticket Mint Jubilee are predominantly white. In the African American West End section of town upwards of a hundred thousand people party in the streets risking citations and arrest. “It is quite a commentary on the racial disparity that exists even in the city where the Kentucky Derby once held so much promise for African Americans.”

They note the Derby has become a platform from which black leaders like the Reverend Al Sharpton can regularly claim that the battle against racism is far from over. This is a shame because Louisville is also the city that gave the world Muhammad Ali. His principled stand against the Vietnam War – as much as his boxing genius – accounts for his enduring popularity.

Following his arrest for refusing to be conscripted he said, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over.”

Winning is not everything. Barack Obama has done that in two presidential elections but the grim irony is that life for ordinary black Americans is even tougher. The black unemployment rate hovers around 14 percent more than six percent above the national average. It was 12.7 percent when President Obama took office. The black teen jobless rate reached a startling 40 percent in July last year. Incredibly the situation might be much worse. The unemployment figures exclude prison inmates and the incarceration rate is six times higher for black men. That’s also six times greater than the lock-up rate for black males under apartheid.  There are also political prisoners, like former Black Panther Russel Maroon Shoatz. He’ll be 70 in August and has been held almost continuously in solitary confinement for 30 years. Following a national campaign Pennsylvania officials have been ordered to release him into the general prison population by May 8. Lawyers are waiting to see if they will comply. Shoatz hasn’t been held in solitary for his alleged role in the killing of a Philadelphia police officer in 1972 – for which he was convicted. He is being punished for inspiring a lobby against life sentences without parole.

Things have only changed for worse. The problem says Glen Ford at Black Agenda Report is that there is now a black “misleadership” class which has capitalized on the narrow legal victories of the Civil Rights movement to advance its own interests. Black Americans were dazzled and deluded by their capture of the White House. “Blacks were the most optimistic constituency in the country regarding their personal and family prospects and those of African Americans as a group. Moreover, they believed that their condition was improved under the Obama presidency…when in fact Blacks had been hardest hit of all major U.S. populations. Meanwhile, every other ethnic constituency correctly understood that their economic situation had deteriorated.”

William Reed, publisher of “Who’s Who in Black Corporate America” has been scathing about the cosy relationship that black leaders have with a president whose loyalty, above all else, is to Wall Street and corporate America. He cites a recent meeting at the Roosevelt Room in the White House. Those in attendance included the Rev. Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network; Ben Jealous head of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People; Avis Jones-DeWeever, executive director of the National Council of Negro Women and Ralph Everett, president, of the Joint Center for Economic and Political Studies.

The president praised the participants for “their steadfast leadership on issues critical to improving the economy” and they looked forward “to working with him to strengthen the economy for the middle class and continue to build more ladders of opportunity for those trying to get there”. Sharpton said, “I and other leaders had a very significant discussion with the president about concerns in the African-American community and the civil rights community in general.” Reed says they couldn’t have cared less about the serious problems that plague African Americans. It was simply a photo opportunity.

Black Americans are not the only ones under the cosh. Muhammad Ali refused to serve in Vietnam but American imperialism is now unbounded. Ford says that under Obama, imperialism with a black face has been fantastically successful and its high mark of conquest in the 21st century has been Africa. “At present, nothing stands in the way of the militarisation and occupation of Africa by the United States and its junior imperialist partners. Every global and multinational organisation of any consequence on the continent has been suborned to the service of the neo-colonial military project.”

One of the black faces he singles out is Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN. Despite her ghastly warmongering record in Africa as cheerleader for the onslaught on Libya, genocide abettor in the Congo and much else, Ford says “African American politicians rush to her defence, as a role model for young Blacks, especially women.”

Black South African and UN Human Rights High Commissioner Navi Pillay may not have youth on her side but she’s no slouch either when it comes to spreading lies, death and destruction. Pillay paved the way for NATO’s attack on Libya, whitewashed the Rwandan genocide, victimised black leaders  in Africa who did not play ball with the US and is currently spearheading the charge on Syria.

Clearly all that is black is not necessarily beautiful. It’s depressing but the ‘misleadership’ class is not the result of some inherent trait of human selfishness. Although African Americans contributed 19 out of every 20 of their votes to Obama’s re-election they didn’t exactly have much of a choice. Democracy under capitalism– a system where people vote against their own interests – is an unequal class war guaranteed to produce megalomaniacs, or worse, irrespective of gender or race.

It is understandable that for honourably sentimental reasons a lot of black people – and not just in Louisville – would like to see Krigger and Goldencents win. But that would take skill, courage and luck. The more discerning will simply be hoping for a clean and honest race.

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