Aaron Josef Hernandez was born on November 6, 1989. He was an American football tight end, played college football at the University of Florida and was a member of their National Championship team. He was an All-American selection and drafted by the New England Patriots of the National Football Team (NFL). Aaron Hernandez was arrested and convicted of first-degree murder in 2013. He was sentenced to life in prison. Subsequently following his arrest, he was released by the New England Patriots. Recently, he was found dead in his jail cell on April 19, 2017. His death was ruled a suicide (ESPNEWS.com).
The despairing news of Hernandez’ death in itself is horrific. Although he played for a team I personally detest, no human should ever find himself or herself in such a desperate situation where death is the only option available. He had a family, a young daughter and was only twenty-seven years old. The mere thought that your emotional well-being is at a stage where there is no hope should never be to anyone at any time. However, we all see these tragic and violent truths daily in the news and social media. Based on my studies on social justice in the United States I ask myself, is this a result of income inequalities, social injustice and racism?
There is a disproportionate population of ethnic minorities such as African Americans and Latinos in in our prisons when compared to the populations outside of prison.
|Race/Ethnicity||% of US population||% of U.S. incarcerated population||National incarceration rate (per 100,000)|
|White (non-Hispanic)||64%||39%||450 per 100,000|
|Hispanic||16%||19%||831 per 100,000|
|Black||13%||40%||2,306 per 100,000|
(Figures calculated with Census 2010 SF-1 table P42 and the PCT20 table series.)
Nationally, according to the U.S. Census, Blacks are incarcerated five times more than Whites are, and Hispanics are nearly twice as likely to be incarcerated as Whites (Prison Policy Initiative).
Mills (2008) defines liberalism as an anti-feudal egalitarian ideology of individual rights and freedoms, which are expanded in our current day under neoliberalism. Are these incarceration disparities due to liberalism demonstrating meritocracy based on regimes of truth such as: If you do not “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” then you can only blame yourself for failure? “This is the land of opportunity.” “In this great country anyone can be a millionaire.” I say yes. Mills (2008) argues that such disparities in incarceration populations are a predictor of liberalism because liberalism does not address race. These liberal ideologies have contributed to Sylvia Wynter’s concept of the figure of man. Wynter (1995) argues that before we can begin to rectify social injustice with marginalized populations, the head on the figure of man needs to be erased. The head represents our current regimes of truth, while the body symbolizes the existence of people of color representing, not thinking but only the doing. “Racial Liberalism can lay part of the foundation for beheading the figure of man. Racial liberalism needs to be recognized for what it is before the promise of a nonracial liberalism and a genuinely inclusive social contract can ever be fulfilled” (Mills, 2008, p. 1394).
How much did Aaron Hernandez’ racial and socio-economic background play a role in his demise? Aaron Hernandez grew up in Bristol Connecticut and was of Puerto Rican descent. His childhood was turbulent. His mother, divorced from his father, had to rely on bankruptcy twice and then later married an ex-convict who became Aaron’s stepfather. When Aaron was in 6th grade, his mother began taking illegal bets for a gambling organization. His biological father, whom he adorned through tattoos on his body, died from surgery complications when Aaron was 16 years old. When Aaron would return home after his father’s death, he could not bear to visit his father’s grave and always evaded dealing with his death, Hohler, B. (2013, August 15). Inside the double life of Aaron Hernandez. The Boston Globe.
Aaron Hernandez’ story is similar to many other stories we hear in the media regarding marginalized individuals in a “rags to riches to rags” story. Stories, such as Michael Vick, former NFL star, in his conviction for animal cruelty serving time in prison or Ray Rice, former NFL running back, with his domestic violence video knocking out his wife in an elevator, which was captured on video. Are there other factors attributing to such travesties, which tend to be much higher for people of color raised in struggling environments?
From a post-colonial lens, James Baldwin (p. 2, 1984) states:
“They (white people) are either relieved or embittered by the presence of the black boy on the team. I do not know if they remember how long and hard they fought to keep him off it. I know they do not dare have any notion of the price Black people (mothers and fathers) paid and pay. They do not want to know the meaning, or face the shame, of what they compelled – out of what they took as the necessity of being white – to pay.”
Baldwin (1984) argues that the notion of being white arose in America as a form to distinguish themselves from others, specifically from Black slavery. This notion carries itself a regime of truth from where oppression can be justified and thus, leading to the white, hegemonic term called racism.
Critical race theory (CRT) evolved from Critical legal studies (CLS) as a reaction from scholars who discovered that the studies form CLS did not address the racist rhetoric, which impacted the slow progress of the civil rights legislation and the personal experiences of marginalized people (Espino, 2012). The CRT tenets have evolved over time; however, four themes have been constant throughout its evolution. One of these themes that has been constant is storytelling, specifically counter narratives in response to master narratives. Espino (2012) describes master narratives as a narrative that justifies what is happening in our world. Counter narratives, as a CRT tenet, are the stories of black and brown people that can function as a value added approach to see our world in a different lens and helps us to consider alternatives to the master narrative (Espino, 2012). I contend the media has missed the biggest opportunity in our fight for social justice with the suicide of Aaron Hernandez. The media could have used counter narratives as a lens to report on Hernandez death.
Instead of reporting on his personal narrative, that eventually led to his demise, the news I observed and the information I read on his death dealt more with a meritocratic approach. A foundation for liberalism, meritocracy is the belief that it is the individual’s talent and knowledge that will measure their progress. Thus, if Aaron Hernandez murdered, failed and committed suicide, then it was due to his lack of ability and knowledge. This hegemonic response is common in our everyday sports media. Race is endemic (as per CRT) and discussing tragedies without race and counter narratives allows all to exist in this “color blind” racist mentality.