Commentator: Winners 100 is underway.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry in for Tanzina Vega.
Commentator: Here come Sha'Carri Richardson's going to Tokyo, 10.87.
Melissa: We're listening to the moment when 21-year-old Sha'Carri Richardson won the women's 100-meter race at the US Track and field trials last month. Her emotions were intense.
Sha'Carri Richardson: Unbelievable. The fact that I am an olympian no matter what you say or anything, I am an Olympian. A dream since I've been young.
Melissa: Richardson's dream ended abruptly last week after she tested positive for marijuana, was banned from competition for 30 days, and was not added to the roster of athletes who will compete in the Olympics this month. She made no excuses, but the heartbreak was evident.
Sha'Carri: I want to say I'm sorry for my actions. I know what I did. I know what I'm supposed to do, I'm allowed not to do, and I still made that decision.
Melissa: Here's how President Biden responded when he was asked about the fairness of banning Richardson from Olympic competition.
President Biden: The rules are the rules, and everybody knows what the rules were going in. Whether that should remain the rules is a different issue.
Melissa: "The rules are the rules, and everybody knew the rules going in," but did we? Nearly a decade before Richardson was born, Bill Clinton was elected president, just months after saying this.
President Bill Clinton: I experimented with marijuana a time or two, and I didn't like it and didn't inhale and never tried it again.
Melissa: The year Richardson was born, George W. Bush was elected president.
President George W. Bush: I didn't behave that well when I was younger. I might have smoked some, for example.
Melissa: When Richardson was in high school, President Bush's Big Brother, Governor Jeb Bush ran for president as a Republican.
Governor Jeb Bush: So 40 years ago I smoked marijuana and I admit it. I'm sure that other people might have done it and may not want to say it in front of 25 million people. My mom's not happy that I just did.
Melissa: That same year, Senator Bernie Sanders ran for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Senator Bernie Sanders: I smoked marijuana a couple of times, didn't do much for me.
Melissa: During the years when Richardson was in second grade until she was a high school junior, President Obama lived in the White House.
President Obama: I like Bernie. Bernie is a decent guy. Apparently, some folks really want to see a pot-smoking socialist in the White House. We could get a third Obama term after all.
Melissa: Last year when Richardson was still just 20 years old, America elected its first Black woman Vice President Kamala Harris.
Interviewer: Have you ever smoked?
Vice-President Kamala Harris: I have, and I inhale, I did inhale. It was a long time ago.
Melissa: Don't misunderstand me. This is not a finger-wagging respectability diatribe. I'm not here to rail against elected officials setting a bad example and corrupting America's youth. I'm eager to ask a question because I'm genuinely curious. When President Biden says--
President Biden: The rules are the rules, and everybody knows what the rules were going in.
Melissa: See, I'm left asking, what are the rules that we all know? For Sha'Carri Richardson's entire life, marijuana has posed no barrier to representing the nation at its highest and most visible level. Democrats and Republicans, Black and white, men and a woman, all have disclosed their dalliance with weed and been met with laughter, applause, a wink of recognition, a nod of knowing. For Richardson, it seems the rules are different.
NBC Sports Announcer: When you stand just 5 feet 1 inches tall, you get told your entire life what you cannot do. That chip on her shoulder is because every time she's been told that, she's been able to overcome those odds and get it done. The United States women have not won the Olympic gold in this event since 1996. So it's going to take somebody who is audacious and bold and brash to get the United States back on the top.
Melissa: We're listening to some analysis offered by an NBC Sports announcer at the Olympic trials in June. Just weeks later, Richardson's bold, brash, audacious willingness to get it done and overcome all odds was being denigrated, rather than celebrated. It turned out that in order to overcome the emotional devastation of losing her mother and the tremendous pressure of the Olympic trials, Richardson needed a little weed to take the edge off. Now recreational marijuana is legal in 19 states, DC, and Guam, but it remains a banned substance for Olympic athletes.
Do the rules need to change for Olympians? Do the laws need to change for everyone? Are the barriers, medical, political, cultural? Why do we openly pop bottles of champagne after a hard-earned victory, but clutch our pearls at the thought of puffing and passing to celebrate a win? For more on this, I'm now joined by Professor Amira Rose Davis, Assistant Professor of History and African American studies at Penn State University. She's also co-host of the podcast, Burn It All Down. Welcome, Amira.
Professor Amira Rose Davis: Yes, it is a pleasure.
Melissa: And Jason Williamson, the executive director of the Center on Race, Inequality, and Law at NYU Law school. Hi, Jason.
Jason Williamson: Hi, Melissa. Thanks for having me.
Melissa: Thank you both for being here. Amira, I want to start with you. I want to just take one more beat and listen to something that Sha'Carri said.
Sha'Carri: Don't judge me because I am human. I'm you. I just happen to run a little faster.
Melissa: She is taking full responsibility, but she is in that moment saying, "Please don't judge me." Can you weigh in on that a little bit?
Professor Davis: Yes, absolutely. I think her tweet, "I am human," speaks so volumous because the lack of empathy for the reasoning that she's bringing to the table for what she's saying, "I found out that my mother passed away." That is grief. That is pain. If you only can see me as a one-dimensional athlete, and you can't see the rest of this, including mistakes or decisions or reasons behind decisions, then you're not seeing my full humanity.
I think it echoes and reverberates at a time where other Black women athletes are saying the same thing. "You're not seeing me as fully human. Why am I needing to completely perform all of my traumas to get anybody to care? If that means I messed up or break a rule or whatever, I'm accepting of that because this is all me." I think that is what she's insisting upon over and over and over again since this has come out, that "I'm human, above all else, and this is the decision I made, and this is my grief that nobody seems to want to actually account for."
Melissa: Jason, I want to build on that because I'm wondering if it's even necessary to go to a place of grief, of mistakes, of distress, although certainly that is at the core of how Sha'Carri is talking about this herself, but as we talk at the front of all this, people just smoke weed because, well, people smoke weed in the same ways that folks have a beer after a long run. I'm just wondering about whether what's going on here is a requirement for a higher level of moral reasoning.
Jason: Yes, I think that's right. First of all, I just want to agree with both you and Professor Davis, that I think Sha'Carri has handled this situation with tremendous grace in a very difficult situation. I give her all the credit in the world. It's really all of us who are having conversations about whether or not this is fair. The truth is that this is not happening in a vacuum.
This is, yes, in some ways about Sha'Carri, but it's also happening in the context of a significant shift in public opinion about marijuana, or at least, what people are willing to share in public about their feelings around marijuana. As you mentioned in your opening, 19 states have now legalized marijuana. I think people are understanding that and seeing this shift in the way that people are thinking and talking about it, there's a dissonance between that and now punishing this athlete and not allowing her to achieve her goal.
I also think President Biden mentioned that rules are rules. Sure, I suppose that's true, just like laws are laws. The problem is that those laws, including, and in particular, marijuana laws, have not been historically enforced in a proportionate way. They're being enforced disproportionately in communities of color, even though the law is supposed to apply evenly to everyone. As you said, Black, white, brown, yellow, a bunch of people are smoking on a daily basis and not feeling the same consequences as Black and brown folks, particularly in low-income neighborhoods.
Melissa: Let me come to you Amira on exactly that point. Should we be thinking about the world of sport quite differently, relative to this war on drugs? Is this question less about race and the inequities of the war on drugs and more just about the Olympics being a special set aside space?
Professor Davis: No, it's completely intertwined. When you talk about the Clinton administration, talk about the war on drugs, one of the things that they really targeted in the late '90s was pushing for marijuana to be part of this comprehensive anti-drug program that they wanted the IOC, the International Olympic Committee to adapt. Part of that was through this idea that athletes had to be role models, and while they're saying athletes and it's like all athletes.
Yes, specifically, when you're talking about the way the United States exports Black athletic labor, there is certainly a racialized element to it in demanding and over policing weed, drugs, regardless of it's at the Olympic level or in LA, or in New York, or wherever. I don't think we can actually disentangle the two, but certainly this romanticism about the Olympics is tied up in making it feel like this special drug free space.
Melissa: Talking about this dynamic where Black women like Sha'Carri, and even Naomi Osaka, who we talked about earlier in the summer were talking about taking care of themselves, is that the kind of revolutionary moment?
Professor Amira: Yes I think that they're staying power in the way that is happening all together and building and keeping the conversation front and center is really important. I feel like when we talked about Naomi a few weeks ago, it was a sense, like, "Okay, now the subjects kind of move on," but when people like Sha'Carri are continuing to add to it, when Gwen is adding to it when Anna Cockerel, when Brianna McNeal, when all these Black women athletes are saying, "Here is my mental health and it matters."
When Simone Manuel says, "It's been a burden to be a Black woman in this past year and overtraining and the stress of the Olympics and that's why I took time away from the pool," that matters to say publicly. I think that it is inspiring and creating a larger space for this consideration of not just Black women's mental health, but mental health for all athletes, and not just athletes who are Black women, but Black women in general.
Therapy for black girls as part of this fuller, robust conversation happening around mental health needs. I think that Black women are absolutely pushing that forward in whatever self care may look like whether its absence, like Naomi, whether it's insisting on plentiful humanity, whether it's other forms of self care that they're leaning into quite publicly I think it's definitely a new refreshing, much louder conversation than it's been before.
Melissa: Jason, I want to continue to follow up on this self care aspect. I don't want to suggest that the use of controlled substances, whether we're talking about too many glasses of wine in the evening, or whether we're talking about the use of marijuana, or vaping, or any of those things, whether legal or illegal, but I am interested in whether or not in this moment, this leadership about that need to care for ourselves, and the fact that some of us do rest in a little bit to some substances to help us feel better. Is this a way to maybe break through some of this anxiety, cultural anxiety we have about marijuana use?
Jason: I hope so. I think Black women athletes, in particular, should be applauded for the leadership that they're showing in that regard. I think part of why the conversation is louder, as Professor Davis noted, is that you have prominent female athletes, Black women, speaking out publicly about all this and insisting on taking time out to take care of themselves, whatever that may look like.
Then, I think you see a cultural shifts that we talked about earlier, that has led to so many states starting to legalize not just medical marijuana, but recreational marijuana as well, and not just in places like California, or Colorado, or Oregon, where the argument has largely been about the freedom to put things in our bodies without the government telling us what to do, but also now in places like New York and New Jersey and Washington DC, where it's one more conversation about racial justice, and the need to take a more fair and balanced approach to marijuana and marijuana enforcement and so on and changing the way that we think about these things.
As President Biden mentioned, he said in a throwaway line that not only that rules are rules, but that there's a separate question about whether those rules should remain in place and I think that's precisely the conversation that we need to make sure we have. There's no question that Black women athletes speaking out about this is doing a lot to push that ball forward.
Melissa: Although Jason, it's worth pointing out that it's hard to take care of yourself if you are incarcerated as a result of older marijuana laws before this shift began to happen or even if you're no longer incarcerated, if you can't benefit from those changing laws, economically, fiscally, because you have this prior arrest and incarceration, we're really talking about folks being able to take care of themselves, how can we also shift those laws so that as states begin to open up, everybody has a right to enter into that marketplace?
Jason: I think that's exactly right and that's why the framing of the issue in places like Washington DC, was really about ensuring not only that we're going to destigmatize and decriminalize the use of marijuana, but also that we're going to allow people and communities of color who have been burdened by this for so many years to benefit from the change in the law either as participants in the market, or at the very least being able to enjoy the law itself without being harassed by the police.
It is true that even in states where marijuana has been decriminalized such that people aren't being arrested for it, but it just being cited, you still have Black and brown folks being cited more often than white people in those jurisdictions. Those inequities still exist, and we have a long way to go to your point, but my hope is that as we're talking about this in a different way that people will start to understand the equity issues in allowing people to feel the book full benefit of this cultural shift.
Melissa: Amira, it feels to me like that over policing of Black folk, of poor folk, of Latino folks is precisely related to this desire to discredit Sha'Carri not only on the question the fact that she did use marijuana, but also these other ways to discredit her. What have we been seeing on that?
Professor Amira: Absolutely. I think that it's important to know about-- Jason just made about these laws, and the length of time it takes to actually have that fell on the ground is oftentimes too little too late. Whether you're talking about people who are incarcerated while people are making absolute bank on marijuana industries, or you're talking about athletes like Sha'Carri, where in many other sports, we've seen a relaxation of weed, whether they're changing the amount that they're testing for, or the the last CBA for the NBA, for instance, they're not going to do random drug tests. We've seen it relax in other areas.
We talked about the Olympics as this special little space that has had made it more durable there, but I think that you also see this throwing up all the hands were like, "Oh, we can't do anything about this." When that's actually not true. I think that when you read that and the decision to keep her off the four by 100 team, for instance, where the statement that was put out was that they empathize with her and they want to support her, but they also feel like everybody abided by the rules, and because she didn't she is not eligible for the relay pool, and that they can't bend the rules to accommodate her.
My question would be, well, what rule was I thinking they're going to bend? Because the rule states it's a 30 day suspension, which she would have served. The rules discredit her 100 meter semi and final, but that has nothing to do with the relay pool, in fact, that's been a place of discretion. That's been a place where people have been able to appoint people who are dealing with grief, and maybe did not put up good times.
Who had maybe an injury, but would be good. We've seen this discretion go in favor of other athletes many times, and so I think that that, for instance, feels like one of these curious over policing over scrutinized decisions that continues this kind of stigma, that really layers it on when there was other decisions that could be made. When you add that into this larger conversation, whether it's about Black women, especially from the global south being tested and scrutinized on their chromosomes, think castor, we've seen at least three other athletes barred from the Olympics this cycle as well.
When you were talking about the afro swim cap, this soul cap, when you're talking about things like Simone Biles, who has her gymnastic federation intentionally scoring her events lower because they don't want to encourage other people to do them. This idea that Black women athletes, in particular, are still the sight that can be over scrutinized or policed, or stigmatized or whatever, they're very visible symbols.
Yet, in many ways, they get made into two dimensional things that get wielded as battering rams in these cultural debates and that's why I return to what Sha'Carri said, "I'm human." One of the things that I think they are very clear at whether they're talking about mental health or protesting or whatever is that "You need to see us as fully human so we can actually see how we're still impacted by these institutions, even if the discourse is changing around us even it looks like change on the horizon. It's not being felt by us yet, we're very much the canary in the minefields and there's still some work to be done."
Melissa: Amira Rose Davis is an Assistant Professor of History and African American Studies at Penn State University, also co host of the podcast Burn it All Down. Jason Williamson is Executive Director of the Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law at NYU Law School, thank you both for joining me today.
Professor Amira: Thank you.
Jason: Thanks so much, Melissa.
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