Brittney Griner had barely landed in the U.S. before the right-wing media blasted the prisoner trade agreement that secured her freedom in exchange for the release of Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
“To exchange the Merchant of Death for this,” sneered GOP House Leader Kevin McCarthy on CNN, “It’s made us weaker, it’s made Putin stronger.” Former President Donald Trump posted on Truth Social that Griner “openly hates our Country,” and Tucker Carlson said Griner hated America because she supported Black Lives Matter.
These statements show that leading figures of the mainstream right wing see Black people who support equal rights as a “fifth column,” a dangerous internal enemy destroying the nation from within. It is a dangerous worldview that can only be sustained by a refusal to recognize the humanity of others.
Griner’s freedom matters because it means the highest elected office in the U.S. acted as if the life of a Black woman mattered. The conservatives who criticized the prisoner trade expose that their vision of the U.S. has a double standard for Black life.
Right-Wing Media Pit Griner Against Whelan
“The Biden administration chose Brittney Griner over Paul Whelan,” Carlson said on his show, “The basketball player over the Marine … there was only room for one on the lifeboat and the Marine got left behind.” He went to draw a cartoonish contrast between them, saying Whelan is a Trump voter and is “paying the price for that,” and that Griner “despises America.”
Carlson and right-wing pundits have stoked white grievance when reporting on Griner’s detention and release. They portray the U.S. as the battlefield of a race war in which Democrats and “cultural elites” are trying to “replace whites” in order to lock in political power. In the zero-sum struggle, the theme of white victimhood must be constantly refreshed with new examples. Cue Griner vs. Whelan.
The Griner-Bout prisoner swap was twisted by the right into supposed proof that whites are the real victims of racism. Griner is a Black lesbian, a WNBA player who goes overseas during off-season to make money. In July 2020, at the height of the George Floyd protests, Griner said, “I’m not going to be out there for the national anthem.”
Whelan is a straight, white male, former Marine and cop who worked as a security officer for a U.S.-based automaker.
In February 2022, Griner was arrested in Russia for less than a gram of cannabis oil, prescribed by an Arizona doctor. She was sentenced to nine years.
In December 2018, Whelan was set up by FSB, the Russian Federal Security Service, essentially the new KGB, with a USB containing “classified information,” and sentenced to 16 years. Both are pawns in a global power game. But only one is seen as truly innocent by the right wing.
Now, if one looks at the facts, it’s clear that Russia took Griner hostage to extract concessions. Putin is losing the war on Ukraine and is desperate to show dominance. It was a PR stunt. It is an empty act of bravado by a leader whose hubris led him to wage a war that sparked global blowback and exposed the weakness of Russia’s military.
But the U.S. right routinely abandons facts for the sake of an ideology that will incite their base. Racial stereotypes are the warped lens through which Griner’s life was devalued. The first is the “Black criminal.” The second, the Nat Turner stereotype where Black people are “angry, crazed, revengeful brutes with a bloodthirsty hatred for whites.” The two stereotypes overlap in right-wing rhetoric. For example, Republican Scott Perry tweeted how Biden “traded an enemy who smuggles guns and helps shoot Americans for an American who smuggles drugs and shoots basketballs.” Follow that with the many conservatives calling her a “traitor” from Donald Trump Jr.’s post where he says, “We get an awful America hating WNBA player,” or Trump Sr.’s statement that she “openly hates our Country,” to Carlson’s rant on her BLM-influenced protest of the national anthem: “She hates the country so much, she doesn’t want to hear its anthem. That’s the kind of position that gets you rewarded by Joe Biden. Hate America! Perfect!”
Dig one layer deeper and the implicit idea is the Black freedom struggle is a threat to the U.S. By inference, Black people who protest are the fifth column, an internal enemy.
Brittney’s Life Matters
The right’s obsession with loyalty to white supremacy has made the sports field into a political battlefield. Brittney Griner is the most recent Black athlete in a long list that goes back decades to be devalued, threatened or punished for bearing witness. In his 2020 book, Policing Black Athletes, author Vernon L. Andrews, who teaches at Chico State University, points out the contradiction of sports franchises in which the owners are mostly white, the players mostly Black and Latinx and many fans are conservative whites. It is a volatile mix for athletes of color — who, if they stand against racism, are branded traitors.
“He’s a traitor,” said an anonymous NFL exec about quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who took a knee during the national anthem. More anonymous management followed, saying “Fuck that guy,” and “He has no respect for the country.” But Kaepernick was not alone. Maya Moore of the WNBA also protested police brutality and police walked out of her games; the Minneapolis police union chief led a backlash and publicly scorned her. And 20 years before them, in the ‘90s, basketball player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for the anthem, and at other times recited the Quran to make a statement against racism. He was traded and his career fizzled. Long before them was Muhammad Ali, who choose to not fight in the Vietnam War and famously said, “No Vietcong ever called me n*****.” He was banned from boxing for years. And in 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos held up black-gloved fists in the Black Power salute while being awarded medals at the Olympics. They faced death threats when they returned to the U.S.
The reason Brittney Griner matters is because, as Martin Luther King Jr. said in his Mountaintop speech, “Somewhere, I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.” In refusing to stand for the national anthem during marches against racist policing, she became an example of that right.
When the Biden administration traded her for Bout, it brought home an American who lived the country’s ostensible ideals. However, the right wing, so defeated by its own racism, can only see her as someone who betrays their conservative vision of a nation that only has room in it for straight, white Christians.
Brittney Griner is not a traitor. She is our sister. She is a role model. And she deserves our solidarity.