Brittney Griner of the United States in action with Maki Takada of Japan during the women’s basketball gold medal match at Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan. (Phil Noble/Reuters)
Brittney Griner, the WNBA player held as a prisoner in Russia for nearly ten months after being arrested for entering the country with a small amount of hash oil, is now back on American soil and feeling “upbeat, thankful and hopeful,” according to her agent. If only more of her supporters were feeling the same.
Griner is black, female, and lesbian — none of which is relevant to her imprisonment and release, effected through a prisoner swap, but all of which have been seized on by commentators obsessed by identity politics. Tayo Bero, writing in the Guardian prior to Griner’s release, maintained that her imprisonment was “a stunning indictment of how America continues to fail Black women — both on and off its shores.”
How exactly was it America’s fault that the Russian government seized on Griner’s minor mistake — forgetting she had marijuana vaping cartridges in her luggage — to its geopolitical advantage? America is either the hero or the loser in this story, depending on your view of the swap. But it is hardly the villain.
This wasn’t about identity but nationality. Griner became the target for unfair treatment not because of her sex, skin color, or sexuality but because she is an American. She became a candidate for rescue for the same reason. The only controversy in the whole story was whether it was tactically prudent of the United States government to make the swap.
Griner’s release was secured in exchange for the notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, nicknamed the “Merchant of Death,” while former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan remains in Russian custody. Was this swap in the U.S. national interest? Could we have done better? These are reasonable questions to ask, and reasonable people can disagree on the answers.
Yet some are suggesting that even asking such questions carries racist, sexist, and homophobic undertones. David Silbey, a professor of military history at Cornell University, told the New York Times that sexism may be at play: “If LeBron James had been grabbed by Russia at an airport and sent to a prison camp, imagine the level of hysteria that would have caused.”
James Carville, a Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor, went further: “Does anyone in their right mind think that if Brittney was a blonde Chi Omega from SMU that the reaction [from critics of the swap] would’ve been the same? Of course not.” In her Guardian piece, Bero went so far as to complain that Griner was “stuck in a diplomatic quagmire between two countries that hate each other, but also hate everything she is; Black, queer and female.”
In the past, Griner has been, as the New York Times puts in, “an assertive liberal — one who, at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, called to stop playing the national anthem at her team’s basketball games.” Perhaps now she will think twice about trashing the country that saved her. Perhaps her experience has reminded her how free Americans really are.
Paul Whelan, meanwhile, continues to live without that freedom. Shaun Harper, a “diversity, equity and inclusion expert,” writing for Forbes, argued that it was right to prioritize Griner ahead of Whelan, as it represents “one act of restorative justice on behalf of all those Black women servicemembers who’ve been mistreated over time.”
The only thing that would be restored by prioritizing one American over another based on skin color is racism. I don’t suspect that’s what actually happened here. But it doesn’t help to see the White House engage in pointless virtue-signaling highlighting Griner’s identity, either. In her press briefing last week, Karine Jean-Pierre described Griner as “an important role model and inspiration to millions of Americans, particularly the LGBTQI+ Americans and women of color.” This was topped by teachers’ union boss Randi Weingarten’s now-infamous tweet declaring: “What a great relief!!! Extraordinary news, a basketball star, but also a gay, black woman is released. And yes of course we want other prisoners like Paul Whelan released.”
But again, identity is irrelevant here. Nationality is the point: ensuring that Americans wrongfully detained abroad are brought home. One of the biggest concerns about the swap was that it made the U.S. look weak. Sadly, the obsession with identity politics, in lieu of patriotism and gratitude, has done exactly that.
Top picture: New York, New York ….
Photograph by MT Rainey
- Madeleine Kearns is a young Scottish journalist working in the USA.