What Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Conor McGregor got right and wrong about race

BY Elias Cepeda • January 11, 2016

Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Conor McGregor have discussed race a bit, recently, and that's a good thing. They each bring up important historical and present-day issues that are too often ignored by those who actually have the public's ear.

Unfortunately, they both also obscure and weaken their broader points by comparing themselves against the other, in an oppression pissing match. 

In an interview with Fight Hype, Mayweather got things started. "I'm telling you racism still exists," the boxer said.

Indeed, the argument that racism still exists, in sport, and everywhere isn't hard to make. America imprisons a higher percentage of its population than any other nation on earth, and we needn't look further than our criminal justice system to see structural racism in play. 

Five times as many white folks use drugs as black folks, but African-Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of White Americans. Human Rights Watch reports that African Americans make up 14 percent of regular illegal drug users but comprise 37 percent of people arrested in the U.S. for drug offenses.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission reports that in the federal petitionary system, African-American offenders receive sentences that are 10 percent longer than white offenders, for the same crimes.

A 2011 study titled Compounded Disadvantage: Race, Incarceration, and Wage Growth shows that, following release from prison, wages for black former inmates grow 21 percent slower than for white former inmates.

Does structural racism exist, as Mayweather says? Of course. 

Pointing out individual powerful or rich people of color doesn't change that fact. Where Mayweather gets off track is in aiming at McGregor and comparing the UFC champ to himself.

"What's so crazy," Mayweather continued in the interview, "I don't really know the McGregor guy — never seen him fight." 

Clearly, Mayweather wasn't off to a great start there, as it's never a wise idea to have and express strong opinions on people or subjects that one admittedly knows next to nothing about.

"I heard his name, actually, from one of the runners that works for our company," Mayweather said. "He told me about the guy McGregor. They say he talks a lot of trash and people praise him for it. But, when I did it, they say I'm cocky and arrogant. So biased." 

It is true that McGregor owes a lot of his success to his brash speech. However, perhaps no athlete of our generation has been more richly rewarded for talking trash than Mayweather.

Back when he was "Pretty Boy Floyd" and didn't speak up too much, the all-time great also didn't get paid as well as his world champion peers. Once, a decade into his pro career, Mayweather amped-up his trash talk — in 2007 against Oscar De La Hoya, almost a decade into his career —“ he became the highly paid star that he is today. 

Mayweather has millions of fans, and so does McGregor. They also have plenty of detractors.

Not even their fans argue that they aren't "cocky and arrogant." In fact, they like those characteristics in their men. 

For what it's worth, Mayweather received passes from just about all boxing beat writers and general media for his years regarding his serial domestic abuse. Not until recently was his past of abusing women and continued public unrepentance regarding that behavior, ever brought under even minor scrutiny. 

So, while Mayweather is right about racism existing in boxing, sport and America, he doesn't express great understanding of his own, or McGregor's ultimate overall treatment by society. 

McGregor recently responded to Mayweather's mention of him by bringing up discrimination against and persecution of Irish people. It is a good and largely under discussed topic in the U.S., of late.

"Floyd Mayweather, don't ever bring race into my success again," McGregor posted, on Instagram. 

"I am an Irishman. My people have been oppressed our entire existence. And still very much are. I understand the feeling of prejudice. It is a feeling that is deep in my blood.

"In my family's long history of warfare there was a time where just having the name 'McGregor' was punishable by death." 

Irish were treated brutally by the British, for generations. And, while I can't personally speak to it, it wouldn't surprise me if a great deal of prejudice was held against Irish people in Europe, to this day.

When large amounts of people from Ireland began immigrating to the U.S. in the 19th century, their horrible treatment by larger society continued. As they were in Europe, Irish people were largely considered "white negroes," and treated as such — which is to say, not well at all. 

The ugly fraudulent pseudo-science of Craniometry — measurement of cranial features in order to classify people according to race and intelligence, among other things — was applied to Irish people just as it was to people of African descent. For decades the limited professional opportunities extended to people of Irish descent by larger society reflected the xenophobic attitudes that the larger Protestant public held towards them as a group.

However, a concept of pan-whiteness eventually took hold in the United States. Indeed, many Irish interest groups lobbied hard for such an idea so as to separate them from the treatment of black people. 

The recognition was then, as it largely, however unspoken, is today, that being any kind of white in America would afford better opportunities than being any kind of black. Since race of any kind is merely a social convention and creation, it was possible for Irish people to make a move in the public consciousness.

Though many stereotypes of the Irish sadly continue to pervade collective thought in the U.S., even the most negative ones have long since been relegated to being thought of as comical and relatively benign. 

If McGregor was trying to suggest that both he and Mayweather are treated and professionally rewarded fairly similarly by America, despite their different perceived races, he is right. I'm also glad he brought up the sad topic of Irish oppression as — like all injustice — it should never be forgotten.

If, however, he was trying to argue that it is possible for whites — collectively — from any background to face the same widespread, and systemic prejudice in the United States as blacks still do, it isn't a winning argument. McGregor may rightly feel centuries of oppression in his veins, and even current serious prejudice in Europe, but he also enjoys — likely without realizing it — countless benefits in the States that blacks still cannot. 

Both men bring up good topics of discussion, here, but obscure their points when it becomes about one another. Their good points of structural racism have nothing to do with the other as individuals, but rather with legacies of, and indeed ongoing, institutional prejudice.

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