Pro Wrestling Is Fake, but Its Race Problem Isn't

Booker T once came close to winning the big one. In the buildup to Wrestlemania 19 in 2003, Raw’s world championship was safely in the hands of Triple H, a performer named Paul Levesque who was playing a “franchise” character, a cocky bad guy who everyone is supposed to hate because he always wins. Triple H’s first character was named Hunter Hearst Helmsley, a New England blueblood. The franchise character was based on sports teams like the New York Yankees and the New England Patriots, teams that have been so good for so long that people are eager for someone to come along and dethrone them. Nothing more accurately describes Triple H in 2003. People were tired of him winning. They wanted an underdog, and that underdog was Booker T.

As with many things in professional wrestling, the logic doesn’t hold up if you look at it too much. Booker T was, as he would put it, a five time, five time, five time, five time, five time world champion in WCW, a company that surpassed WWE in ratings for a significant chunk of the time he was champion there. But in order for the feud with Triple H to work, Booker T had to be convincingly portrayed as the underdog. But what on Earth would make Booker T the underdog against Triple H?

Well, Booker T is black and Triple H is white.

That’s it. That was the story line, almost explicitly.

“Somebody like you doesn’t get to be a world champion,” Triple H told Booker T during a promo, a segment meant to build excitement for a match. Triple H made mention of Booker’s “nappy hair,” and claimed Booker was in the WWE to make people laugh, to be an entertainer rather than a competitor, to “do a little dance” for him.

The crowd ate it up, and loud “ASSHOLE” chants rained down on Triple H. The next week, Booker T gave an impassioned talk about his past, about how he’s overcome every obstacle that has been put in his way in his life, and how he was going to beat the odds again at Wrestlemania 19 to become the world champion. It was, in one sense, brilliant storytelling. Hollywood is chock-full of plots that involve scrappy minorities overcoming racism to accomplish their dreams. With Triple H as the franchise, and the franchise’s job being to eventually lose to the underdog, fans were thoroughly in the corner of Booker T. The storybook ending just made so much sense.

And then Triple H won. 1-2-3. There was no cheating, no controversial finish, no ambiguity about it.

There’s real-life drama and then there’s fictional drama. WWE’s response to allegations of racism, misogyny, homophobia, and ableism have always been the same: It’s fictional. But that excuse wears thin when the fictional racism lines up perfectly with the real-life racism.

Triple H the character said somebody like Booker T doesn’t get to be a champion, and he was right. Nobody like Booker T has ever been WWE’s world champion. For whatever reason, WWE’s decision makers decided that Booker T, and every black athlete before him and after him, is not the kind of guy they want as the representative of their company.

The only person of African descent ever named world champion was Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, a special case. Half Samoan and half African-Canadian, Johnson identifies as Samoan and comes from a line of famous wrestlers. As WWE's first third-generation fighter, he was allowed a narrative that reflected his specific family history, not the mere fact of his race.

In a statement to The Atlantic, a spokesperson wrote, "WWE is a global entertainment company committed to embracing and celebrating individuals from all backgrounds as demonstrated by the diversity of our employees, performers and fans worldwide."*

* * *

WWE currently employs 12 black wrestlers. There are three character situations to be found among them:

1. The performer plays or has played a character based on a racial stereotype.

2. The performer does not have any discernible character.

3. The performer is largely absent from television and/or has never played a significant role in WWE’s fictional universe.

For some performers, all three situations apply. Take JTG, who has become sort of a meme in the professional wrestling community. Until a few weeks ago, he'd been employed by WWE for eight years, but hadn’t been on an episode of Raw since December of 2012, and hadn’t been on any WWE programming since September of 2013. Not even Rusev’s ravenous appetite for black wrestlers had been enough to draw JTG to television. Despite this, each time WWE has had a mass firing of workers, known colloquially as Black Fridays, JTG remained employed until late June.

There are several popular fan theories to explain his longevity. One suggests that JTG saved Vince McMahon’s life once, and McMahon is in debt to him. Another speculates that WWE had simply forgotten JTG was employed by them, and knowing his own lackluster status, JTG was in no hurry to remind them of his existence, so (fans like to imagine) he stayed out of the catering room, traveled alone, and kept to the less populated parts of the arena during television tapings.

JTG debuted in 2006 as The Neighborhoodie. He was quickly teamed with another black wrestler named Shad, forming The Gang-Stars. Perhaps fearing a lawsuit from DJ Premier and the similarly named Gang Starr hip-hop duo, WWE changed the team’s name to Cryme Tyme, easily the most racist gimmick in the history of pro-wrestling racist gimmicks. Hype videos for the team’s debut literally featured the phrase “yo yo yo, pop a 40 and check ya Rollies.” JTG and his partner Shad were shown assaulting police officers, robbing people, and participating in other generally illegal activities. I’m talking full-on platinum grillz and making it rain.

Then you have fighters like Ron Simmons, who WCW crowned as the first black world heavyweight champion in the history of the sport in 1992. He eventually signed with WWE in 1996 and was rechristened Farooq, a gladiator (fancy word for slave forced to fight other slaves for the entertainment of their oppressors), then the leader of the aforementioned black supremacist Nation of Domination, then a beer-drinking, cigar-smoking hired gun.

These days, Ron Simmons is a WWE Hall of Famer known for randomly showing up on WWE television during bizarre moments, looking around confusedly, and saying only “Damn,” calling to mind Deon Richmond’s its-funny-because-it’s-true monologue from Not Another Teen Movie: “I am the token black guy. I'm just supposed to smile and stay out of the conversation and say things like: ‘Damn,’ ‘Shit,’ and ‘That is wack.’"

There’s also Simmons’s fellow Nation of Domination alumni Charles Wright. During his time with WWE, Wright played a voodoo demon named Papa Shango, a black supremacist named Kama Mustafa, and, one of the most infamous ‘90s characters, a Huggy Bear-inspired pimp named The Godfather who came to the ring with a cane, fur coats, and a couple of ladies of the night.

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Dion Beary is writer based in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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