Formula 1’s only black driver in history felt abandoned by his industry on the issue of racial injustice. That’s as uncomfortable to consider as it is shameful that it’s true.
Yesterday evening Lewis Hamilton shared two posts on Instagram conveying a deep sense of resentment and exasperation following the death of George Floyd in the United States of America and the protests that have followed.
“I see those of you who are staying silent, some of you the biggest stars yet you stay silent in the midst of injustice,” Hamilton wrote.
“Not a sign from anybody in my industry which of course is a white-dominated sport. I’m one of the only people of colour there yet I stand alone.
“I would have thought by now you would see why this happens and say something about it but you can’t stand alongside us.
“Just know I know who you are and I see you.”
This has put many of us in F1 in an uncomfortable position, because the underlying message is correct. That’s not to say F1 is a racist place, and subsequent posts from other drivers indicate that Hamilton does not stand entirely alone.
But F1 was silent until Hamilton got involved, and most in F1 enjoy a position of privilege we might not even consciously be aware of. The vast majority have known a deep-rooted and unconscious bias our entire lives. It’s made us blind to subtle discrimination and makes it awkward and inconvenient to confront overt prejudice.
Motorsport has a clear white, male bias. The roots of that bias are no different to the roots of the discrimination that has led to the long-running suffering of black Americans at the hands of some white police officers. Hamilton is right to call for moral back-up because it is wrong to characterise what is happening in the USA as an American issue for American people.
Injustice and inequality exists everywhere, including F1 and the wider motorsport community. It is just not always in a form as explosive or prominent as what America is wrestling with.
This is the uncomfortable reality F1 exists in and perpetuates. Hamilton’s got a good track record of trying to force F1 to confront issues a lot of people don’t think are relevant. He has previously spoken eloquently about the troubling lack of diversity in F1, and his concerns that racism is an issue that’s getting worse, not better.
With that in mind, he’s starting a conversation now that we urgently need to embrace. For two key reasons.
First, F1 is a global competition with millions of fans, and while it is an entertainment-driven business we should also have the courage to use that platform to challenge the status quo, to educate, to inform.
Taking Hamilton’s words and making the story ‘he has hit out at others’ doesn’t achieve that. Nor do the comments that arise every time Hamilton raises an issue like this: ‘There’s no need to get political’, ‘when has he ever been held back?’, ‘he’s acting holier than thou again’.
Any F1 driver with a significant platform to speak from could and should be highlighting these issues, not just Hamilton. There is zero credibility to the argument that he and his colleagues ‘should stick to F1’.
Across all sports, there is no shortage of role models. Hamilton is that in F1. But he is one person, not several. And he needs backing up from others
On Saturday, Boston Celtics basketball player Jaylen Brown said he travelled 15 hours from Boston to Atlanta to join in a peaceful protest. As he streamed the march on social media, he said: “Being a celebrity, being an NBA player, doesn’t exclude me from no conversation.
“First and foremost I’m a black man. I’m a member of this community.”
The same goes for Hamilton. His status in F1 doesn’t suddenly mean he’s barred from discussing real-world issues. Especially when he has a connection to the issue that so many of us conveniently ignore, or are conditioned to avoid thinking about: Hamilton’s black. Most of us in motorsport aren’t.
Many sports have a healthy number of black role models who inspire youngsters regardless of race and can help break down barriers that may be forming early on. Or they can speak to older fans who, for one reason or another, have never been confronted with this painful truth.
That’s what has happened in recent days, and it has travelled well beyond the US.
In Germany’s top football league, the Bundesliga, there were multiple shows of solidarity: Englishman Jadon Sancho revealed a shirt with the message ‘Justice for George Floyd’ after scoring for Borussia Dortmund. And Borussia Monchengladbach striker Marcus Thuram took a knee after a goal he scored earlier on Sunday.
In England, 20-year-old Rhian Brewster – a Liverpool protégé who has been subjected to racist abuse on multiple occasions playing youth international football – wrote that “this is a real life and everyday occurrence in so many different ways”.
“We need justice for us as human beings. We don’t want special privilege. A level playing field is all we have been crying for, forever. Hear us. #BlackLivesMatter.”
Across all these sports there is no shortage of role models. Hamilton is that in F1. But he is one person, not several. And he needs backing up from others.
That’s maybe why he was so disappointed: however far messages have travelled in recent days, they either didn’t reach F1 or, more likely and more worryingly, they were ignored.
Brewster said: “This is way deeper than just pointing out who’s staying quiet and who’s speaking up.” That brings us to the second reason F1 needs this conversation. We need to recognise we are part of a problem.
I have fans and followers. Support and love. And I have power through this to lead and inspire so many. But we also stand for what’s right. This time I ask you to do something and take action. Click the link and make a difference… #blacklivesmatter https://t.co/IrVrgU2JBA pic.twitter.com/ee2A0goz84
— Lando Norris (@LandoNorris) June 1, 2020
Hamilton’s the only black driver in F1. He’s one of only two black drivers in the world’s biggest racing championships, the other being NASCAR’s Bubba Wallace. Motorsport has an appalling lack of diversity and suffers from the same systemic inequality that gives rise to the brutality that is in the public eye in America.
Hamilton’s a member of a community many of us in F1 are not, and we should all feel a small amount of shame for that. If motorsport was more diverse, Hamilton wouldn’t be alone. If the world was free of prejudice, motorsport would probably be more diverse.
The burden of being F1’s only black driver is a heavy one for Hamilton to bear. Imagining what that feels like is a deeply sad and sobering thought.
He has every right to be angry at feeling left alone to condemn actions that are the extreme representation of a bias he has suffered from, but so many are completely oblivious to.
“This is not just America, this is the UK, this is Spain, this is Italy and all over,” he wrote in his second post.
“The way minorities are treated has to change, how you educate those in your country of equality, racism, classism, and that we are all the same.
“We are not born with racism and hate in our hearts, it is taught by those we look up to.”
Those ‘teachings’ are tendencies ingrained through history and evolution, through actions over centuries that established a dominance and cast many into out-groups. Slavery gave way to civil rights but that doesn’t mean everything was suddenly healed because those wounds run deep.
Messages of solidarity are fundamentally limited if not accompanied by action. People who live with compassion and understanding, who lead by example, who correct those with clear biases – these are valuable supporters of the cause. These supporters do exist in F1
If nothing else the events of the last few days has served to highlight just how far the world is from a solution. That it took Hamilton to speak out for others in F1 to feel comfortable in doing so doesn’t reflect that well on motorsport – nor does the fact he is the only prominent black driver around to speak out in the first place.
Our world can do more to help that. Whether that’s on an organised, corporate level like an F1 version of NASCAR’s ‘Drive for Diversity’ programme, other forms of affirmative action or a major investment in education. Or on an individual level like high-profile drivers putting the spotlight on strong, well-informed voices who have a meaningful contribution to make to the conversation.
If Hamilton was wrong about anything, it was perhaps in his characterisation of an entire industry deaf to the injustice that is at the forefront of America’s public attention right now.
But Hamilton will know there are plenty of people within his own team and elsewhere in F1 who will be sickened by the kind of treatment George Floyd suffered, as well as the inherent injustice that underpins it and forces others to suffer on a daily basis.
Messages of solidarity are fundamentally limited if not accompanied by action. People who live with compassion and understanding, who lead by example, who correct those with clear biases – these are valuable supporters of the cause. These supporters do exist in F1.
Hamilton has a powerful platform to use, and knows he has a responsibility to use it with care. In the cold light of day, he may slightly regret his phrasing. But if we’re balancing up what’s correct and fair, this is no time for jilted F1 personnel to get defensive over Hamilton’s confrontational choice of words.
He lost patience with the silence from others, but gave them the encouragement (and, effectively, the permission) to weigh in on a debate that otherwise gets tip-toed around.
It also worked: Charles Leclerc, Lando Norris, Sergio Perez, Daniel Ricciardo, Carlos Sainz Jr, Nicholas Latifi, Alex Albon and George Russell have each shared something in the wake of Hamilton’s posts. Doubtless more will follow.
To be completly honest, I felt out of place and uncomfortable sharing my thoughts on social media about the whole situation and this is why I haven’t express myself earlier than today.
And I was completely wrong. 1/3
— Charles Leclerc (@Charles_Leclerc) May 31, 2020
“To be completely honest, I felt out of place and uncomfortable sharing my thoughts on social media about the whole situation and this is why I haven’t express myself earlier than today,” wrote Ferrari driver Leclerc.
“And I was completely wrong.”
He was, all of us silent have been. On this issue and others. As is the case in the wider world, what must not happen now is a wave of #BlackLivesMatter tweets within the F1 community to wash away the feeling of guilt.
Russell said, like Leclerc, “I just felt out of place sharing my thoughts”, but recognised that “silence achieves nothing”. He called on others to use their voice to share the message widely. Norris posted a link to a portal that contains information on relevant petitions, case studies, ways to donate. He acknowledged that with his social media following he has the “power through this to lead and inspire so many”.
“But we also stand for what’s right,” said Norris. “This time I ask you to do something and take action.”
This needs to go for F1 and motorsport, too. If ever there is a moment to take action against the inequality that exists in this sport, or the role it has to play in helping the wider world fight discrimination, it’s when an issue as serious as racial injustice grips the global conscience.
F1 must take Hamilton’s frustration and channel it, building on the success of his initial posts: thanks to his two messages on Sunday evening, four drivers have amplified the message. They have felt empowered to act and will hopefully maintain that courage in the future: adding to the pressure on authorities, helping open people’s eyes to mechanisms of oppression.
But F1 should also admit there are problems closer to home, too. Don’t just accept this is a white-dominated sport, question it. Ask what can be done to improve. Work with Hamilton or do it independently. But do something.
The only black man in F1 history is still racing, he is the most successful driver of his generation, and he has a celebrity status and reach that’s never seen before in grand prix racing and will be damned difficult to repeat.
If action won’t be taken now, then when?
Comments are open on this article to allow the debate to continue, but The Race reserves the right to close them if the facility is abused.