The WWE fired Hulk Hogan Friday and erased any trace of the former wrestling star from its websites after the National Enquirer and Radar Online reported that Hogan was heard on a recording going on a racist tirade aimed at his daughter.
The company's announcement of the move was just two sentences long, saying they were "committed to embracing and celebrating individuals from all backgrounds as demonstrated by the diversity of our employees, performers and fans worldwide."
It is true that there have been at least 20 major black professional wrestlers, and that many people of color watch WWE matches.
But there have been countless instances, both past and present, where professional wrestling has been brutally racist. And while the WWE has occasionally acknowledged its complicated relationship with race in performances, these moments have been led by WWE executives who themselves have been shown to be racist, or accused of racism.
The Fabulous Freebirds
WWE is correct when it says that it draws from all cultures for its acts. And in the 1980s, one of those cultures was Confederate pride. This came in the form of the group known as "The Fabulous Freebirds." The trio usually wore outfits prominently featuring the Confederate flag.
Although they were often portrayed as "heels," or bad guys, at other times they were played up as good guys. Freebirds leader Michael Hayes later became a writer for the WWE, despite numerous accusations that he was a racist. He is still a WWE employee.
Of all the racist gimmicks the WWE has played on over the years, perhaps the most egregious was "Cryme Tyme," a team of two black wrestlers who featured prominently in the WWE from 2006 until 2010. As the Atlantic explains, there was nothing particularly subtle about the group's over-the-top stereotypes of black thugs: "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."
One Man Gang becomes Akeem the African Dream
The 1980s were professional wrestling's golden years, but you'd have difficulty naming a black prominent star that came out of it. If you really want to get a sense of professional wrestling's attitude toward people of color during this era, watch this video showing "Slick," the WWF's first black manager, introducing the wrestler One Man Gang, previously a white Hell's Angels type, in his new persona, "Akeem the African Dream," a white man "of African descent."
Professional wrestling has always milked crude stereotypes for dramatic effect. In 1984, the WWF introduced the world to Kamala. In reality, "Kamala" was a guy named Jim Harris from Mississippi, but his corporate bosses made him into a racist caricature. As this Grantland piece about racism in pro wrestling says:
Perhaps no gimmick is as renowned — or as straightforward — as “The Ugandan Headhunter” Kamala, a ridiculous tribal boogeyman from “Deepest, Darkest Africa,” who was created by Jerry “the King” Lawler based on a reductive Frank Frazetta illustration. (So yes, it’s fair to call Kamala a stereotype of a stereotype.) His mannerisms and grunts were inhuman, and his cannibalism was a calling card, and with his face- and chest-paint, his leopard-print loincloth, and his spear, Kamala was such a sensation that he headlined every major promotion during the ’80s and ’90s.
Here's a video of Kamala in action:
After The Freebirds retired, the Godwinns, who were described as a pair of hog farmers from Arkansas, took their place as wrestling's Confederate standard bearers.
They later formed a team with Tennessee's "Double J" to form a group called "Southern Justice."
In 2010, WWE CEO Vince McMahon used the n-word in front of wrestler Booker T.
There's a scripted element here — the WWE was apparently trying to acknowledge that doing what McMahon is bad, and that Booker T was right to be pissed. But there's a wink-and-a-nod aspect to the scene as well, one that essentially says, "Yeah, the boss is being a racist jerk. But, you know, you don't get to the top by worrying about being P.C."
Paul "Triple H" Levesque is one of professional wrestling's biggest stars, having been named World Champion five times. He currently serves as an executive vice president at WWE, despite two separate accusations reported last year that Levesque is racist.
Here's what Alberto Del Rio, a former WWE wrestler fired last year for allegedly getting into an altercation, told Fighting Spirit Magazine. According to WrestlingInc.com, del Rio is referring to Levesque:
The person calling me was one of the most important people in the company, and I said, 'We always hear these racist jokes from you, and because you're one of the most important people in the company in this company, your other employees hear you making these stupid comments, and they think they can do it,'" said Del Rio. "I said, 'It's just like in my house: if my son sees me spitting on the floor, he's gonna do it, because he's going to think that it's the right thing to do, because I'm the power figure in the house.' In this company, it's exactly the same: when they hear you doing these racist comments all the time, and we don't say anything, because it is you, now those guys think they can go make those stupid comments.
Ugly stereotypes about Latinos
In a separate radio interview, del Rio's personal announcer, Ricardo Rodriguez, said that Levesque would refer to him and other Hispanics in the WWE as "bumblebee," in an apparent reference to the Simpsons character. Here is the transcript from WrestlingInc.com:
I am a little bigger; I am not fat by all means. With my lucha background, I can do flips, front flips, back flips, 450?s, shooting stars, and all that (explicative); Yeah so when I was working with the tryouts and being extras. We would do spots and I would flip around and take bumps like a clothesline and shooting stars. Triple H would call me a bumblebee; I was in Puerto Rico not too long ago and I saw Savio Vega and he used to call him a bumblebee and then I found out he called Super Crazy a bumblebee. He was a referring to an American guy doing flips. He would always make this comment about me being Mexican and Del Rio being Mexican. I and Del Rio use to call ourselves stupid names but when someone else would call us those names we would go whoa hold the (explicative) up.
These allegations shouldn't be too surprising given professional wrestling's historical relationship with Hispanic wrestlers. As Grantland explains:
As the wrestling promotions tried to integrate their Latino hires more fully by giving them characters — and, often, by removing their masks — they followed the rest of the history of racial identity in the wrestling world down the rabbit hole of straightforward racial stereotype…
A team of unmasked luchadores called the Mexicools were ferried to ringside on a riding lawnmower. Los Guerreros, two scions of a proud wrestling family, garnered their greatest fame by “lying, cheating, and stealing” and riding around in hydraulics-boosted cars.
Chavo Guerrero becomes "Kerwin White"
As shown in the McMahon clip, the WWE sometimes shows a degree of self awareness about its racial issues. Here's another one: In 2005, Chavo Guerrero, a well-known Mexican-American cruiserweight wrestler, decided to denounce his Latino roots and reintroduced himself as "Kerwin White," a stereotypical white man with a sweater tied around his shoulders, who played golf and dyed his hair blond. (His catchphrase was: "If it's not White, it's not right.")
As he explains to WWE's fans why he made the switch:
"You've been searching for a champion, a warrior cut from the same cloth as 'real Americans' for far too long the sports world has been void of positive role models…a warrior…who lives by a higher code of morals and values…oh, I'm sorry, white values."
But even here, a WWE announcer can't help chiming in (at the 4-minute mark) with, "Those are good values."
So far the WWE has made this incident almost exclusively about Hogan. Its Friday morning statement is the same one it gave to The Atlantic's Dion Barry in an article last year about the company's race issues.
But actions speak louder than words. To its credit, the company has recently done more to promote its black stars, like Darren Young and Titus O'Neil, the former of whom is openly gay. Here are they are in a segment WWE produced for Black History Month.
But so far, there's little indication that the WWE is taking more steps to show what it's doing to address other employees who've harbored racist sentiments.
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.