One of the striking things about the Formula 1 season has been Lewis Hamilton transforming into a vocal critic of race and class distinctions that manifest themselves in the world. While Hamilton has always exhibited a confident attitude, his outspoken nature is one that has evolved as he has grown up in the sport.
Hamilton, 35, has begun using F1’s platform for his cause.
It’s no small stage. The sport of F1, with its worldwide reach, manages to average 100 million viewers per race. Over the course of the season it captivates over 471 million fans. While the World Cup and the Olympics may bring more exposure, there are few sports that manage to keep such a steady presence around the globe.
Hamilton is using this exposure to call out the treatment of people of color with a clear focus on pushing for civil rights for Blacks everywhere.
Earlier this year, I covered Hamilton’s attack on the sport itself, his criticizing it as a white hegemonic corporation, a comment that drew gasps from some fans but really stated the obvious.
Hamilton is a constant target of racism on his social media feeds, and one needs only to visit his Instagram or Twitter accounts and scroll through to find a problematic response. As the lone Black driver in F1, he is both an inspiration and a subject of scorn.
While he may have held back in the past to keep his sponsors happy, he has seemingly amassed enough capital with them now to eschew that concern. In NASCAR, Bubba Wallace has endured similar racist torment for speaking out against the Confederate Flag and then becoming a noted figure when a garage door pull-rope was fashioned in a noose in his garage stall at Talladega Superspeedway.
Wallace took a stance of pushing for unity and for the hope of ending racism and was still met with derision. But when he drove a car emblazoned with Black Lives Matter at Martinsville Speedway, the response assailed him for backing a “terrorist organization” (it’s not) and for being against White people (because all lives matter or some other hashtag).
Hamilton has had no incident in his garage to bring more focus to him, nor did he find himself in a Twitter spat with the prime minister of Britain. Instead, he has led the drivers through a show of solidarity with a focus on ending racism at each race.
But Hamilton has been making a statement all season long.
With the hype of the peculiarity of the season’s start and the shear joy that F1 would indeed race, the story about Hamilton’s helmet passed by the wayside. But his helmet is a big statement all by itself.
The stories came out in early July, but even ESPN gave the helmet just a cursory discussion. The helmet, however, features a black fist in reference to John Carlos and Timmie Smith, who raised black-gloved fists when they stood on the podium at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. The move was meant to push for Black Power.
Hamilton also changed the back of his helmet, which used to read “Still I Rise” to “Still We Rise,” an indication of the togetherness that should buoy change. The added element of the words Black Lives Matter surrounding the fist has made the helmet even more of a symbol for change.
Hamilton had posted to his Twitter account a discussion and introduction of the helmet and its importance to him.
— Lewis Hamilton (@LewisHamilton) July 2, 2020
Here he is paying homage to Chadwick Boseman, the American actor who passed away at the end of August – his helmet featuring the Black Lives Matter insignia, something he has worn all year.
I want to dedicate this pole to Chadwick. What he accomplished and the legacy he left is so incredible to me. He’s inspired a whole generation of young black men and women and provided them with a true superhero to look up to. Rest in power my friend.#WakandaForever #blackpanther pic.twitter.com/M7EgGess9p
— Lewis Hamilton (@LewisHamilton) August 29, 2020
This past weekend at the Tuscan Grand Prix, Hamilton came out swinging with a more pointed message.
Before the race he wore a shirt with “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor” on the front. On the back it read, “Say her name” with a drawing of Taylor below. The shirt is pictured here in his Twitter post:
— Lewis Hamilton (@LewisHamilton) September 13, 2020
Taylor, as many US citizens know, was killed in her Louisville apartment when police errantly entered her abode and shot her when executing a warrant. Three officers fired eight bullets into Taylor, killing her at the scene. As of this writing, one of the officers has been fired and the other two placed on leave. The coverup, with police reports stating Taylor was uninjured, have been a critical element in this incident becoming a widespread rallying cry for civil rights activists.
For Hamilton to wear a shirt like he did was shocking. The FIA investigated as to whether such a move was allowed and have seemingly let it go.
Hamilton shining a light on Taylor’s death is one that brings further worldwide attention to the treatment of Black citizens and how violent police responses can be. He is also showing how organizations like the Louisville police department can attempt to cover their faults and enjoy impunity.
The decision by Hamilton shows the confidence he has to push his message forward while recognizing his ability to be heard.
Hamilton said, “I’ve been wanting to bring awareness to the fact there are people being killed on the street. And someone was killed in her own house and they were in the wrong house and those guys are still walking free.”
His summation of things is succinctly correct and disappointing. While the FIA looked into the shirt, the backlash from fans who are quick to go after the driver was strong and steady. And the unfavorable responses he endured sounded just like those that Wallace has faced from NASCAR.
To its credit, Mercedes did not slink away from the moment.
Mercedes stood behind their decorated driver by stating, “We’re not bringing politics into F1, these are human rights issues that we are trying to highlight and raise awareness of. There’s a big difference.”
That Mercedes was once sponsored and touted by Adolf Hitler and came out in support of Hamilton is a rather positive commentary for all parties involved and underscores the potential for change.
Hamilton has said that the championship means more to him this year, as he seeks to use it to bring more focus to civil rights issues. His six wins, earning him the top podium spot, have given him an ability to speak up and out. With the drive he is showing so far, there is little to think that he will change either his public pronouncements or his winning ways for the rest of the year.
About the author
As a writer and editor, Ava anchors the Formula 1 coverage for the site, while working through many of its biggest columns. Ava earned a Masters in Sports Studies at UGA and a PhD in American Studies from UH-Mānoa. Her dissertation Chased Women, NASCAR Dads, and Southern Inhospitality: How NASCAR Exports The South is in the process of becoming a book.
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