Whether or not you believe Patriots draft pick Justin Rohrwasser that he had no idea what his “Three Percenter” tattoo really meant until this weekend, and however the media has struggled to accurately describe the Three Percenters as the white nationalists that they are, it’s not really just one tattoo that’s the issue here.
Rohrwasser now says he’ll go step further than covering it up and get the “Three Percenter” tattoo removed, and that “it’s shameful that I had it on there ignorantly.” And a couple of the kicker’s black college teammates at Marshall, Brendan Knox and Koby Cumberlander, spoke out to defend Rohrwasser against claims that the tattoo shows he’s a white supremacist.
“He’s not a racist. Not even close,” Cumberlander told MassLive. “When you look at Justin, he was a dude that minded his own business. He was an easy person to talk to, a really nice guy on and off the field. He never showed any racism toward anybody. It was crazy how people seemed to look at him who don’t really know him as a person. They have these preconceived notions.”
Said Knox: “The first thing I thought was, they must not really know him. In my three years of knowing him, I never got a whiff of that. Not one bit. He’s a real funny guy, never spiteful of anybody. I’ve never even seen him mad.”
It’s true that nobody learning about Rohrwasser’s tattoo this weekend really knows him. But how well do Cumberlander and Knox know him? Yes, they were together on the Marshall football team. But what do we know about Rohrwasser when he’s only in the company of his fellow white men? After all, white supremacists can have black friends just as serial killers can have friends who are alive.
This isn’t 1947, when Phillies manager Ben Chapman could lead his team in hurling N-word laden taunts at Jackie Robinson. This is 2020, when enough people know racism is socially unacceptable that the Republican Party’s treasurer in Wisconsin asked people attending an anti-social distancing rally to “leave Confederate flags … at home.” The III Percenters’ own denials of white supremacist links show that the group is aware of the importance of public perception, feeding plausible deniability for tattoos like Rohrwasser’s.
Today’s white supremacists don’t just wrap themselves in the stars and bars. They also embrace colonialist themes, like the explanation of the III Percenters that Rohrwasser said he bought into. That’s a theme for the kicker, whose “uncontroversial” tattoos include a battle-torn American flag and the phrases “Liberty or Death” and “Don’t Tread On Me.” And while Rohrwasser says his tattoos are about being from a military family, well, the military has a white supremacist problem just like the rest of America does.
The fact that Rohrwasser had the “Three Percenter” tattoo in the first place is troubling. It’s good that he called it “shameful” and will get it removed, but it also doesn’t prove anything but that he’s smart enough to respond to public pressure. But the more troubling thing is that this will be the end of it for most people.
“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will,” Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his Letter From A Birmingham Jail. “Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
Rohrwasser getting the “Three Percenter” tattoo removed and ending the controversy, while avoiding a deeper discussion of why white supremacists have co-opted America’s founding sentiments (hint white supremacy has been part of the fabric of America since before its founding), is shallow understanding writ large. Rohrwasser getting along fine with black teammates, while having all that ink, reeks of lukewarm acceptance.
The nature of news cycles now means that Rohrwasser’s “Three Percenter” tattoo will be largely forgotten by the time he ever plays a game for the Patriots, a team owned by Trump donor Robert Kraft and coached by Trump pen pal Bill Belichick. The fact that so much public boosting of a racist, itself racist behavior, fades so easily into the background is a sign of how deeply ingrained American racism is. The fact that you know some Clay Travis type will wind up complaining, and get traction with the argument, that it’s an injustice that Rohrwasser even felt he had to get rid of a tattoo, is an even bigger sign of it.
Rohrwasser is going to have fans who think he’s “one of us.” Once he gets a number, his jersey is going to be a bigger seller than most kickers, and it’s going to be a quiet identifier to a lot of fellow travelers throughout New England. That’s what his tattoo means going forward, even when it’s not on his body anymore.
“I’m going to learn from this,” Rohrwasser said. “I’m going to take ownership of it. This is not who I am. No matter what, that’s not who I am. Hopefully, you will all find that out.”
If he’s really serious about that, Rohrwasser getting the tattoo removed is just a first step. It’s up to him to figure out what he does after that to “take ownership of it” and show who he is beyond the ink.