Editor’s Note: Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Political Values and Ethics and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently “Stokely: A Life.” The views expressed here are his.
Peniel Joseph comments on the targeting of perhaps the world's best known athlete with racial slurs
He says LeBron James turned the NBA Finals media day into a seminar on the contours of racial oppression in America
Basketball icon LeBron James’ admission in a press conference on Wednesday that “being black in America is tough” has refocused a national and global spotlight on race matters in America.
“No matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you,” James explained, racism continues to thrive here. James’ declaration came on the eve of the NBA Finals and in the wake of an incident in which his Los Angeles home was vandalized with racist graffiti. The targeting of perhaps the world’s best known athlete with racial slurs that included the n-word, turned the NBA Finals media day into a seminar on the contours of racial oppression in America.
James told the reporters that his primary concern is explaining the situation – and the historical connections it evokes – to his three children. The questions went unspoken, but they might have included the following: What kind of world am I raising my three black children in? If a sports and cultural icon on my level cannot shield his children and protect his family from the most vulgar kind of racial hatred imaginable, what does this say about American society in 2017?
The personal dovetailed into the political when he touted the racist incident at his home as a teachable moment that could help keep the national conversation about racial justice alive. “It just goes to show that racism will always be a part of the world, a part of America,” he concluded.
By also invoking Emmett Till, one of the touchstones of the civil rights era’s heroic period, James consciously linked the Black Lives Matter generation to the struggles and travails of an earlier period. In the process, James offered a historical genealogy of the evolution of racial oppression in contemporary society: Racism continues to rear its head in ways that transcend individual achievements, class status or fame.
It’s a seminar the country clearly needs right now, in a week when nooses appeared not once but twice on the grounds of the Smithsonian museum, one at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. These incidents occurred on the heels of killings in Portland, Oregon, and at the University of Maryland that appear to have been motivated by white supremacist ideology.
James spoke Wednesday as a devoted father, husband and citizen – and a rare athlete, at the top of his game yet courageous enough to speak out on social issues. In the past, James has offered vocal support for Black Lives Matter protests, given money to impoverished black youth in his native Akron, Ohio, and placed the city of Cleveland on his back in an ultimately successful quest to bring that blue-collar city its first sports championship in half a century.
Although white America embraces the black people who are rich and famous with adulation and “when they see you will smile in your face,” he said, hate always lurks beneath the surface.
“I think back to Emmett Till’s mom,” said James, noting how in the face of unspeakable tragedy “she wanted to show the world what her son went through as far as a hate crime, and being black in America.” After racial terrorists murdered her teenaged son in 1955, Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley ordered an open-casket funeral to show the entire world the depth and breadth of white supremacy in America, written on his body.
Two years after racial uprisings in Ferguson, Baltimore, and other cities helped cast a strobe light on the contemporary face of racial oppression in America, James offered the nation an eloquent reminder of how race continues to shape our lives. His comments spotlight the ways in which being rich, famous and a global icon cannot make you impervious to racial slurs rooted in slavery and dehumanization, meant to defame and demean.
Like an earlier generation of black icons from Bill Russell to Muhammad Ali, James refuses to separate his athletic achievements from America’s long history of racial oppression and contemporary struggles for social justice. Beyond athletic titans, James joins a long list of black heroes, ranging from Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X to Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Jo Baker, who reveled in exposing American lies about racial equality.
James turned a press conference into a master class on race, democracy and social justice in America. “Being black in America is tough,” he said. It’s a powerful truth and an incantation against myths of racial equality and colorblindness that have become ingrained in the American imagination. It is a lesson this nation has at times stubbornly refused to remember, but one that must never be forgotten.