As The Sky Hook Turns: A Response To Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

(Today, we have a guest post from Robert Reece at The South Lawn. Robert is a PhD student in sociology at Duke University where he takes an intersectional critical race approach to research on the American South, black popular culture, gender/sex/sexuality, and digital technology. He is from Leland, MS, a small town in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, and obtained BA and MA degrees in sociology from The University of Mississippi.)

Last week, the former professional basketball player (6-time NBA champion and 6-time NBA MVP), activist, and filmmaker, wrote an article for Time entitled “The Coming Race War Won’t Be About Race,” where he argues, in true Marxist fashion, that race is not the real issue in Ferguson, or anywhere else for that matter. The real issue is class and how the poor are systematically disadvantaged by the wealthy elite, and race is just an ideological division perpetuated by the mainstream media to impede the organization of the 50 million impoverished Americans. He writes, “Ferguson is not just about systemic racism—it’s about class warfare and how America’s poor are held back…” Well, the truth is: it’s about both.

The tragic shooting of Mike Brown is certainly not limited to economically disadvantaged black communities, but the aftermath: the curfew, the police presence, the National Guard presence, almost certainly wouldn’t have manifested in a well-to-do community full of black decision makers. But it is equally, or less, likely to occur in a white community, even a poor white community. Only the confluence of poverty and racial otherness elicits such a violence police response to a violence police response. Eliminating either factor changes the game entirely. Neither can be subsumed by the other.

Abdul-Jabbar is right when he writes, “The middle class has to join the poor and whites have to join African-Americans in mass demonstrations, in ousting corrupt politicians, in boycotting exploitative businesses, in passing legislation that promotes economic equality and opportunity, and in punishing those who gamble with our financial future.” Alliances may be the way to justice and equality, but he makes a critical, indeed, a rookie, mistake in assuming that the way to alleviate racial inequality is by simply ignoring it and essentially hoping that it goes away as a wave of economic opportunity washes over the ill-fated proletariat.

His position is relatively well-researched, much more so than most similar pieces. He cites research from the Pew Research Center, PunditFact, the U.S. Census, the Department of Justice, and journalist Laurie Penny. But it is not researched thoroughly enough as evident by the aforementioned glaring omission. He doesn’t mention how black poverty is markedly different from white poverty. He fails to acknowledge how poor white people achieve a level of social mobility that is unattainable to black people. He neglects to mention how economic programs have been historically unevenly distributed by racial group, with whites disproportionately benefitting from the programs. Economic justice cannot stand independently of racial justice. The two are interconnected, which means that economic programs that fail to account for racial stratification are inevitably doomed to fail, and I expect a Time contributor who chooses to write about race to be aware of this information and treat it fairly rather than sounding like Das Kapital is the most recently read book on his Kindle.

There is a reason why ESPN almost exclusively hires former athletes and coaches to be sports analysts on their programs and draw a sharp distinction between analysts and sports journalists. Their expertise in their field is recognized and validated by the acknowledgement that they have cultivated insight into their particular sport that members of the general population may not have through years of training and knowledge acquisition. This is often not the case with popular media outlets and issues of race and racial inequality, where too often those of us who rigorously study racial stratification as a career are ignored in favor of pundits and celebrities who may be able to draw bigger audiences, like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Like sports, nearly everyone has an opinion on race, but unlike sports, the training of race scholars is often meaningless in the public’s eye. Our knowledge is often attributed to mere opinion rather than theories and facts drawn from years of our own research and untold amounts of meticulous consumption of the work of our predecessors and contemporaries.  We’re taught to take a look at information from all sides and trained to critique data and arguments. But when it’s time to talk about race, our phones simply don’t ring enough and our voices don’t mean enough.

None of this is to say that race scholars are infallible. No one is. But much in the same way that the views of sports analysts are informed by a deeper perspective of the game, even if they are ultimately wrong or disagree with each other, race scholars bring an understanding to issues that is often unmatched by the casual observer. Basketball analysts tell the public why an extra pass would have resulted in an easier basket and who missed the defensive rotation that left the opponents best shooter open, race scholars explain why economic policies must be tailored to account for race. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar simply cannot continue to argue that class problems supersede racial stratification, and outlets, like Time, cannot continue to give pundits like him the space to do so when others are much more qualified to discuss the topic.