A Single Toe Out Of Line

Our society’s worship of the dollar has fostered several strained pieces of “conventional wisdom”, but perhaps one of the most perverse is that structural ills can be ignored if enough money is in the picture. One of the most common criticisms of Colin Kaepernick during his national anthem protests last year was the idea that he, as a Black man making an eight-figure salary, could not possibly be drawing attention to himself solely for the reasons he stated.
There are several potential undercurrents to this particular sentiment applied to Kaepernick (or similar thoughts). “Why is he interrupting my day with his agenda like this?” “Why isn’t he sticking to sports?” “Aren’t my problems more immediate than some systemic crap?”
“Doesn’t he think that society has done enough for him?”
Part of the reason I think conversations regarding people like Kaepernick get contentious is because these are cases where ingrained stereotypes, whether malicious or benevolent, break down. Class and race are often closely tied together in many people’s minds, and athletes are one of the few high-profile groups of people where minorities tend to publicly share the wealth comparably, if not equitably. The conversation becomes even more fraught because people treat the work of being an athlete as “unserious” or “not cerebral”, from which it’s a small step to get to athletes’ paychecks being somehow “unearned” or “undeserved”.
But even through this line of thought, which is misguided at its most innocuous and a straight-up dog whistle at its most insidious, the kicker is the implicit assumption that any possible racism that athletes experience is acceptable given their earnings.
Which brings us to the N-word graffiti spray-painted on Lebron James’ front gate yesterday morning. Lebron responded quite powerfully to this incident during media interviews yesterday, and a few things stood out to me:
1) Lebron both starts and ends with the statement that his family is safe, and that that is the most important. As is made clear below, Lebron is at least somewhat of a student of race relations in this country, so the historical parallels here are likely not lost on him. On the heels of a period where race has been significantly present in overarching news narratives, I’d bet this response will still confuse a large number of people in this country. It’s easy to gloss over our American history of racial terror, and we must be doubly sure not to do so in having these conversations.
2) Lebron’s statement is not just that racism is a part of this country, but that “racism will ALWAYS be a part of the world, a part of America”. It’s easy to dismiss this as somehow defeatist, but truly, what have we done to dispel this notion? Activists continue to fight to preserve progress enact reforms, but the country has been culturally resistant, as evidenced by any number of occurrences over the past six months. The owner of the New York Giants, just last week, stated that he’s received not “one or two”, but “a lot” of letters stating that fans would not attend another game if any Giants player protested in a similar fashion to Kaepernick. (The North is not only not immune to this, but its ability to skate by on a simplistic reading of history makes the issue slippery enough to avoid. As a northerner from a city that has a deeply troubled history with race, we cannot accept this.) And these examples only scratch the surface of the issues considered by the Doll Test made famous by Brown v. Board, where children as young as three demonstrated internalized feelings of Black inferiority in a neutrally designed exercise. Consider the scope of the shift we need to create to truly overcome this.
3) Lebron’s choice of Emmett Till is fascinating here. The graffiti was quickly covered over, so he’s not trying to make a literal parallel between the open casket that Till’s mother insisted on (which he specifically references in his statements) and what happened to him. The conclusion, I think, is deeper than that. The open casket was meant to spotlight a grave injustice that was a feature, and not a bug, of the system. If a 14-year-old boy could be brutally murdered for stepping a single toe out of line, there was no more denying that the system was broken.
What has Lebron done to step out of line? Aside from becoming famous and financially successful, there is nothing. Virtually all of the “scandals” that have popped up since he entered the public sphere have been related either directly to basketball or to public stances he has deliberately taken. But as with Colin Kaepernick, there are enough people who see that as a misstep. And if all you need to see is a single toe out of line, it’s not hard to see where this goes.
Is the system still broken in the same way it was in 1955, when Till’s open casket was photographed and printed in newspapers across the country? No. But the idea that money can be a panacea for racism should be put well to rest.
We’re not even there yet. But this is what I believe Lebron is trying to say when invoking Till’s name. Henry Louis Gates having a beer with a police officer who arrested him was treated as the end of the story. We should have seen it as the beginning of our duty.
Happy NBA Finals, y’all.

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