Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Race

December 6, 2014

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar captured my attention recently. He’s the greatest basketball player, ever—yes, I’ll make the case, and I do welcome disagreements, really—but I noticed him because of his exceptional clarity about race in some recent writing.

About basketball. Kareem Adbul-Jabbar played college ball at UCLA as Lew Alcindor. As a professional he played for the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers.

When Lew Alcindor arrived at UCLA, freshman did not play varsity basketball. UCLA had won national championships in 1964 and 1965. On November 27, 1965 the UCLA freshman played the defending two-time national champion varsity team. The freshman, led by Mr. Alcindor, won by 15. During Mr. Alcindor’s three years on the varsity team UCLA lost only two games, and were national champions every year. And Mr. Alcindor’s contribution? Stats matter, but the real tell comes with the banning of the slam dunk between 1967 and 1976. Name another college athlete whose “game” caused a rule change. (Ranking the 20 Most Dominant College Basketball Players in History by Doug Brodess for Bleacher Report shares my thinking.)

And as a professional basketball player? The Milwaukee Bucks won the NBA championship in 1971; no other team has ever won the NBA championship so quickly. And Mr. Abdul-Jabbar? His teams won NBA championships in six of his 20 seasons, he was the league Most Valuable Player six times, and he’s the all-time career scorer in the NBA, 6193 points ahead of Kobe Bryant, the next closest active player. (Emannual Altenor for Bleacher Report places him No. 4 in 10 Greatest NBA Players of All Time. Wrong, Mr. Altenor!)

No room for the acting career here, but you should watch Airplane!, a very funny movie. What really matters to me is Mr. Abdul-Jabbar’s recent observations about race and class in America.

The first piece I saw by Mr. Abdul-Jabbar was How to Tell If You’re a Racist Like Donald Sterling for Time, published on May 5, 2014. The piece caught my eye first because Mr. Abdul-Jabbar wrote it. Then I read it. Direct, full of metaphors … and rage! His main point gets summed up with one simple question:  “Why is it that the people who are declaring racism dead are mostly white?” And the answer? “Because if you’re not a targeted group, you don’t notice it.” If it’s not about me, it doesn’t exist!

And then there was The Coming Race War Won’t Be About Race, also for Time, published on August 17, 2014. Once again, while the prose is compelling, the argument shows through. If we focus on race, Mr. Abdul-Jabbar writes, we’ll be arguing about discrimination v. police justification, whether police are endangered, and whether blacks get shot more because they commit more crimes. All this, when the real issue is the condition of being poor!

Mr. Abdul-Jabbar, a wealthy man, understands what being poor is about. He also gets the fact that if we don’t start acknowledging what ails us, we can’t begin to think about a cure.

As it happens, not everyone agreed with Mr. Abdul-Jabbar. The contra commentary I found most compelling came from Dave Zirin for The Nation on August 18. His argument? You can’t separate race from class.

Who’s right? Who knows? Unfortunately, there’s no conversation going on about these issues. No real dialogue, and no effective movement for change. And that’s a crying shame, for we have a really serious crisis here, and with a nod to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, we shouldn’t let a serious crisis get wasted.

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