One Geographer’s Perspective of Slavery, Racism, and the NBA

Recently, I made an irresponsible, insensitive tweet. That tweet does not reflect me, nor my uni, and I offer my sincere apologies to anyone I offended.

I was hoping to elicit a conversation with my tweet, made during a recent Arkansas vs Kentucky basketball game. However, as I am very naive at times, a conversation is not what I got back. I didn’t get any hate email, or any substantially vociferous blow-back; I didn’t get hundreds or thousands of haters. Only one. And the one wasn’t even really offended by what I said. No, he was simply upset because he interpreted, wrongly, my comment as being directed at “his” basketball team – and “no one attacks Kentucky basketball.”

This post is part rebuttal, part observation, and part a discussion of slavery, racism, and to address the specific point I was trying to make, the structural racism within the NBA.

To be clear, these comments represent my own; no one else, just me. And, if my comments come across as supporting racism or as being racist, then I have failed in my message. My intent is to clearly detail my observations, though, honestly, and unfortunately, I have no substantive solutions to offer.

Phil-Jackson-ARKvUK-game

Phil Jackson, president of the New York Knickerbockers, at the recent Arkansas vs Kentucky men’s basketball game.

I debated a long time on how to write this post. Start at the end, work my way backward? Or, start at the beginning, and proceed chronologically? I could make an argument for both. But, indulge me a little, as I am going to go back in time, a little, as this story needs some background.

I have taught world geography since 1997. I have two geography degrees. Teaching world geography presents an amazing opportunity to learn and to teach. In fact, I spend so much time learning about our world and I have very little time to communicate everything. World Geography is a survey course exposing students to a host of global issues and concerns. We talk about deforestation, urbanization, population growth rates, literacy rates, unemployment, regional music, regional food, and great places to visit. World geography is not all fun, though. We have to talk about the ugly part of human society and culture. We have to talk about patriarchal societies (male-dominated) which suppress women and girls, keeping them from educational opportunities, at best, and murdering them for acting against local cultural mores or for engaging in activities construed as being blasphemous. We discuss Pakistan, Afghanistan, and religious extremism. In places, like Malawi, albinos are maimed for body parts to be used in rituals (This is Africa, 2015.)

In 2009, I had a female student from Zambia. In class, when discussing some issues associated with geography of disease, I mentioned a belief, held exclusively by men in some southern African countries, having sex with a virgin was a cure from HIV/AIDS. The Zambian student related essentially the same information as I, as she felt compelled to discuss this issue, too. Another student in class worked in South Africa as part of a mission trip. She worked at an all-girls school. The all-girls school was a compound, surrounded by a tall wall, 10-12ft in height, the top being lined with barbed wired and embedded with broken glass. The top was girded so to keep men from climbing the walls to rape the girls inside.

Teaching geography can be a rewarding experience, however, some people do not like being exposed to the horrific circumstances occurring around them.

Slavery still exists. There are more people in slavery today than in other point in human history (“Modern Slavery;” Freetheslave.com.) By some estimates, there are between 21 – 36 million people trapped in slavery today. Next time you visit your favorite ethnic restaurant, you might be waited upon by a slave. Really. You might be like, “You’re effing kidding me.” No, not really. You can examine this National Geographic online map for some information regarding the global reach of slavery. And, then, allow me to introduce a couple of terms.

Slave: [1] “someone who is legally owned by another person and is forced to work for that person without pay; [2] a person who is strongly influenced and controlled by something” (Merriam-Webster, 2015.)

Indentured Servant: “a person who signs and is bound by indentures to work for another for a specified time especially in return for payment of travel expenses and maintenance” (Merriam-Webster, 2015.)

I have to work from the [2] definition of “slave,” as slavery is more-or-less illegal in today’s society. The person waiting on you who may represent the ethnicity of the restaurant, may be an indentured servant. An indentured servant falls under the classification umbrella of one of the Five Forms of Slavery, “debt slavery,” as outlined by The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Across the United States, the FBI and ICE are arresting hundreds of people every month engaged in human trafficking. A simple internet search of “human trafficking + USA” will results in hundreds of thousands of hits. The illegal movement of people, mainly women and children, across international borders is as prevalent today as any time in human history.

In my in-class world geography courses, I bring these topics up in class. Everyone is uncomfortable. Good, I say. You need to be uncomfortable. “This shit is wrong. I am not going to equivocate, or use any argument of cultural relativism for these circumstances. There are greys areas in the world, and there are black-and-white issues. This is a black-and-white issue. Human trafficking and exploitation of people in dire circumstances is wrong. Effing wrong.” I don’t use the f-word in class, but I will say “effing” as a viable substitute.

OK; that is where I am coming from. I see stuff I do not like very often, and sometimes my mouth gets ahead of my brain.

Now, I posted the picture of Phil Jackson above for a particular reason.

Let me be clear about a few things before I begin: I am not saying Phil Jackson is racist, nor supports racism. Mr. Jackson is well-respected within and outside the NBA. I do not mean to impugn his character. However, his visage as displayed on my television made my mind go places, and I sent a tweet which was insensitive.

Mr. Jackson’s face reminded me of images of old, White southern plantation owners, and old White men who bought, sold, and traded slaves until the Civil War. I have seen Django Unchained a few times and I am reading the Quentin Tarantino comic book, Django-Zorro, right now, so these themes are fresh in my mind. Mr. Jackson even reminded me a little of Mr. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) from Django Unchained, in how his goatee is styled, to the scrutiny is he directing towards 10 Black men on the basketball court.

I thought, “Oh, man; this looks horrible. Here we have an old White man, resembling – maybe only to me – the southern White plantation owner who oversees a new batch of Black men to put to work. Uhg… Why does this happen?” My heart sunk, because in that one image of Phil Jackson I saw a hundred-plus years of slavery and racism.

But, not only history of slavery and racism, but current issues with at least racism, and perhaps “debt slavery.” Phil Jackson represents the NBA; he is the president of the New York Knickerbockers. While not an owner, per se, he represents the pinnacle of front office management. Of all NBA teams, 97% or owned by wealthy White men (“3 Leagues, 92 Teams, 1 Principal Black Owner,”538.com.) The lone exception: the Charlotte Hornets, with Michael Jordan as the principal owner.

In 2011, the NBA owners locked out players on July 1. The major point of contention was distribution of wealth; the owners wanted to reduce player income by 10%, from 57% to 47%. During the period of negotiations, Bryant Gumbel on his HBO Real Sports show likened David Stern’s (NBA Commissioner) role in the lockout to a “modern plantation overseer, treating NBA men as if they were his boys … keeping the hired hands in their place” (2011 NBA Lock-out; wikipedia.) Author William C. Rhoden (NYT sports columnist) in his book $40 Million Slaves had earlier dealt with the topic of players as “slaves” in spite of earning millions of dollars” (2011 NBA Lock-out; wikipedia.) During the same negotiations, NBA Players Union lawyer Jeff Kessler criticized the owners’ “take it or leave it” bargaining approach: “instead of treating the players like partners, they’re treating them like plantation workers” (2011 NBA Lock-out; wikipedia.)

Yet, even before the 2011 NBA lock-out, important Black leaders were drawing attention to problems with the owner-players relationship. In 2010, after LeBron James made his intentions of leaving Cleveland known, the Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert penned an angry tirade against LeBron. Rev. Jesse Jackson had this to say about Mr. Gilbert:

“He [Gilbert] speaks as an owner of LeBron and not the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers,” the reverend said in a release from his Chicago-based civil rights group, the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. “His feelings of betrayal personify a slave-master mentality. He sees LeBron as a runaway slave. This is an owner-employee relationship — between business partners — and LeBron honored his contract.” (ESPN)

Recently, Donald Sterling, owner of Los Angeles Clippers, was found to have made racially inflammatory statements about his players and Clippers fans. Even more recently, Atlanta Hawks co-owner Bruce Levenson issued an email about how Black people “scared away the whites” (The NBA’s Racism is Structural, Not Just Individual; Colorlines.) While Bruce may have been trying to address the inherent racism among Hawks fans, he did a poor job of getting his message across, and offered no solutions.

Like me. Here is my tweet:

“May just be me, but Phil Jackson looks like a southern plantation owner looking to buy a few slaves.

Yes; my tweet contains two inflammatory words: “plantation” and “slaves.” I am 100% in agreement with that assessment. Now, do I believe Phil Jackson is a slave owner? Honestly, not in the traditional sense, perhaps. Do I think any college basketball players is a slave? Again, not in the traditional sense.

If anyone else had been in that Rupp Arena seat but Phil, I’m sure my brain would have reacted differently. If Michael Jordan was scouting, or Magic, or Isaiah Thomas, or Karl Malone, or Patrick Ewing had been sitting down front scouting the Wildcats or the Razorbacks I doubt I would have had any reaction. But, seeing Phil sitting there did not sit well with me.

My tweet was really meant to communicate, “Hey, I am a White guy and I see an uncomfortable situation that is borderline racially insensitive occurring right now, on my television, just like what Bryant, and William, and Jeff (though Jeff is White) were saying during the 2011 NBA lock-out!” But, as good intentions sometimes work out, my message was not taken that way by one fellow. Now, he and some cohorts have taken it upon themselves to attack me, people I know, and organizations I am affiliated with on Twitter, on Facebook, and via emails directed at specific people.

But there is a HUGE problem my stupid and insensitive tweet was trying to draw attention to, a problem with many facets. Let me enumerate them, in no particular order:

  1. One White gentleman sitting in judgment of 10 Black men.
  2. One White gentleman judging 10 men Black men on nothing other than athleticism (that I can see), i.e. not based on grades, intelligence, compassion, contribution to community.
  3. One White gentleman judging who, among those Black men, is best able to make his team more money, even more profitable.
  4. Basketball players get drafted based on athletic skills; they do not “apply,” they get little choice of what team they are drafted by.
  5. Basketball players are contractually bound, and unable to move freely from team-to-team until they achieve “free agency.” Free agency…as opposed to what…?
  6. The allure of NBA creates unreasonable optimism among youth, encouraging minorities to abrogate their education in favor of a potential NBA career. And, I find this disappointing.
  7. 97% of NBA teams are white-owned.
  8. 76% of NBA teams are African-American.
  9. 18% of NBA teams have African-Americans in the front office or in management positions.
  10. I have no idea about gender composition in the NBA, or the WNBA, for that matter.

I do not want to offend anyone, really. I will be the first to admit I do not know enough Black people, and know zero Hispanic people at this point in my life. And, I will be the first to admit I do not know much about Black culture (see my post, “The Geography of Blackness.)” However, I do support Black culture, as I write about in a post from February, 2013, “Why Black History Month Matters.” Educators who do not understand how to integrate the issues associated with Civil Rights do not need to be in a classroom, in my opinion. Nor do people who advocate Creationism or Intelligent Design, but I’ve written about that issue previously.

The United States needs “People of Color” (PoC) to stay in school, especially Black men. To undermine, to alleviate, to eliminate the structural racism endemic in our society, the best way in my opinion, is from the inside. Educated people hire other educated people, other educated Blacks and Hispanics, and as a result we all take ownership of making our society better and stronger, over time. I personally fight with my athletes every semester to pay attention, to do assignments, to focus.

You have to protect yourself. Don’t shrug off your education. Your education will stay with you for a lifetime. No one can take away your education. Your education is protection against being taken advantage of by unscrupulous agents, supposed friends, “financial advisers” and others who would drain you of your livelihood. And, what are you going to do if your dream doesn’t pan out? What if your only game is playing abroad, in Italy, or the Czech Republic? What if you suffer a career-ending injury, one or two years into your career? What are you going to fall back on?

These are the pleas I submit to my athletes when I seem them faltering in my classes. No, I rarely get any kind of reply from them. They either listen to me quietly, or the ignore my emails, or they turn me over to their coach. So very frustrating. Our society needs more Black accountants, chemists, physicists, doctors, veterinarians, etc.

Events in Ferguson, Missouri are evidence of how far our U.S. society has to go. While race relations have progressed since the 1960s, too many White people pass along their culture of animosity and bigotry to their children. Even today, a fraternity at the University of Oklahoma is being disbanded (hopefully) for being overtly racist. There is no room in our 21st century society for those attitudes. I don’t like the N-word, I have never used the N-word, and I don’t like hearing Black people call each other the N-word.

When I hear Black people use the N-word with each other, I hear this: “You will never be anything. You were a slave, are a slave, and will always be a slave. Remember our history; you won’t amount to anything.” To me, the N-word is way of repressing people. Maybe I’m wrong; I’m wrong a lot. Maybe someone can help me interpret that word another way – I still won’t ever use it, though. I knew from the earliest age I can remember that word was ugly.

But, now, I’m faced with charges of being a racist by one person on Twitter, and he is making waves for me. Being called, “racist,” has literally brought me close to vomiting, makes me sick to my stomach. I haven’t put much thought to this but my initial view is being a racist is not much of an improvement over being called a “pederast” or “pedophile.” I’m literally sickened by the accusation.

I have talked about this circumstance with a few of my Black friends, one of whom had an interesting comment. “Now, you know how each of us feels when we actually experience racism and discrimination. That is the way we feel early in our lives. Now that I’m older, I can handle it better, it doesn’t feel as bad, you get immune to it, get used to ignoring it. But, it still feels bad.”

I took that knowledge and magnified my feelings 1,000x’s. Take the most humiliating experience you’ve ever had. Now, multiply those feelings by 1,000. How would you feel? And, guess what? You can’t do anything about it – not in this case – because people are humiliating you because of your skin color. Ignorance can be remedied by knowledge; mistakes can be corrected. Second chances can be awarded. How do you give a Second Chance for being Black? Or Chinese? Or Hispanic?

Racism is a pestilence.

Growing up in Kansas City, Missouri, most of my friends were Black kids, and were predominantly Black girls, actually. My sister’s best friend was a Mexican girl. Rochelle has been a life-long friend to my sister, actually. I haven’t kept up with any of my high school friends. But, my neighborhood had many Black families, and all of them had girls my age. So, most of the girls I knew growing up were Black girls, and most of my friends throughout my entire primary and secondary education were Black kids. My closest Black friend, I wouldn’t know until high school. I would ride my bike 45 minutes, one-way, to visit my friend, John.

I did have one moment of cowardice in junior high. A couple of my Black girl friends told me one of their friends, also a Black girl, had a crush on me. This information created a certain amount of anxiety in my head, and a freak-out moment. Yes, part of this anxiety was because LaTonya was Black, but she was also one of the prettiest girls in school, and I was like, “What the hell does she want with this snotty-nose kid?” I had a lot of bad allergies in junior high. Another part of my anxiety derived from my mom being a teacher at the very same school and she forbade me from having girlfriends, period, no matter what color they were. I didn’t have my first girlfriend until I was a junior in college. Honest-to-God truth. The final part of my anxiety had to due with my dad being an unabashed racist. He used the N-word whenever he talked about Black people and ignored my mother’s commands to stop. And, that is why I know the N-word is an ugly word.

But I digress.

I cannot admit to going out of way to promote Black culture; I simply do what I think is right or helps people. In 2007, one of my graduate students was a Black female. I worked with her for about 18 months, the result of our work culminating in a great job in Washington, D.C. I recently helped a girl’s middle school basketball coach at predominantly Black city school. To help encourage her players, and her students, I bought her Maya Angelou‘s recent CD of poetry set over contemporary hip-hop music. My teacher-friend and I are always scouring bookstores for books on African-American culture and historical figures to help promote positive Black role models among all youth, White, Black, Asian, whoever. She and I realize Black youth need to see Black people of different backgrounds to help their aspirations; and we also realize positive Black role models must be promoted to White children in order to combat the racism practiced prevalent in too many White homes. I do know that each of us must work to break the cycle of racism, that White people, especially some politicians, and some political groups, must stop believing we live in a “post-racial society.” We clearly – CLEARLY – do not live in a post-racial society. Not even close. We are heading in the right direction; slowly yet surely. With each new generation our American society is getting better.

By writing this post I run the risk of sounding like I want an award or some sort of recognition. Nope; I don’t. I don’t want any recognition and I don’t believe I am worthy of any recognition. On the other hand, I don’t feel having my life and my workplace impacted by people calling me “racist” is fair, or even correct. I am not a racist; nor do I hold bigoted sentiments against gays or lesbians or transgender people. People need the right to lead their lives, make each day better for themselves, marry whoever they choose. No government should have the authority to govern marriage, other than to allow people to get married, divorced, and acknowledge those circumstances.

But I’m on my soap-box, now.

We all make mistakes; we all say or do things we may not entirely contemplate the severity of the response, or how some people relish taking words out of context in order to make themselves appear more important. If we want to strive to have real, true discussions about race in the United States, all of us have to work at having open minds and cannot and should not leap upon a single statement as means of invalidating every prior or subsequent comment or action, at least not without giving the person or group an opportunity to clarify their message. Then, react, if necessary.

Let me close by reiterating a variation on my opening:

I made an irresponsible, insensitive tweet. The message contained with the tweet does not reflect me, nor my uni, and I offer my sincere apologies to my Black friends, co-workers, and anyone else I offended.”

Thanks for reading.

PAX

9 thoughts on “One Geographer’s Perspective of Slavery, Racism, and the NBA

    • Honestly, I’m not precisely sure. I use the term, but am not all that familiar with how I would define Black culture. I know, for instance, Black people I know prefer a different type of Baptist church. However, in Kansas City, the Methodist church my mother attends is predominantly Black, and the church has a Black female pastor. I know from recent issues in the U.S. Army, the military dress code has been updated to allow certain hair styles preferred by Black women.

      Blues, and Southern Gospel music are traditional forms of music which began (I think) predominantly in Black communities. Robert Johnson is probably the father of Delta Blues (not sure but I think so), and jazz also has deep roots in African-American culture, like Louis Armstrong, Charley Parker, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane. Along musical lines, hip-hop and rap both began within Black communities, but have been adopted by other folks, too. I know I’m missing some other important aspects, but those are some elements which come to mind as describing qualities or influences unique to Black culture.

      I’m updating this with new thoughts today. So, when we talk about culture in class, I talk about culture comprising “shared history among a group of people.” Having a shared history is one of many elements and factors used by anthropologists and geographers to help distinguish one culture from another. In thinking about this over night, I thought of two scenarios, three when these two scenarios are united under the umbrella of “American culture.” On the one hand, Black culture’s shared history has to include generations of being treated as second-class citizens, and the history of subjugation under White rule, being the target of racist attacks and discrimination. The systematic and structural racism within the United State pre- and post-Civil War, up to and including yesterday, is uniquely part of Black culture. I say, “uniquely” because I, being White, do not know what any of that feels like nor do any immediate family members (to my knowledge) have a historical connection to that particularly history.

      On the other hand, White culture, and I have to include Western Europeans, too, have a history of subjugating other races, who either have darker skin or who do not profess Christianity. Thus, part of White culture has been, and is, up to and including yesterday, the discrimination against Black people, and other people of color.

      Merging those two scenarios, part of American culture is the constant wrestling with our diversity, of not yet having achieved any solace, consolation, or understanding concerning the various races living inside our borders. Individually, yes; many people have reached a level of maturity and enlightenment that allows them to see people as people, as ideas, as friends, as loved ones, and not judging by skin color. However, recent events in continue to expose institutionalized racism, i.e. Ferguson, Missouri.

      So, I feel like there is a unique Black culture in embedded in America; I think others would agree. I hear people speak of Black culture on TV, so it must exist, right? 🙂 But, we all put our pants on the same way, brush our teeth the same way, pay our water bills the same way. OK – not the 1%, probably, but I think you get my drift.

        • Black culture is often overemphasized by black militants and liberal media. It is often viewed as a counter culture. If that is the case, everyone’s culture should be brought into question except for the people who hang out on reservations and own casinos….

        • Yes, I certainly agree with “everyone’s culture should be brought into question.”

          I really liked you question but its hard for me to address. I don’t get to decide what traits any culture has, I feel like I can only observe and then ask, “how are these people similar to or different from those people? Are there enough differences to create a distinctive culture? ”

          Questions about culture can be a slippery slope towards stereotypes, stereotypes can lead to cultural relativism, and then things can get racist really fast. Culture then creates “ownership” i.e. “we own this word, we own this thinking, we own this behavior” and then barriers are created, and my philosophy is that barriers are generally a long-term bad idea.

          Personally, I would not feel comfortable saying what you say; I don’t think it’s my place. I have heard White people on FoxNews, for example, make similar comments, and am bothered by it, mostly because decades of social injustice reduces the validity of those sentiments in my mind.

          And, from Twitter, or Larry Wilmore, or Tavis Smiley, there are frequent references to “Black culture” and conversations, at times, so it has to exist, right? 🙂

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