Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Reverend Who Cried Wolf

Every day numerous examples of legitimate racism in action take place in this country. Yes we currently have a brown skin biracial President who most (including him) identify as African American. Yes, while certainly not in the fantasy land of post racial identity existence, this country has come a long way. Yes, no matter how far we’ve come, the legacy of racism by whites against blacks and the institution of slavery will never be fully lived down by this nation. It is an irremovable stain. A black President can’t remove it; Michael Jordan and Michael Jackson and Oprah Winfrey can’t erase it; reparations neither real nor symbolic can erase it. Racism rolls on, this cannot be denied. It takes place in an infinite numbers of ways, sometimes in manners splashy and violent enough to make headline news, but usually in personal exchanges and privately held thoughts. There are white people with undeserved notions of superiority in their heads, and black people who will never forgive and never forget the ugliest part of our history regardless of what the present holds and the future promises.

That said, the fact that racism still exists does not mean that racism is prevalent in EVERY interaction, particularly every negative one, between blacks and whites. My novel Patches of Grey tackles this subject head on. Earlier today I quoted a brief passage from it on Twitter, taken from a scene where a fight nearly breaks out between two groups of young men. Those on one side of the dispute are black and those on the other are white, but the subject matter of their disagreement (at least on its surface) is not racial. As often is the case with young men, the trouble is over a girl. “The respective skin colors of the near combatants could not be ignored. The fact that one of them was black and the other white could not be removed from the equation, rendering the specifics of the altercation inconsequential.”

I’m writing this blog posting, and the words quoted above came to mind, because of Jesse Jackson’s reaction to the infantile public letter written by Cleveland Cavaliers’ owner Dan Gilbert. Gilbert was quite upset that his cash cow LeBron James had just left the team as a free agent (emphasis on free) to ply his trade elsewhere, and by the particularly humiliating way James went about doing it. As LeBron’s former employer I don’t know how you could possibly sit through ESPN’s airing of The Decision and not be incensed. LeBron pissed off millions of people that he doesn’t know from a hole in the wall with his actions, so of course he angered his boss. Dan Gilbert hoped for exclusively selfish reasons that LeBron would be loyal to the state he was born and raised and grew up to be a legend in. Gilbert was hoping that LeBron would be loyal to the only organization he had ever worked for as a professional basketball player. Dan was praying that LeBron would be loyal TO HIM. But the young Mr. James for equally selfish reasons (not implying that selfish must = bad, by the way; thinking of your own interests first is the most human thing we do) opted to go another way. Much has been said (plenty of it by me) about the decision, about why it was made and how LeBron chose to declare it. Much was subsequently said about Dan Gilbert’s public rant of protest, with the consensus being that as the owner of a professional sports franchise, the letter was beneath him. He was fined a considerable amount of money for his immature response by the NBA’s commissioner, and that really should have been the only other chapter to this story.

But before David Stern could get around to weighing in on the issue (which is his job), none other than Jesse Jackson (who one might think could and should easily find far more troubling situations to address) inexplicably did. What did the esteemed Rev. Jackson have to say about an issue that seems like it would be of minimal concern to him? What was his take on the venting of a disgruntled boss about losing his most treasured employee? As you probably already know, Jesse accused Dan Gilbert of having a "slave owner mentality". Now expressing a vague feeling of unease about the motivation behind Gilbert's outrage is one thing, flat out accusing him of viewing LBJ as his own personal Chicken George is another. Jesse crossed the line of concerned speculation and came damn near close to placing a pointy hood over Gilbert's face. He apparently feels that a wealthy white man can’t possibly be upset about losing the paid services of a black man who was routinely employee of the month for any reason other than that he feels he owns not just a sports franchise, but the men who work for it. Or to be specific, the black men who work for his organization. Most of those black men are paid standard American wages and Dan Gilbert doesn’t know their names, nor would he recognize them if they stood before him. But in regards to the tallest of them who get to dress super casually at work and are paid obscene amounts of money since they're who the paying public comes to see, surely they are considered to be slave labor. Why else would Dan dare to get upset when one “escapes”? Apparently the good reverend believes if LeBron happened to be white but otherwise possessed the same skill set and sparkling personality, Mr. Gilbert would be happily throwing him a farewell and thanks for the memories party rather than typing up a manifesto of indignation.

Anyone who knows anything about slavery knows that Jackson's comparison could not be further from the truth, knows that it greatly diminishes the tremendous crippling impact of perhaps the most awful event ever to take place in the history of our planet. Just as it is buffoonish and demeaning whenever Glenn Beck compares every little thing President Obama does to Hitler and the Holocaust and socialism and so called reverse racism. I trust that I don’t actually need to enumerate the countless differences between a slave and a professional athlete to anyone reading these words, or the differences between a team owner and an owner/torturer of human beings. This should not need to be explained to anyone. Yet not only are the differences apparently not clear at all to Jesse Jackson, but a fair number of people actually nodded in agreement at his accusations. Even those willing to concede he may have gone a tad too far still felt it was not Dan Gilbert’s reaction that was within logical comprehension, but rather, Jesse Jackson’s reaction to that reaction. If you see a white man (particularly a rich, powerful one) get angry at a black man (particularly one employed by the white man), what other explanation could there be for the outrage? Gilbert lost some valuable personal property and it ticked him off, no?

Well, that certainly is one way of looking at it if you feel that a black person and a white one cannot be in disagreement about anything at all without race being the underlying cause. But if you believe that people are driven nuts by other people for innumerable reasons, and that just because people are of different races it doesn’t mean this is the only level upon which they can relate to each other, a different interpretation may be derived. You may conclude, may be capable of concluding, that sometimes a black person is angry at a white one, or a white person is angry at a black one, or the two of them are angry at each other, and neither race nor the atrocity of slavery has anything to do with the matter. If you can ignore the respective skin colors of combatants, if you can remove race as the root cause in such an equation and examine the actual specifics of the situation, then consider yourself a better man or woman than Jesse Jackson (who I just can't get too angry at because of what he’s done on behalf of civil rights, plus his fair resemblance to my dad) just showed himself to be. At the very least you’re probably way nicer to be around when you’re in a cranky mood than Mel Gibson.

"He 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." – Jesse Jackson
I strongly disagree with Rev. Jesse Jackson's recent comments and we are not going to engage in any related discussion on it. Going forward, we're very excited about the Cavaliers and the positive future of our region.” – Dan Gilbert



  1. At the heart of it all, I agree with you on one fundamental thing - "the atrocity of slavery has anything to do with the matter". You're right. Rev. Jesse Jackson's comments were not to make light of slavery, but to point out how Dan Gilbert treated LeBron James like a chattel property. If LeBron were white, I would still see Dan Gilbert's letter as a testament of his anger over losing chattel property. Gilbert dehumanized James in his letter. And because James is black, the letter was reminiscient of the attitude privileged white men enjoyed over their "chattel property" - women, blacks, cars, land, etc... To ignore race considering the stark racial disparity in power in this sport (mostly white team owners versus mostly black players) would be naive. There is a certain level of cultural, ethnic and racial sensitivity one must undertake when you are a member of a privileged class upset about the decisions of a person, not in your same privileged class. And Gilbert chose to ignore this sensitivity. What Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke of was essentially white male privilege. The privileged person is in a position where they can easily ignore the ethnic and gender identity of the person they (whether consciously or not) oppress. I have to call my white family members on this constantly. Because of the history of the person with whom you are interacting with, a heightened sensitivity must be undertaken to avoid disrespecting them. This is what Gilbert failed to do. His actions would have been assholery no matter who LeBron was. But the fact that he is black, coupled with Gilbert's lack of sensitivity, this is what makes the letter reminiscient of the chattel attitude that slavery left us with. So, while I think the analogy Rev. Jesse Jackson used was misleading (people get their panties in a bunch when they hear the word "slave"), for the first time in a while, I actually agree with him!

    On twitter, I think @dumilewis discussed this topic best. He said: "Jackson's comment was about ownership continued, not slave mentality. He viewed James as chattel... his comments are spot on about Gilbert's sense of ownership and had little to do with LeBron being "a slave" in his own eyes."

    finally, Rev. Jesse Jackson has spoken on some other issues involving African Americans on his radio show as well as on The Root (a blog). He was asked for his opinion on Dan Gilbert's letter and he gave it. He isn't "focusing" on this trivial issue - we are.

  2. Excellent points, Aisha. If there wasn't so much racial sensitivity out there (perhaps heightened more than reality thanks to Twitter), I would have given Jesse a free pass because I understood what he meant to say even if I felt it was stated too strongly. It might not be too much to say Dan Gilbert saw LeBron James as an indentured servant, but once you go with terms such as "slave" and "owner" you're casting a pretty harsh light on somebody. Foolish as Dan Gilbert may be (in this instance anyway), I don't think he deserves to be portrayed as someone who sees himself as a slave owner, therefore by definition racist, inhumanly sadistic, uncaringly monstrous. He's just a guy who got rejected & chose to make LeBron look like a bad guy so he could get some sympathy points for himself. The alternative to sympathy would be for Cavs fans to be angry at him for not doing enough to keep LeBron in Cleveland, so the letter may even have been calculated rather than purely a heat of the moment rant. To your last point, if Rev. Jackson was simply answering a direct question rather than raising the issue, you're right that he deserves a little more latitude. A little.

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