LeBron James’ discomfort in white spaces is an all too familiar part of the black experience
Before he was the King, basketball opened up a world many black kids never get to see
LeBron James’ comments about his perception of white people before entering high school on the pilot episode of HBO’s highly anticipated The Shop were, in essence, the prequel to his interview with CNN’s Don Lemon earlier this month. James then spoke about the power of sports. Athletic competition was the four-time MVP’s initial introduction to white people. “I got an opportunity to see them and learn about them,” he said, “and they got the opportunity to learn about me.”
Sports afforded James an opportunity many of the same melanin-rich boys and girls he grew up with could never have, a painful reality that largely served as the impetus for the I Promise School he recently launched. But before his life — and, by proxy, the game of basketball — changed nearly 20 years ago, the narrative all too familiar to black America was the only truth a young James knew.
LeBron talks about the transition from his neighborhood to his catholic high school, being around all white people for the first time and finding out what a pantry is pic.twitter.com/BhIpxsC5xJ
— Rob Lopez (@r0bato) August 29, 2018
For many pockets of the black community, equality is, and has long been, a theoretical concept. The country’s systematic blueprint that places so many communities, including the ones James called home, behind the eight ball educationally and financially has serious consequences. Inequality begets anger. Anger permeates for generations — and it lived in James.
“When I first went to ninth grade and to high school, I was on some, like, ‘I’m not f—ing with white people,’ ” the new Los Angeles Laker said. “I was so institutionalized, growing up in the ’hood. It’s like, ‘They don’t f— with us. They don’t want us to succeed.’ ”
James was raw, brutally honest and vulnerable, once again solidifying his position as an authoritative and dynamic voice of his generation. James continued to elaborate on his mind-set upon entering St. Vincent-St. Mary High School nearly 20 years ago. “I’m like, ‘I’m going to this school to play ball, and that’s it. I don’t want nothing to do with white people. I don’t believe that they want anything to do with me. I don’t want no friends. It’s me and my boys, we going to high school together, and we here to hoop.’ ”
This isn’t a secret in the black community as much as it is a nearly undeniable element of the black experience in America. Many black men and women harbor or have harbored resentment toward their white counterparts. That reality didn’t start with James. Rather, it was an involuntary birthright America has long passed down from generation to generation.
Racial strife had hit a boiling point by the time James Baldwin sat down with Esquire in July 1968. The Q&A remains a flagship interview and reference point on race in America. The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy earlier that year were still very much raw wounds. Cities around the country fumed in chaos. Muhammad Ali was in the second year of his boxing exile. Aretha Franklin demanded “Respect,” and all James Brown wanted anyone to know was how proud he was to be black. The dignity of being black, though, came as a package deal with the rage of being black. During a decade that put a spotlight on America’s stark inequalities, Baldwin saw black people’s anger, despair and volatility as a direct result of the unholy trinity of white oppression: systematic, institutional and historical.
So what would it take for black people to calm down — or, as the interview coined it, “cool it”? Baldwin’s answer was telling.
“The price in this country to survive at all still is to become a white man. More and more people are refusing to become a white man. That’s the bottom of what they mean by on-the-job training. They mean they want to fit you in,” Baldwin said. “And furthermore, let’s tell it like it is. The American white man does not really want to have an autonomous Negro male anywhere near him.”
If Baldwin represents one end of the spectrum of black activism, Michael Jordan represents another. Yet, even Jordan’s upbringing produced similar feelings that James expressed Tuesday night. Long before earning six rings and becoming a sports deity, he was a young black kid growing up in the rural South in the 1970s. More Ku Klux Klan members resided in North Carolina than any other state. The Klan was, as Roland Lazenby, author of Michael Jordan: The Life, dubbed it, a “chamber of commerce.” He couldn’t avoid the obvious. A young Michael saw firsthand racism’s debilitating effects on black people, in particular his great-grandfather Dawson Jordan.
A teenage Jordan responded with resentment. He was suspended from school in 1977 for throwing a soda can at a young white girl who called him the N-word. “I was really rebelling. I considered myself a racist at the time,” Jordan said. “Basically, I was against all white people.”
The haze of racism is as much a part of America’s story as its many triumphs. It’s a haze that only one side has truly been crippled by. It’s a haze some black people never truly allow themselves to escape — and some white people will never let them forget. And a haze some try to forget altogether. It uniquely and profoundly shapes every black person and his or her worldview.
James’ comments represent entry points to a larger conversation. A larger reality of lifelong mistrust residing in countless black men and women that is, if nothing else, a historical tattoo. A larger score that plays itself out in discussions in barbershops, salons, churches, cookouts and any environment deemed “safe” for authentic blackness.
Part of what made James’ comments so authentic is that the emotion is so palpable. He doesn’t feel the same way he did when he entered high school. And saying all white people were morally corrupt wouldn’t suit the change he has currently become a vehicle for. But he is aware of his place in this country as a black man. That even being a black man with an empire of power, the likes of which make him an anomaly, comes the resolution to some he’ll always be the epitaph that was spray-painted outside of his house in June 2017.
If nothing else, it’s part of life’s way of keeping James — and all black people, really — on his toes. He breaks bread with white people. He’s long since had white friends. He has white people working for him and with him. But there is a reason James’ closest friends, the ones he’s championed since he became a cultural deity as a teenager, look like him. James’ perception of how he once viewed white people will stay with him his entire life, if nothing else as an example of growth and maturity. Yet, James’ perception of white people and the world around him is why he’s chosen his platform to speak to those same injustices that fueled his rage.
“At the end of the day, when I decided I was going to start speaking up and not giving a f— about the backlash or if it affects me, my whole mindset was it’s not about me,” he said. “My popularity went down. But at the end of the day, [speaking] my truth to so many different kids and so many different people was broader than personally.”