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The NBA’s swagger and joy of playing defies white supremacy

Play on and harness your platforms to thwart the evilness that has stalked Black life

The instinct to revisit past work looms as perhaps the most vexing aspect of living one’s life as a writer. Time and practice have sharpened my sword. Thus, when I look at a sentence that I wrote, say, 10 years ago, I obsess over a weak verb. An unnecessary adjective. An inaccurate noun. A diversity of experiences has elevated my thinking. I’m more well-versed in the literature, leading to better observations. I wish I knew then what I know now. But I can’t take words back. I must live with them.

I frequently return to two sentences I can’t amend, written in a book I authored, In Defense of Uncle Tom, Why Blacks Must Police Racial Loyalty: “I believe blacks should organize around a mutual interest in lessening or eliminating the burdens of antiblack racism. Because a society free of bigotry benefits all, this ‘oppression-centered’ solidarity rallies blacks into joint action.”

Aside from using “Blacks,” rather than “Black people,” I want to revise those two sentences because I missed a nuance that should have been obvious to me then, a nuance I want the detractors of NBA players choosing to resume play to grapple with now.

Black folk are not simply bound together by our interests in opposing anti-Black racism — we are more bound by our search for happiness in the face of anti-Black racism.

We locate the true wickedness of white supremacy in its capacity to depress our smiles. Sap our joy. Distract our focus. Sometimes stop our beating hearts. We would live better, longer, more fulfilling lives if not for the actions of those who seek to oppress us.

Given that, we should eschew the compulsion to fight white supremacy in ways that make us unhappy. If the most fundamental problem with anti-Black racism is that it reduces the quality of our lives, why should we always be obliged to fight against it even in ways that reduce the quality of our lives?

One of the memories of bubble basketball that will last with me is Jamal Murray’s swagger. I didn’t watch him play at Kentucky. Therefore, when I first watched him as a rookie, I wondered whether he would prove worthy of a lottery selection, and then whether he was worthy of the max extension he received last year. But he has reached a level of dominance that many concluded was beyond his grasp. Judging by his newfound on-court swagger, he is surely delighting in his success. And in this time of ever-present misery, I do think such images nourish the soul.

NBA players wield tremendous power in their communities and their decision to withhold their labor to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, recentered the national conversation on police brutality.

Every other player is fighting for something too. A ring or experience. A place in the pantheon of greats or a roster spot. Reputation or redemption.

Why should they surrender their opportunities? Why would anyone demand that they do so lest they invite criticism?

I think the players can and will find methods to harness their platforms to thwart the evilness that has stalked Black life on this land since 1619, while still depriving that evilness the opportunity to cripple their happiness. The players getting the owners to agree to use NBA arenas as polling places was a valuable concession.

NBA players wield tremendous power in their communities, and their decision to withhold their labor to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, recentered the national conversation on police brutality specifically and racial tyranny specifically. Such efforts will benefit the long march toward fashioning a more just country.

Some athletes, particularly Muhammad Ali and Colin Kaepernick, incurred the heaviest of prices for their justice efforts. Their deeds warrant eternal reverence. But we mustn’t require all athletes to make the ultimate sacrifice, especially when such sacrifices are unlikely to guarantee desired outcomes.

Black folk run a racism cost-benefit analysis every day, conducting back-of-the-envelope math to determine whether a quotidian instance of racism warrants a response, and if so, what kind. In a temporary labor stoppage, the players found their response, balancing their desire to fight injustice against the desire to pursue their individual career goals. That strikes me as fitting and proper.

We should consider the mere act of resisting racism as a worthy goal. Yet, happiness will greet us at the gates of the promised land. Not the fight.

Brando Simeo Starkey is an associate editor at The Undefeated and the author of In Defense of Uncle Tom: Why Blacks Must Police Racial Loyalty. He crawled through a river of books and came out brilliant on the other side.