By Final Call Editor-In-Chief
Richard B. Muhammad
The Black Twitterverse exploded and off-line discussions erupted when quotes from an interview with basketball great Kobe Bryant in The New Yorker magazine came out. The NBA All-Star was involved in an exchange with writer Ben McGrath that included Kobe’s wonder at his success and his path from Italy, where his father played professional basketball, to dealing with Black filmmaker Spike Lee in a film about basketball.
Kobe talked about expectations of Black athletes and his effort to not be boxed in. When the writer pointed to the “hoodied-up” photos of LeBron James and Miami Heat teammates in solidarity with calls for justice for teen Trayvon Martin as outside the box, Kobe responded:
“I won’t react to something just because I’m supposed to, because I’m an African-American. That argument doesn’t make any sense to me. So we want to advance as a society and a culture, but, say, if something happens to an African-American we immediately come to his defense? Yet you want to talk about how far we’ve progressed as a society?” he asked.
“Well, then don’t jump to somebody’s defense just because they’re African-American. You sit and you listen to the facts just like you would in any other situation, right? So I won’t assert myself,” he said in the March 31 profile that was devoted to his career, his departure from basketball, his persona, and his nagging injury. Hardly a place or a piece for social or political commentary.
Fox Sports and ESPN insider Stephen A. Smith picked up Kobe’s position and supported it in remarks on the Arsenio Hall Show. “Even though the system is sometimes unjust, unfair, it doesn’t accord us the license to be unfair as well. We have to be sure that if we’re shining a light on issues that we’re just as fair-minded as we’re asking other people to be toward us.
Because if we’re not willing to do that, then we don’t have a strong argument,” he said. “So you rise to the occasion by making sure you exercise a level of fairness and justice that you want others to bring your way … we’ve come a long way as a society; we have an obligation to recognize that instead of always getting emotional and assuming that someone is against us because of race.”
Sports journalist Smith added upsetting Black folks with his remarks wasn’t something he worried about.
No community has been fairer than Black America, despite the history of oppression, its impact over centuries and its current manifestations. It takes an overwhelming incident for Blacks to rise up and cry race. We certainly do not want to be unjust to others and we have no history of doing that.
So there is something wrong with Mr. Smith’s and Kobe’s reflections: The response of LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and others wasn’t about some massive Black pressure, it was a response to facts. A teenager was unarmed, walking home. A man followed him despite 911 instructions not to and the unarmed Black teen ended up dead. Where was George Zimmerman treated unfairly? Trayvon is dead and his killer is free and a “celebrity.”
Racial profiling and unwarranted shootings of Black males, young Black males, in particular, are a reality in this country.
That history and the killing of an unarmed minor are important facts just as many raised questions about 2003 rape allegations against Kobe by a White female hotel clerk. The case was eventually settled. But support for Kobe included questions about the validity of the rape charge and the fact that White women have falsely accused Black men of rape and Black men have suffered and died because of such lies. Was the Black community rising up because of a unity cry or based on history and the circumstances of Kobe’s case?
When Mr. Smith was engaged in a battle with a daily Philadelphia newspaper over column writing, many rallied to his support given his professional demeanor and the fact that Blacks remain underrepresented in the media. Perhaps Blacks should have stood back and waited for a verdict before siding with Mr. Smith when he was accused of writing his sports column on his Blackberry.
Why was it so important to speak so strongly about the one of the few instances in which athletes maligned for no social conscience actually took a stand for what was right?
Outbursts of Black anger or concern are not a political exercise, but are in response to constant reminders that our lives and the lives of our children are in danger: The Watts riots in 1965 in Los Angeles weren’t a community project. The 1960s urban rebellions in Detroit, Newark, N.J., and in Chicago, in particular, on the heels of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., were not the result of a vote to strike back. The 1980 riots in Miami after the death of Arthur McDuffie, a Black man, and the 1992 riots in Los Angeles that followed the acquittal of officers videotaped beating Black motorist Rodney King weren’t the result of polling or television ads.
They were responses to state-sanctioned violence and the wrongful taking of life.
In the article Kobe at times mentions race and the pressures to stay in certain boxes as a Black athlete and his efforts to not be confined. The boxes are not just about stereotypes of athletes, but about control of Black people. Kobe was raised in Italy–a country that is notoriously racist. Perhaps Kobe’s basketball star and “American” status sheltered him. But Blacks and Africans in Italy understand racism well.
CÃ©cile Kyenge, Italy’s first Black government minister, has had bananas thrown at her. A female Italian politician said Ms. Kyenge should be raped. Black soccer players in Italy have walked off the field, reduced to tears because of racial insults hurled by Italian crowds. African immigrants are regularly abused in the country. “The racism isn’t restricted to right or left, old or young, rural or urban: it is noticeable everywhere,” observed one UK-based newspaper.
When the critically-acclaimed movie “12 Years A Slave” was advertised in Italy, movies posters showed huge images White actor Brad Pitt, who plays a very minor but important role, instead of the movie’s Black main character and Nigerian leading man Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Nairaland.com, which describes itself as the largest African discussion forum and the most popular local website in Nigeria, had members list 12 reasons why Italy is the most racist Western country. Among the reasons: Italy respects dogs and animals more than Blacks, there is continuous killing of Blacks by Italians or the Mafia with no response from police, Blacks are kept from reaching their higher potential or holding for public office and Italy has great hatred and discrimination against Blacks.
The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan once made an observation about O.J. Simpson, whose trial for the murder of his blonde wife exposed some of the racial fractures in American society.
“ ‘O.J. sold out.’ No, he didn’t sell out. He was drawn out. Black folk that got talent, they all grow up in the ‘hood.’ … Then you take them into the NBA, the NFL, and they become megastars. … So their association becomes White women, White men, and association breeds assimilation. … Most of our top stars are drawn out. … They must shut their mouths or you threaten to take away their fame, take away their fortune because (White America) is sick,” the Minister said at the historic 1995 Million Man March.
Kobe may not do anything because of Black thought or Black pressure, but can he and Black stars reject pressure to not do what White America wants done? That’s the true test.