LeBron James has long been able to captivate audiences with a word or photo while simultaneously keeping another eye on maintaining his basketball excellence.
As he’s gotten older, more experienced and mature, James has recognized the importance of “the moment” — giving the game what it needs when it’s called for. Now, perhaps realizing the world is in a moment of reckoning, he’s still pushing and being more direct in what he sees.
First, there was James and his Miami Heat teammates wearing hoodies in honor of Trayvon Martin, who was slain in 2012, before embarking on James’ journey to his first NBA title.
The “I can’t breathe” shirts he and other NBA players wore in 2014 after the chokehold death of Eric Garner, a New York man who died in police custody following suspicion of selling single cigarettes out of a carton.
Derrick Rose started that trend but James didn’t hesitate to lend his support, knowing such statements would be viewed as controversial and could alienate a segment of fans.
The world is in a moment, listening to black cries, black grievances and black demands in a way it hasn’t since the days of Martin Luther King Jr. It was dangerous to say the phrase “black lives matter” as recently as four months ago, as it was easily distorted by those who didn’t want to hear the reasonable request to stay alive during routine police interactions.
King’s greatest weapon was shaming White America and pointing out its treatment of black people was counter to the creed this nation claimed to be built on.
For a while, it felt like shame was no longer a weapon that could be used on America. Many pointed to “gains” black Americans made to neutralize relative shame, the ability to amass wealth, a black president in Barack Obama and the select few who were embraced by the masses — someone like LeBron James.
But James wouldn’t allow his popularity, the influence of money or the risk of losing wealth to stay silent on things that matter. So many athletes felt the need to maintain the economic benefits they’ve acquired by not upsetting the apple cart of America — an example set by Michael Jordan, who until very recently chose not to use his voice on black issues for fear of backlash.
James has bucked that trend, and if these were the Jordan days, James would be daring his corporate sponsors to abandon him. But James has so much economic freedom today to speak out, they’d be losing more than him.
James has taken calculated stances in some instances while staying out of the fray in others. His silence in the killing of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old who was shot by police while playing with a toy gun in 2014, was curious considering it occurred in Cleveland — where James had just returned to play months earlier.
Perhaps condemning the police so close to home would’ve put his own life in danger or the practical risk wasn’t worth it, and if he’s all-in for the fight, he should have to answer for that particular silence.
But activists don’t have to be perfect figures.
What they have to be is effective, and James has proven to be that, quickly criticizing New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees for his stance on NFL player protests.
When black athletes speak out against racism, be it systemic or personal, the usual suspects will crawl out from their corners to ask about a plan — as if calling out racism isn’t a powerful thing in itself, and forgetting that a plan should usually come from legislators and civic leaders whose lives supposed to be dedicated to breaking down the structural racism that’s existed for centuries.
But Tuesday, James took aim at a specific form of racism — voter suppression in the suburban Atlanta area. As crazy as it sounds in a technologically advanced country such as the United States, broken voting machines and malfunctioning machines are still a problem, leading to long lines, frustrated voters and a negative sign of things to come with a critical November presidential election ahead.
When instances like this happen, they seem to occur in predominantly black areas, while the white polling sites often go off without a hitch.
It’s a powerful statement in itself, considering how it attacks the negative stereotype of blacks not voting while also subtly asking the question of why the black vote is attempting to be silenced.
James’ tweet — whether he knows it or not — layers the focus of where we are. Just as he can focus on an unconventional championship run at Disney World and keep an eye on the world, it’s evident the world can focus on police brutality against black people and attack the systems that routinely try to keep black people away from the ballot box.
Voting at every level is critical to affect change at the micro level, and the fact James used his platform to address the issue could be a great mark of his maturity and growth.
Racism won’t die without an attack on all fronts, and history has shown it will not go down quietly. James is a black father with black teenage sons and a daughter who’ll likely have nice vehicles that will make them targets for harassment from police — a fear his fame won’t be able to shield him from.
But lending his voice and attention to the incentive structures and the daily power exerted over black people is critical as well. If it results in more preparedness and more accountability for upcoming elections, history could look at him as being an agent for practical change, too.
As he’s entering the last stanza of his playing career — a grown man getting closer to the age of 40 — all of the remaining restrictions are falling by the wayside and he’ll be damned if he’s ever associated with silence.
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