Let’s get this out of the way first: LeBron James, regardless of his actual skill on a basketball court, deserves more adoration and respect than Michael Jordan for being someone willing to speak about racism in America.
Michael Jordan strayed away from politics, opting to infamously insist that Republicans buy sneakers too. Jordan was silent during the L.A. Riots. Dismissive while black bodies lay slain in the streets, boys in socks killed over a pair of Jordans. We need to be able to face and confront the fact that Jordan failed black people, and repeat that fact with the same fervor that we use to defend his status as the greatest basketball player of all time.
LeBron James has spoken out about Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown and now, with the biggest NBA Finals of all time looming, he’s had to speak about racism that’s quite literally greeted him at his own doorstep.
Some time in the last few days, LeBron James had to Facetime his kids from his Bay Area hotel as he prepares for the NBA Finals. He had to explain to them why someone spray-painted NI**ER on their Los Angeles front gate.
Of course LeBron James is familiar with being the target of racism. He remembers the overseer-like letter of disappointment Cavs owner Dan Gilbert sent when James made his decision to go to Miami. He still grits his teeth when Phil Jackson calling his team of businessmen a “posse” is brought up. He knows what it’s like to hear slurs when he’s on the court, raining down from fans who ironically paid an exorbitant amount of money to see him. And he lives in an era where videos of police killing unarmed black people has become as constant as knowing the White House is currently overrun by white supremacists and racists.
The Akron-native was born into an environment in which the country would be happy to label him a ni**er. He was poor. He didn’t know his father. And if he were gunned down at the age of 12 by cops who saw him as a threatening adult the country would simply justify his death and move on. If LeBron James never played basketball and instead waited tables, he would be that ni**er who got an order wrong. If he held up a gas station he would have been a ni**er who deserved to go to jail. But he’s not. Things should be different, right?
LeBron James is the type of black man that we’re told doesn’t face racism anymore. Respectability politics say that LeBron James is above prejudice. He pulled himself up by his bootstraps and became a multimillionaire. A businessman. A one-man conglomerate. And in his 14 years in the NBA his biggest scandal was choosing to go play for a different team in 2010 — a televised event whose proceeds went to charity. He’s the black man who’s held up to a standard of exception. If we were all like LeBron James we would escape being killed by cops, going to jail and certainly being called ni**ers.
Except. That’s all bullsh*t. Racism doesn’t care about circumstance. Racism is a meritless killer, seeing only color and violence. Even as I write this, I find out that someone left a noose at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. The type of place black kids have been told to pull their pants up and attend more often. There’s no escape. There never has been, especially in this iteration of America. They will call us ni**ers no matter what we do, and contrary to what we have been told, they will call us ni**ers louder the more successful we become. Denying this fact is lying to ourselves about the country we live in.
In a few short hours, LeBron James will embark on a campaign to win the NBA Finals and maybe become the greatest basketball player of all time. And no matter how great he is, he will still be considered a ni**er by a wide swath of people in this country. Yet and still, he’ll stand tall and call himself King James. Because black greatness isn’t for them. It’s for us and their words can’t do a damn thing about it.