What Can the NBA Finals Teach Us About Pervasive Racism in America?

June 20, 2016

With the shocking NBA Finals rematch between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers behind us, we have an opportunity to step back and consider some of the broader lessons that can be drawn from media coverage of the series’ transcendent stars, Steph Curry and LeBron James. The two have been cast as basketball opposites, with Curry painted as the skilled team player and LeBron as the physical dominator. To many, this comparison might seem like typical NBA hype, but beneath this conversation, as well more general coverage of LeBron, lurks strong evidence of implicit biases about black men in America.

Regardless of who you were pulling for in the series (for what it’s worth, the authors were on opposite sides), it is clear that there is a pervasive double standard in the way the media and the fans view players in the league. LeBron is baselessly lambasted as selfish one day, then accused of passing too often the next; despite an unprecedented track record of durability, he was viciously mocked for succumbing to cramps in the 2014 Finals; and sprinkled in between accusations that he is a cry baby and a poor sport are the contradictory accusations that he is too close with too many of his opponents. Critics, at least up until now, have stopped at nothing to belittle LeBron, even if they do admit his general greatness. So what gives?

It is a potentially upsetting question, but as socially conscious progressives we must ask what role race and power dynamics play in this seemingly unfair treatment.

There is both strong anecdotal evidence and burgeoning empirical analysis establishing that negative bias increases with darker complexions. According to the research, darker skin tone and more afrocentric features like LeBron’s result in negative perceptions and association with negative stereotypes. Extrapolating a bit, we can guess why LeBron is so often portrayed as a gifted but unrefined streetballer, when in reality his game is predicated much more on passing and an extremely high basketball IQ. A more straightforward example comes from the early career of Patrick Ewing, another all-time great with darker skin and strong afrocentric features, who was pelted with banana peels, accused of illiteracy, and then criticized for his surly demeanor.

On the other hand, the lighter-skinned Curry, with his more stereotypically white features, is routinely described as a workaholic and a step forward on the scale of basketball evolution. No one would argue that he isn’t, of course, but this framing is a disservice to both men: It implies that LeBron got where he is on talent alone, not through hard work, and it demeans Curry’s landmark talent—the product of a serious NBA pedigree—which will change the game forever.

It can be hard to sniff out and summarize vague sentiments in the media, but a picture can say a thousand words. Consider the two magazine covers below.

In the Vogue cover on the left, we see LeBron posed as King Kong to Gisele Bunchden’s damsel in distress; he is an animal and a threat. On the Parents cover on the right, the Currys look as wholesome as apple pie. Despite both being family men, LeBron and Curry have grown into two rather divergent media personas. We need to ask ourselves: Why is Curry’s personal brand about relating to mainstream audiences on a personal level while LeBron’s brand is mythologizing and dehumanizing? Is it too far a leap to say the public is unwilling to see LeBron as a family man because it doesn’t fit the archetype we have created for him? And does Curry’s appearance make him any less of a basketball monster?

These implicit biases are very hard to confront, but recognizing them is an important step. With so much money at stake in professional sports, athletes’ personal brands don’t develop by accident: Everyone from the team owners to the PR firms to the journalists who cover the sport have something to gain from selling viewers a certain carefully managed narrative about who and what they’re watching. Once we’re aware of our own biases, we become more aware of how they’re being manipulated.

This also applies on a much broader level: Recognizing and confronting our personal biases allows us to better understand and address the structural racism that we have codified into law and which socially, economically, and politically oppresses communities of color today. Reforming a system of laws that have incarcerated 10 percent of all black men in their 30s and left black Americans with double the unemployment rate of whites will help end the stark dichotomies of wealth, education, and general prosperity that create and reinforce stereotypes in the first place.

As the Roosevelt Institute documents in its recently released report Rewrite the Racial Rules, the politics and inequities of race in America are enormously damaging. Research shows that even when controlling for income, African Americans still receive less access to the cornerstones of a strong quality of life, including education, financial stability, and health services. In this radicalized context, so-called “colorblind” policies, meant to benefit middle class blacks as well as whites, are scarcely any more fair than the “separate but equal” standard of the Jim Crow South.

To begin to reverse these structural barriers, policymakers need to make racial equality a top priority. Policies that can take us in the right direction include prison reform, easing barriers to voting, and investing heavily in early childhood education. But first, we have to recognize that there is a problem and that it begins with us. Racism today is clearly not as overt as it was when Patrick Ewing was pelted with banana peels, but having a black president cannot mean the discussion of race in America is over. Progressives must work to ensure that this is only the beginning.