The genius of the civil rights movement’s heyday, and what made that era truly heroic, was that African Americans defied the odds by refusing to believe in the simplistic good Negro vs. bad Negro dichotomy. Instead, at their best, that generation embraced the multifaceted and panoramic nature of blackness, finding hope in the struggles of sharecroppers and students, prisoners and preachers.
Black bodies have, since America’s inception, represented a metaphor for slavery and freedom, citizenship and servitude, capitalism and commerce—with an ability to elicit fear and loathing, masked by the sensual, erotic and seductive tropes that made them a locus for social and political control long after slavery ended.
Historically, white elites have derived profit and pleasure from black labor, first through the toil of enslaved Africans, then through a Jim Crow system designed to control black labor and maximize profits at the expense of human dignity.
Echoes of this dynamic continue in modern sports, most notably the NBA, where predominantly black athletic grace offers escapist pleasures for predominantly white season-ticket holders and wealth for overwhelmingly white owners.
Black professional athletes, for all of their race-transcending gifts, still exist in the embattled bodies that have historically been forever marked as sites of contestation against America’s social, political, economic and cultural landscape. LeBron James found this out when Cleveland fans burned his image in effigy and mock-lynched him after he decamped for Miami.
Perhaps one day black players will consider hateful words of the like attributed to Sterling as a potent reminder of how, despite messages to the contrary, anti-black sentiment upends dreams of race transcendence. And the sooner African Americans see that shared experiences of oppression continue to bind us, the braver and more courageous will our activists and athletes respond the next time such comments are made.
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