I don’t have to think David Stern is a racist (and I don’t) to be put off by the fact that in a league where the players are overwhelmingly black, only white men have held the office of commissioner.
I don’t have to think Dan Gilbert is a racist (and I don’t) to feel discomfort with the way wealth and power are accumulated in this country, such that rich white men feel the indefinite entitlement to the labor of young black men.
That is our flaw in understanding race in the NBA and, moreover, in the United States. Racism does not require a racist. This is perhaps the most insidious thing about institutionalized racism: It happens even when no one wants it to. I can point to systemic racism at play in the NBA without having to point to a corresponding racist who is to blame for it.
Eighty-six percent of NBA players are black, but only one team owner is. Talented white players are disproportionately credited with being “smart” players with “high basketball IQs,” whereas black players are more often called “naturally talented” players, which makes the transition from league play to front-office work and coaching jobs an easier leap for white players than for black players. The majority of commentators (pdf), the people responsible for these descriptions, are white. The commissioner has almost unfettered power to determine punishments for players’ infractions, and such an inherently subjective process is ripe for unconscious racial bias, an issue that can be corrected when the league and union negotiate the remaining minor issues.
The NBA cannot simply pretend that race doesn’t matter because we’d prefer that it didn’t. Moving forward, the league should operate in a way that is conscious of this power dynamic and show that while racism may seep into the institution, the people in charge are committed to combating its impact.
Maya Rupert, a 2011 The Root 100 honoree, is the federal policy director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, an LGBT-rights organization dedicated to fighting for rights on behalf of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and their families. Follow her on Twitter.