When I first heard basketball player LeBron James, late of the Cleveland Cavaliers and now suiting up for the Miami Heat, reply to a question during a CNN interview about whether race was a factor in his sudden and intense vilification — "I think so, at times. It's always, you know, a race factor" — I was like, "Really, son?!" James' sidekick-cum-adviser, Maverick Carter, chimed in that race was "definitely" a factor in much that was coming from the media.
Wait a minute, I thought. Isn't this the anointed "King James," who, after all, had enjoyed unprecedented commercial success and was deified in Cleveland? Even fans of opposing teams had hung on his every highlight.
But a new ESPN/Seton Hall University poll taken a few weeks ago shows that James' favorability rating is indeed split along racial lines. Among blacks, 65 percent view him in a good light. Compare that with 32 percent of whites. Then there are the overtly racist messages on Twitter that James received and recently re-tweeted. A sample: "You're a big-nosed, big-lipped, bug eyed [racist epithet]. Ur greedy, u try to hide ur ghettoness."
Strong stuff, and proof positive that cyberspace is the last refuge of hateful cowards. America is far from the post-racial utopia some would proclaim. But honestly, the folks who didn't like James because he's black are not the ones who turned against him. Most people did the 180 because of the ill-conceived, televised ESPN Bachelor moment, The Decision, wherein James told the world he was forsaking Cleveland's team for Miami's. What they saw was a self-important, self-aggrandizing, overcompensated entertainer hogging the limelight.
Yes, the show raised some $3 million for various charities. But why throw a klieg light on your giving? True philanthropists, big and small, do it anonymously. It's interesting that 51.6 percent of people polled said that James' leaving Cleveland had no impact on how they viewed the basketball player. His leaving? Maybe not. How he left? Definitely.
Yet the schizophrenic relationship that some white folks have with black celebrity goes back a long way. Remember the character Pino from Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing? In a back-and-forth with another character, Mookie, Pino admits that he bad-mouths black folks, but his favorite basketball player is Magic Johnson, and his favorite entertainer Michael Jackson. He doesn't see them as black.
In a society that regards athletes and other entertainers as more important and praiseworthy than, say, teachers or parents, some blacks have "transcended race" (see Oprah). The only time those same folks find it necessary to remind us that they are black is when the feel slighted or picked on. James couldn't blame his ego or the sycophants around him for a move that exposed him as selfish and self-serving. And the existence of cyber-bigots offers him an easy out. Sorry, but not everyone is buying it. And for the record, I don't like you either. But it's not because you're black: I'm a Knicks fan.
Nick Charles is a regular contributor to The Root.