Charles Barkley is like that black uncle you find amusing but limit conversations with at family gatherings to select topics such as sports, Gap Band songs and brown liquor. When it comes to more serious matters like politics and, specifically, racial politics, the phrase “Stop, drop and roll” is an immediate survival guide to sparing your last nerve from a fatal end. If, however, you find yourself cornered, you grit your teeth and try to remain respectful of your elder before you end up screaming, “Nigga, what the hell are you saying?” in an effort not to upset your mother.
I recently found myself engulfed in the press equivalent of that situation as I attended a luncheon and panel discussion in support of Sir Charles’ new TNT series on race, aptly titled American Race.
When I first got word of this show, my immediate response was that I would rather watch my own cremation than subject myself to Barkley’s musings on race and racism. After all, this is the same man who, only a year ago, claimed, in the wake of the sniper shootings in Dallas that left five police officers dead, that black people have “got to do better.” Yes, in that ESPN radio interview, Barkley explained to Dan Le Batard that police “have made some mistakes; that don’t give us the right to riot and shoot cops.”
No, it doesn’t, but Barkley then went on to claim that we “never get mad when black people kill each other,” before adding that “there’s a lot of blame to go around.” Sure, but aim it at the institution that has consistently abused black women, men and children since its inception, not “black-on-black crime.” Anyone who still cites intraracial violence to deflect from the issue of state-sanctioned violence that targets black folks is a person who by and large needs to shut the fuck up and go read a bit more.
Toward the end of the panel, Barkley mentioned how he would always rally behind the cops and proceeded to offer anecdotal evidence of something that data has long supported: Yes, there are plenty of great law-enforcement officials. Indeed, we can have fruitful conversations with individual police officers. However, that will not stop the problem. See any police-union statement wildly defying calls to end racial profiling and various patterns of abuse.
Combine this with Barkley’s other previous comments—a lot of black people are full of shit, his condemnation of “unintelligent” and “brainwashed” black people, and purported “dark secrets” within the black community about “acting white”—and one wonders what, exactly, is Barkley’s aim with American Race?
According to Michael Bloom, who is senior vice president of unscripted series and specials at TNT, Barkley came to him a year ago in earnest, wanting to use his platform to explore why so little has changed in terms of race in America. Of course, this is a black man who has routinely used the platform he already has to speak of his own in such false, dehumanizing and totally unhelpful ways. Did Barkley need a promotion?
Barkley himself said that he wanted to present “positive programming” and that he had been “bothered by negative stereotypes about people of color, especially blacks on television.” In 2017, there is a wide array of depictions of black folks on television. The situation is not perfect, but certainly it is much better in terms of fictitious portrayals of black people. In unscripted programming, well, we have a ways to go. This is a case in point.
As attendees were presented with various clips from the series, along with a screener of the first episode, the biggest takeaway from American Race was that Barkley had an inquiry and created a television show around it. Whether or not you take anything from it depends on how little you know about the world around you.
It was repeatedly stressed throughout the event that the intent was to engage in “thought-provoking conversation.” This is a line that is so often repeated by those serving us the same old cyclical bullshit that has long bored us. The same goes for the line about how the show features “real people,” as opposed to those in a “New York studio.”
New York is a real place, although, as a Southerner, I am constantly amused by how advanced New Yorkers and their coastal cousins in Los Angeles continue to believe that they are far more progressive than they actually are. The 45th president of the United States—more or less George Wallace on steroids and with far greater political success—is a New York native.
Likewise, we just celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots, which were rooted in the fact that the police officers who beat Rodney King managed to get off by virtue of nothing more than their lily-whiteness and the power of their badges. The types who order these shows can’t even see the prejudices surrounding them, but we’re supposed to entrust them with the cameras going to “real America.”
What the fuck ever.
In these very clips, we witness Barkley once again advocating for police officers, noting how they make split-second decisions, and 95 percent of the time those decisions are good, but, as Barkley argues, “we focus on the 5 percent.” Thankfully, a black woman in the panel audience immediately corrected him, making it very plain that she doesn’t like him and what he represents. An easily expressed sentiment by the black folks in, say, Baltimore who are far more aware of what it’s like living in terror at the hands of a police state than an NBA legend and big-time sports broadcaster who gets patted on the back more often than not.
To Barkley’s credit, he took the audience criticism, which apparently alarmed the rest of the crew looking on for two hours. Barkley admitted during the panel that he hadn’t met someone who lost a son to state violence. He went on to argue that most folks don’t know Muslims or undocumented workers. Barkley even conducted an informal poll of the audience; most of us passed the test. Someone next to me muttered, “It’s New York.” Yeah, but I knew Muslims and undocumented workers when I lived in Texas. People are everywhere, but whether or not you know that depends on whether you’re bearing witness to the reality before you or staying cozy in your bubble.
So American Race is more about Barkley’s education than about informing many of us. It is a lot of surface-level conversation in the tone of an after-school special. American Race also makes the mistake of speaking to people who needn’t be spoken to. Enter Richard Spencer, who makes an appearance on the show and whom Barkley acknowledges during the panel discussion was unreachable. Yet, here he is, and his presence is there in the name of balance. Yes, I rolled my eyes.
There was a comment made during the panel that Spencer’s ilk will ultimately have to succumb to the reality of the country becoming browner. Barkley underestimates whiteness, which is exactly why this show is the status quo served up for entertainment purposes.
Seeing a Muslim family in one episode that owns a hamburger restaurant in Plano, Texas, who will stop what they are doing to pray probably might have an impact on some buffoon somewhere who thinks negatively about Muslims, but it isn’t that shocking to the rest of us.
I will admit that it was something to see one clip from the show, of a white gay man from Louisiana who saw the Islamophobia around him and decided to speak out against it. But as nice as it was to see a white man protest Islamophobia, which is largely perpetuated by white men, what mattered most was the sentiment he expressed explaining why he took action.
“The white male Christian voice is missing. That loud voice is noticeably silent. We must raise our voices,” he explained. Evangelical white Christians never get called on their hypocrisies enough, so the more, the merrier.
While I winced during one scene in which an Asian man argued that Asians were the biggest victims of the Los Angeles riots, he did have a valid point about Chris Rock’s racist joke about Asians at the Oscars. None of us need repeat the mistakes of racist white folks.
Even so, these slight moments don’t really render American Race purposeful. Many people have great intentions, but execution matters now more than ever. We need to push the conversation forward, as opposed to remaining stagnant as lazy networks coast on the celebrity of the show’s host for ratings. Barkley admitted that he wanted a production company, but he might have served best as an executive producer who might or might not have made a few appearances on the show.
Point is, he swerved into a lane that does not speak to his strengths. It never has. It never will. Exhibit Z: Barkley’s assertion that “America is divided by economics more than anything.” Beloved, you are black and this is America. You of all people ought to know how racism is ingrained in America’s economic structure. Like, look at those simpletons who voted to “Make America great again” and who continue to support 45 because what he lacks in terms of getting them work, he makes up for by boosting their incessant need to feel great about being white.
That said, should this show be a success, Barkley has other goals in mind. “I’m intrigued by the Israeli-Palestinian thing,” he noted. Then it hit me: That foolish man in the White House has exacerbated an already huge problem: celebrities who think they can literally do anything just because our celebrity-crazed culture will allow it.
If you need Barkley to teach you about racism in America, have at it. I’ll be late for that, but I did take away one nugget: Despite rumors to the contrary, Barkley has never voted Republican and is not a Republican. Apparently, a 1986 interview with Cosmo misquoted him.
It’s the best thing I can say about the whole ordeal. Let me have it.