It’s no great stretch to say that race has been the dominant theme in the history of America. From the original sin of slavery to the insidious evil of Jim Crow to the current day shades-of-gray, “is it or is it not racism” quandaries, the struggles regarding race are woven deep into the fabric of American life and never more than a millimeter removed from the hearts, minds and souls of its people.
But even the most tragic historical patterns can at times take a farcical turn, and so it was with the emergence in the 1990s of the self-described “angry white males,” who viewed themselves as victims of racial and cultural intolerance because of the color of their skin – a position many of them trumpet to this day. Wallowing in a morass of self-pity, these wimpy warriors blame political correctness, affirmative action, feminism and God-only-knows-what for their descent into second-class citizenship. Convinced that they had been wounded because of their whiteness, these put-upon palefaces have taken up the battle cry of “reverse racism” as the explanation for their plight. True, they are able to garner a modicum of sympathy from the simple-minded, but most folks looked upon their bizarre claims of societal victimization as amusingly preposterous.
This brings us to the most recent example of the trivialization of race and racism: the fallout from “The Decision” by LeBron James to “take his talents to South Beach” and play for the Miami Heat. (Actually a better title for this ESPN-spawned fiasco would be “The Deception,” since based on subsequent evidence it has become clear to many, including this writer – who has covered the Cleveland Cavs for the last dozen years – that James had been planning to leave since at least 2008 and colluded with DwyaneWade and Chris Bosh to make it happen.)
Shortly after James’ announcement, Cavalier owner Dan Gilbert issued a blistering denunciation of his departing superstar, calling him – among other things – narcissistic and claiming that he quit on the team. As the media all over the country boiled over in its analysis of James departure from Cleveland, all acknowledged his legal right to leave but most criticized him – some very harshly – for the method he chose to announce it and for how he humiliated the fans of Cleveland in the process.
However, as the debate raged on, it didn’t take long for three of the usual suspects – Jesse Jackson, New York Times sportswriter Bill Rhoden and legendary running back Jim Brown – to introduce the institution of slavery into the discourse by asserting that Gilbert was acting like a slavemaster who regarded James as nothing more than his personal chattel. Let’s just say that the most generous comment one can make about purportedly intelligent people who appear incapable of recognizing the distinction between an actual slave and a basketball player with a $100 million contract is that they are simply guilty of unwitting hyperbole and leave it at that.
As it turned out, the only prominent public figures who specifically injected the subject of slavery into the immediate aftermath of James’ announcement were the aforementioned trio. But Brown continued to keep the race card rolling a few weeks later by characterizing his demotion from a $500,000 position as a glorified hand-holder for Browns’ team owner Randy Lerner to a mere $100,000 shill for the organization by writing a letter in which he astonishingly invoked buck dancing, monkeys, mythical slave master Willie Lynch and the fact that he plays golf at a Cleveland-area, largely black course in support of his indignant refusal to take the job offered him.
This brings us to James’ comments last week. In response to a question from CNN’s Soledad O’Brien regarding whether he thought race played a part in the reaction to him leaving Cleveland, James mechanically said. “I think so, at times … It’s always, you know, a race factor.” LeBron uttered these words as if he were talking about what he had for breakfast. O.Brien didn’t follow up with a probing question because to do so would have been tantamount to following up on a hiccup. A day or so later the shallow superstar was asked if he wanted to amend his statement and evasively muttered, “I stand by it,” as if even in his perennial state of obliviousness he had an inkling that there was a chewing-gum-for-the-mind aspect to his earlier remark that could not withstand even the trifling brand of scrutiny applied to him by the obsequious horde of writers that surround him daily.
In the sheer insipidness of his responses, James had done the seemingly impossible – he had taken the ultimate hot-button topic and, by the sheer force of his perfunctory thoughtlessness, neutered it. Put another way, if race has been the thunderously roaring soundtrack of American life, LeBron’s assertion failed to even reach the level of elevator music. Like the knee-jerk cries of racial victimization by self-pitying. angry white men or aging, embittered running backs or self-serving media hacks, LeBron’s vacuous words seem to be part of a disturbing trend which is destroying critical discourse on the issue of race by replacing it with diversionary babble full of meaningless soundbites and hollow fury, signifying nothing.