Charles Barkley has always fashioned himself as something of a contrarian. When his day job as an NBA player seemed to demand that he be more of an aspirational figure (like Michael Jordan), he steadfastly insisted that he was "not a role model."
His schtick -- and yes, it's a schtick -- has always been dispensing with what he sees as groupthink, particularly on race, and going his own way. For the man who once floated the idea of running for governor of Alabama, this has occasionally made him into something of a conservative hero.
And with Bill Cosby effectively sidelined these days, Barkley is the new most famous black scold.
“We have to be really careful with the cops, man, because if it wasn’t for the cops we would be living in the wild, wild west in our neighborhoods. We can’t pick out certain incidents that don’t go our way and act like the cops are all bad. I hate when we do that. Do you know how bad some of these neighborhoods would be if it wasn't for the cops?”
"I can’t believe anything I hear on television anymore…that’s why I don’t like talking about race issues with the media anymore because they love this stuff.. we shouldn’t just jump to conclusions. The media shouldn’t do that….. They don’t jump to conclusions like that when black people kill each other,"
This is Barkley's version of being anti-politically correct and going against the grain -- though the actual substance of what he says isn't that far off from what others have said. Nobody wants all cops to disappear from any neighborhood. They want cops who are better-trained. They also want looters punished. And while Barkley called the looters "scumbags," he also said they weren't "real black people" and pointed to the (presumably authentic) black people who tried to prevent the vandalism.
But Barkley has gone much much further than this, referring to "brainwashed blacks" who act in all sorts of self-defeating ways that hold them back.
“There are a lot of black people who are unintelligent, who don’t have success -- it’s best to knock a successful black person down if they’re intelligent, they speak well, they do well in school, and they’re successful,” he said, commenting on a story about a black quarterback who was supposedly being criticized by teammates for not being black enough. Also: "We as black people are never going to be successful, not because of you white people, but because of other black people. When you are black, you have to deal with so much crap in your life from other black people." (It's unclear as to whether the black people he is referring to in that riff are the "real black people" or the fake ones.)
He has also said: "There's a faction of black people ... I grew up with these guys ... when you try to do well in school, they tell you you're acting white, when you speak intelligent, their telling you you're acting white. We should have more black kids speaking correctly. We should have more black kids going to college."
A snippet of his most recent interview is below, and it's worth a listen.
While Barkley also focuses on the media's negative framing of blacks and sets up the odd idea of "good blacks" and "bad blacks," his focus on all the ways that blacks are bad has become what's he is best known for. In the world of sports, he has become something of an expert on black behavior. Amid the Adrian Peterson child-abuse revelations earlier this year, for instance, Barkley essentially said that beating kids is a black Southern thing.
The problem with what Barkley says, though it is praised by conservatives -- both black and white -- is that he is, in the main, wrong. He seems to see black people as somehow existing outside of mainstream American behavior and culture. The "acting white," idea, also trumpeted at times by President Obama, has been debunked. It is not a black thing, it is a version of nerds vs. jocks that exists in every high school. Same thing with whipping kids with a switch, which is cross-cultural and all-American.
What's much more fascinating than Barkley's statements is that our national and political culture always seems to have a place for the black scold, along with broad and ill-informed generalities about black culture and behavior. There is no such thing as the white scold. There is no famous white commentator or politician who pontificates on white culture and what whites should be doing differently as a people.
Barkley said that he doesn't like to talk about race issues with the media. Ok. But what he does like to talk about is how black people behave, about how they are somehow an un-evolved compared to white people. And as it turns out, there's always a market for that.