After his recent NBA championship win, LeBron James noted that although he was happy to win, he wanted to keep “the main thing the main thing,” referring to the need to remain committed to the fight for social justice. Former president Barack Obama tweeted his admiration of this victory and praised James for being a leader “in the public arena fighting for education, social justice, and democracy.”

More recently, rapper turned movie star Ice Cube said he was open to working with both the Trump-Pence and Biden-Harris camps to devise a plan to improve Black Americans’ economic conditions. His apparent openness to working with Trump ignited much controversy when Trump’s team tweeted how proud they were to be working with Cube. Later, rapper 50 Cent announced he was backing Trump to avoid a marginal tax rate increase under a Biden plan.

These cases illuminate how, while it can be admirable when celebrities use their wealth and platform to direct people’s attention to social and political issues, the media’s coverage and politicians’ amplification of Black celebrities can give a skewed impression. Most Black people are not celebrities, and the concerns of ordinary people are often at odds with those of such spokespeople.

The experiences of Jackie Robinson during the Red Scare and McCarthyism revealed the limits of the Black celebrity class. Robinson was a national hero for integrating Major League Baseball in 1947. He dealt with anti-Black racism on and off the field, and he had yet to amass the wealth he deserved. Nevertheless, because he helped to integrate America’s pastime, he was perhaps the most well-known Black celebrity at the time.

In 1949, Alvin Stokes, a Black investigator for the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), called Branch Rickey, president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, to ask Robinson to speak in front of HUAC. Stokes and HUAC selected Robinson, a staunch anti-communist, because the ballplayer would be the best Black representative to counter another Black celebrity: Paul Robeson.

Robeson, who also worked for an end to anti-Black racism and class exploitation, argued that Black people might consider looking elsewhere for freedom, outside of an oppressive United States. Stokes believed that if Black celebrities like Robinson spoke out against communism, they could demonstrate that the Black community’s loyalty was to the United States — a perception he believed was critical for ensuring full citizenship for Black Americans.

Rickey convinced Robinson to speak in front of the committee. Although hesitant, Robinson believed that his voice would affirm to the United States that Black people would not betray their country by refusing to fight for it, nor would they commit treason and fight for Russia.

Robinson proclaimed, “I don’t pretend to be an expert on communism or any other kind of political isms.” Instead, his experience centered on “trying to make good with the Dodgers, and trying to save some money for the time when my legs lose their spring.” Yet he asserted that “you can put me down as being an expert on being a colored American with 30 years of experience at it. … I know that life in these United States can be mighty tough for people who are a little different from the majority — in their skin color.”

Robinson criticized communists for using the history of anti-Black racism to attract adherents but also criticized the United States’ history of racism. He acknowledged that he was called to speak on Robeson’s alleged comment that Black people would refuse to fight in a war against Russia because of their affinity for the communist nation. Robinson’s only response was that if Robeson made the statement, “it sounds very silly to me.” He further commented that Robeson “has the right to free speech, even if it sounded silly.” He also spent time carefully arguing that other races were communist as well. He stated that Black people’s loyalty to the United States should not be questioned.

Not everyone agreed with Robinson. An article in the Daily Worker argued that Robinson “fell into a trap of defilement when he fell for that. The committee despises his words about Jim Crow; they ate up his slanders against Robeson.” Years later, Robinson expressed some guilt for his comments about Robeson and testifying in front of the HUAC.

A month after his testimony, however, Robinson hardly showed regret. “Ninety-nine percent” of the letters he received regarding his testimony were “friendly,” he said. He concluded that “in Russia, I don’t think they would get the mails.” The New York Amsterdam News spoke highly of Robinson’s testimony, reporting that they approached “exactly 239 Brooklynites” and “not one person disagreed with the statements.” They commended Robinson because “he batted 1,000 percent in this game.” Robinson had offered testimony that criticized racism and segregation, but he affirmed for the committee what it wanted to hear: that people of his race would fight for their country when called to service because they loved it.

A year later, when Robeson sought to renew his passport, he was unable to do it because he refused to sign an affidavit stating that he was not a communist and was loyal to the United States. He sued, and by 1955, a federal judge ruled that the State Department had a right to deny him a passport.

Robinson’s speech showed why Black celebrities could falter as social justice leaders. While some might be able to use their celebrity to advocate for the most vulnerable, other celebrities might be manipulated or pressed to stand for political positions that could undermine the majority of Black Americans’ political interests. Their positions might also be taken as representative of the sentiments of the Black community, even when their experiences were very different from the majority’s.

Black nationalist Malcolm X voiced concern about this tendency in 1963, when he participated in a conversation with sociologist John Leggett and Herman Blake, an African American and at the time a sociology teaching assistant. Leggett argued that many Black leaders consistently betrayed Black struggles for justice, citing among them Rep. William L. Dawson of Chicago. Malcolm X agreed but argued that the problem was rooted in what it took to become a Black leader in a racist country, and the implications of what one’s connection to a racist system does to one’s political views and theory of social change.

White liberals were at fault, Malcolm argued; it was they who “endorsed, sanctioned, subsidized, and supported” these Black leaders, whom he called “puppets.” He specifically mentioned the actress Lena Horne and the comedian Dick Gregory, arguing that White liberals placed Black celebrities as leaders in front of the American public and claimed that their interests represented those of all Black people.

He criticized the idea of Black celebrity as a leadership class that could be trusted with leading social transformation. For Malcolm, Black celebrities — who had proximity to capital, fame and fortune — could not be aligned or reconciled with the “Black masses.” He framed them as a group separate from the people they claimed to represent.

Malcolm pointed to the heart of the matter: that race and class status should be carefully scrutinized when considering whether Black celebrities could actually advocate for the liberation of the entire Black community. The political imaginations of Black celebrities, he said, were often out of step with the visions of poor and working-class Black people. As a result, the celebrity role as a spokesperson of an entire race would lead to many pitfalls.

To be sure, Black celebrities should not be silent about injustice. They have always been important voices in our communities, and many paid a heavy price for their brand of activism. Yet the media’s overemphasis on these voices obscures the voices of ordinary Black people, whose lives are vastly different from those who have wealth and visibility.