LeBron James was jarred, and he rarely looks this disturbed. He became King before puberty. Four years ago, when he won his second NBA title at age 28, he declared in celebration and appreciation, “I’m LeBron James from Akron, Ohio, from the inner city. I’m not even supposed to be here.” Those words were part of a raw and moving postgame speech about the persistence required to defeat inequity.
As confetti rained down on him, he ended his remarks that night by saying, “I ain’t got no worries.”
And then, on the eve of his seventh straight Finals appearance, a racist devil made him worry. A house James owns in Los Angeles was defaced with a racial slur. Someone painted “N-----” on the gate of his summer vacation home, the most vile and divisive six-letter arrangement in our vocabulary, vandalism intended to belittle the superstar.
Being LeBron James is a wonderful thing, and he has used generosity and social activism to return the blessing. For all that he is, James is currently the quintessential American sports icon, at least among those still playing.
But he’s still a n-----.
Sure, it was an act of a random person, or a random small group, that represents an extreme faction. It’s not like there will be an arena full of folks screaming racist remarks at him during the Finals, just like all of Fenway Park didn’t yell the word at Baltimore Orioles all-star Adam Jones last month. You can’t completely rid the world of hate. You can’t eliminate all of the United States’ disturbing history of racism.
So the point isn’t to use James’s incident to scold the entire nation. You know what’s in your heart. You know what isn’t. But if James isn’t immune to this kind of hatred, it should be a poignant reminder not to minimize, or underestimate, the ongoing struggle with racism. Prejudice is an incurable disease for such a large population. The infection may lie dormant at times, but don’t fool yourself. Don’t ever fool yourself. There is no such thing as post-racial America, same as there is no post-biting shark. It’s a nice phrase, but a fraudulent concept.
James is just the latest African-American forced to gain an intimate understanding of that. He wasn’t in L.A., obviously, because he’s playing ball in Oakland right now. School isn’t out, so his wife and children were safe in Ohio. Still, learning of the vandalism was an unnerving experience. James wasn’t surprised, however. James was shaken, because who wouldn’t be? But he long has been a realist. Fame hasn’t made him blind to true living. So once he composed himself Wednesday afternoon, he could speak with eloquence.
“It just goes to show that racism will always be a part of the world, a part of America,” James said. “And, you know, hate in America, especially for African-Americans, is living every day. And even though that it’s concealed most of the time, even though people hide their faces and will say things about you, and when they see you, they smile in your face, it’s alive every single day.”
If the vandal wanted to make James feel small by spraying racist graffiti on his gate, well, that criminal tried to victimize the wrong person. Racists like to use the N-word to put us in our supposed place, to take us back to a time when blacks didn’t have the power or the influence — or the freedom — to live properly in America. But there’s no such thing as putting James in place. He possesses a thorough understanding of his role in society and the capabilities of stardom. He idolized Muhammad Ali and befriended former president Barack Obama. He respects and knows history. As a result, he has a perspective that enabled him to transcend hate Wednesday.
That racist devil didn’t teach James a lesson. That racist devil empowered him to speak truths that otherwise would’ve gone unstated as we obsessed over the Golden State-Cleveland Finals trilogy.
“And I think back to Emmett Till’s mom, actually,” James said, referencing Mamie Till’s reaction to her 14-year-old son’s lynching in 1955 in Mississippi. “It’s kind of one of the first things I thought of, and the reason that she had an open casket is because she wanted to show the world what her son went through as far as a hate crime and being black in America.
“. . . No matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, being black in America is, it’s tough. And we got a long way to go for us as a society and for us as African-Americans, until we feel equal in America.”
This is the kind of dialogue that much of America would rather avoid than tackle with honesty and an earnest, open-minded approach toward improvement. We wander through awkward, passive-aggressive ambiguity, hoping for a magical, effortless solution. Life is better, in many ways, for African-Americans; James is an extreme example. But there are too many issues just below the surface — and I’m not talking just about white-on-black racism; it’s layered, complicated and multifaceted — that fail to be addressed. There are too many misunderstandings that don’t become evident until something big and polarizing happens. Relationships shrivel without communication. The longer we avoid, the longer we assume, the longer we downplay, the more the infection spreads without being treated.
Away from the spotlight of the Finals, a noose was found at the National Museum of African American History and Culture on Wednesday. Last Friday, a noose was found hanging from a tree on the Hirshhorn Museum grounds. If it takes the wildly famous James being called a n----- for more people to understand that this is a common part of the black experience, James is willing to take that on, even as he tries to beat the Warriors.
That racist devil forgot something before attempting to belittle James: He’s 6-foot-8 and 250 pounds. He has shown he can carry a burden. LeBron James from Akron, Ohio, cannot be shamed. But now that racism has given him a platform, he will make people listen. Maybe they’ll even learn.