(Originally published July 26, 2016)
“You can’t be afraid of losing shoe sales if you’re worried about your civil and human rights. You can’t be worried. It’s just the way it is. He took commerce over conscience. It’s unfortunate for him, but he’s got to live with it.” (NPR interview, Kareem Abdul -Jabbar talking about Michael Jordan)
The most famous and admired athlete on the public stage in an American world that is still segregated by race and class, by scarcity and wealth, and by capitalistic design, is Michael Jordan. As the social justice world has fallen apart around him- a multi-decade travesty of dead bodies littering the road- Jordan has remained peculiarly silent and disengaged. On purpose, perhaps, but this is true too: Michael Jordan has always been two things at the same time: megastar advertiser extraordinaire and black man. He was one thing in public and another thing in private. Imperfectly, the two Michael Jordan worlds needed to be reversed. The black man needed to be public and the Nike man could have been private.
In 1990, Michael Jordan filled in the gap created by an aging Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. From the very start of his career six years earlier, Jordan was flawlessly perfect, a pure talent who dramatized the theology of the game.
Jordan had come into the national consciousness the old fashioned way, as a college player, a freshman champion at the University of North Carolina with an preternatural instinct for the moment. It defined his early years with the Bulls that were documented by ESPN highlights, who elevated their own brand by using Jordan’s physic defying dunks and last-second thrill shots to legitimize themselves as a credible media outlet.
Jordan was raised in Wilmington, North Carolina and in quiet moments, away from the chaos that his talent and super-stardom created when talking about his childhood, he often spoke about his southern experience in a loving family, and how he was not allowed to go swimming in the public pool so at a young age segregation was a part of the life Jordan had to adapt to.
On a macro scale, the racial history of North Carolina was antithetical to humanity: slave trafficking, lynchings, wrongful prosecution, discrimination in housing, education and jobs.
In 1990, Harvey Gantt held up a white baby in his arms. It was a meet and greet for the man running for senator. As the baby cooed, ignorant of the aesthetics, the details hung like a thundercloud. Gantt had already made history when he was the first black man to attend Clemson University, ordered to do so by the U.S. Court of Appeals. Gantt went on to MIT for his masters degree in architecture and began working as an architect in Charlotte, North Carolina. His career led him to politics where he became a mayor and then, in a bold move, perhaps thinking the world had changed, he decided to run against noted segregationist Jesse Helms who had a 27-year strong-hold in the state as a U.S. Senator. Gantt, a black man, a descendant of slaves, was now holding a white baby in his arms and no one was out to arrest or lynch him, and so, on one very particular level, the world had changed. And the world had not.
The Senate campaign of Harvey Gantt was closely followed and closely watched. His opponent, Senator Jesse Helms was a professional politician and a polarizing figure: loved or despised. When career politicians like Helms feel threatened they act upon that threat with aggression. What Helms knew that Gantt had yet to learn was that citizens vote because they like someone and they vote because they are afraid of someone.
In the heat of the campaign, Helms ran a divisive commercial. There was a close-up. A pair of white hands opening an employment rejection letter. The voice over implied minorities (black people) were taking the jobs out of white people’s hands because of racial quotas. The ad asked, “is that fair?”
After the Helms commercial, Gantt was suddenly on the defensive. Like the commercial implied, he was out to take a white man’s job away. Gantt needed something to increase his credibility but that was a tricky calculus. Decades of bias and stereotyping and racial imagery grounded white North Carolinians into a specific view of black men that wasn’t accurate. However, one man could change the perception and, in effect, tip the scales so Harvey Gantt would not be perceived as a threat. Native son Michael Jordan could change everything.
It wasn’t complicated what Harvey Gantt was asking. It was only an endorsement. He wanted to be able to say Michael Jordan believes in me. He believes we can change the institutional structure. He embraces fairness and equality. His public support is the framework for a diverse coalition that wants to change the course of history. At the end of the day, Michael Jordan’s part was small. His name and support, his celebrity and influence would go a long way in reshaping the southern political structure. It would be a beginning. That was all Gantt needed.
In 1990, Jordan’s image was everywhere, selling all categories of merchandise from underwear to hamburgers to shoes. There was seemingly nothing Jordan wouldn’t hawk to make a buck. No constituency he wouldn’t sell to. Jordan was approachable, friendly, kind, and was an extraordinary athlete who defied the traditional imagery of the history of the sport. Dark skinned, Jordan also defied the traditional image of black men. There was something about Jordan’s lofty presence that had nothing to do with race. He made white people feel comfortable. He made black people feel proud.
The Jordan business calculus made sense in 1990. Align with your customers. It led Jordan to tell Harvey Gantt no, no public endorsement. It was reported, though years later Jordan has refuted it, that he said Republicans wear Nikes too.
The denial was reflective of the modern athlete in contemporary society two decades after the assassinations of heroes, Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, and two decades after John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists on the Olympic medal stand in 1968. These new athletes were invested in their own wealth at the expense of their community’s struggle. They cared about money as a commodity more than they cared about the community as a principle; they had no soul. Those on the front line, those in the poverty business and the discrimination business and the justice business were heartbroken that someone with Jordan’s reputation and influence was so callously remote. The moral relativism argument Jordan implied, that wearing Nikes was of higher importance than living free, made a joke out of the Gatorade commercial tagline: Wanna be like Mike.
No. We didn’t want to be like Mike. Not anymore.
We like our heroes one dimensional. We like them to fit us, not necessarily the world they live in. We want them not to be flawed, not to be a replication of the ordinary and the banal. We don’t want them to be controversial, to make waves, to enter the public arena of race and politics and crime. We want them to entertain and not draw a line in the sand. We want them one size fits all. We don’t want them to make us feel uncomfortable because of what they believe. In fact, we don’t care what they believe in. They are caricatures whose jobs give us a break from the reality of our lives. That is it. We need them to stay in their lane.
And so in 1990 Michael Jordan did exactly that, he stayed in his lane. Intentionally, he did not use his name to help a black man make history in the U.S. Senate. It hardly affected Michael Jordan the brand, the basketball player, the millionaire, the businessman, the future owner of the Charlotte Hornets. But Michael Jordan the dark-skinned human being was suddenly a different kind of person. It wasn’t that he was imperfect, no that wasn’t it. Suddenly, he was uncaring. He was selfish. He had no racial soul.
What Jordan accomplished with his denial to help Harvey Gantt purely because he didn’t want to offend Nike customers may have been sociologically and psycho-socially cruel but it happened a generation ago. It is buried in the soil and dirt, it is over. North Carolina went on, business as usual. Jordan went on, business as usual.
26 years later, here we are. Rodney King and Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice are footprints in the sand. They did not need Michael Jordan to speak for them as much as they needed Michael Jordan to know them. They needed Michael Jordan to see them. They needed Michael Jordan to cry for them. They needed Michael Jordan to care about what happened to them and alert the public that something has been going wrong for a long, long time.
Alton Sterling and Philando Castile have pushed Michael Jordan to a geographical place that aligns him with the rest of us; finally. The violent confluence of black men, police, murder and anguish has driven him to a point of frustration and despair. For the first time in a long time, Michael Jordan is not a stranger.
He is a private citizen with a public team. He is still the greatest of all time, continually revered in a holy way. It has taken a long time and gruesome murders of black men and police to push him out of his comfort zone (Nike be damned). He pledged $2 million dollars to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Institute for Community-Police Relations, both receiving one million dollars each.
Jordan expressed his deep anguish about the violence against black men. “As a proud American, a father who lost his own dad in a senseless act of violence and a black man, I have been deeply troubled by the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of law enforcement.” He went on to say he was just as troubled by the hateful retaliation and the execution of police officers.
To be part of the solution, Jordan is giving money, which in itself won’t solve the problem, but can help by creating programs to bridge the two groups together: minorities and the police paid to protect them. It has engendered praise for Jordan but critique about what took him so long to arrive here, to wake up, to become socially aware and empathetic to a community in pain and one he is a part of, is the back story in all of this. Where have you been Michael Jordan? Why have you been invisible?
The city that holds his six NBA titles are in the middle of a killing war. Jordan has been silent. Around the country, black men are pulled out of their cars because they have a broken tail light; some die because of it. Jordan has been invisible. Recently, police have been targeted in ambush shootings as rage has spilled into the psyche of war veterans. Jordan has been quiet.
It has taken Michael Jordan a long, long time to get here, to acquaint himself publicly with the moral epicenter and the racial truth of our lives. Stay Woke was never his rallying cry and it may not be his liturgy now. The past is that thing in the rear window. He’s here (finally) now. That’s what matters even if it took a long time in coming, even if there had to be shame first before there was understanding and empathy.
The problems we face didn’t happen overnight and they won’t be solved tomorrow, but if we all work together, we can foster greater understanding, positive change and create a more peaceful world for ourselves, our children, our families and our community.: (Michael Jordan)