Five years ago, Milwaukee Bucks F/C John Henson was racially profiled by a local jeweler. After he laid out his anger on Instagram about his particular racial tragedy, Henson’s employers, the Milwaukee Bucks, reacted in a traditional way. Initially, they called the alleged incident “troubling“. The innate advantage of privilege is that you can use the word “troubling” to describe a racial injury. It is an injury that will never do you harm as you are the beneficiary of innocence; you are never locked out of jewelry stores. You can drive a car with a dealer plate and not be questioned. For the people of color who have to deal with racial injuries in real-time, it is not “troubling“. It is wrong, unfair, psychologically degrading and it leaves scars that no bandage can heal.
“They locked the door and told me to go away. After I rang the doorbell twice, everyone went to the back. This was followed by two police cars pulling up across the street and watching me for 5 minutes. I was then approached by 2 officers and questioned about the dealer vehicle I was in which is a part of my endorsement deal and asked me what I wanted among other things that were irrelevant to me being there just trying to shop at the store like a normal paying customer would do. I told them I was trying to buy a watch…After they ran my plates I overheard them talking about doing more of a background check on the car. The employees finally came out of the back and proceeded to conduct business like they previously were. This was one of the most degrading and racially prejudiced things I’ve ever experienced in life. You have no right to profile someone because of their race and nationality and this incident needs to be brought to light.” John Henson, 2015
At the time of the racial assault upon John Henson, Bucks ownership was trying to wrangle a new arena on the backs of underserved communities, and a county already spiraling in debt. What happened to John Henson on a Monday was a public relations event they didn’t need so they brought the owner of the jewelry store in to meet John Henson. They wanted Thomas Dixon to see what a truly wonderful person Henson was. Henson was everything good, everything not worthy of how he was treated; he was special.
In other words, John Henson wasn’t like every other black guy. He was not threatening. He was not ghetto. He was not angry and in a rage. He didn’t wear gold chains and interject the word “dope” into every sentence. He was an outlier, someone you could trust. Henson wasn’t the stereotype.
From what I can tell, Henson seems like a bright and caring professional whose NBA career has never been marked by anything but the highest character. And yet, there was a sense that the Bucks were singling Henson out from the rest of the racial profiling crowd. Since when do victims have to prove they are good enough to be treated the way they should be treated in the first place? Easy answer: when they are black men. Black men have to unravel the excessive layers of bias and prejudice which by design reveals the existence of twin identities: the good black. And the violent one. Reflexively, the Bucks allowed jewelry owner Dixon to believe the problem of racial profiling is conditional and has nothing to do with race at all.
The problem with racial profiling as a construct is its revelatory animus: the dominant culture hates the brown-skinned. Dixon didn’t know John Henson. If he did he would have opened the door for him. He wouldn’t have called the police. A midwestern jeweler and his employees knew everything they needed to know about John Henson, a tall black man. He was identified by his skin, and empathy was absent, as Henson was primarily thought to be dangerous.
The Bucks, in their statement in 2015, said they understood racial profiling was a significant issue in the country but not reflective of the Milwaukee community, the second poorest in the nation, according to CBS News. So Milwaukee is unique? Racial profiling is applicable everywhere else but Milwaukee is immune? Does Milwaukee have the racial profile vaccine? Or, perhaps it does not happen to the black and privileged in Milwaukee, it happens to the poor and powerless who Bucks owners care little about.
The Milwaukee Bucks owners experience with the consequences of bias and prejudice is limited, while their experience with advantages and the benefit of the doubt is generous. It distinguishes them from many in the impoverished city they represent. It keeps them separate.
When John Henson was racially profiled Barack Obama was president. The problem is deeper than the national voice. It is a local behavior. It is policy. It is qualified immunity. It is the militarization of minority communities. Wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt doesn’t erase everything that has come before it, turning it into dust. It’s a frigging t-shirt.
In his remarks a couple of days ago, Bucks guard George Hill mentioned that he wanted ownership to put pressure on local officials to change the texture of the problem. But the texture of the problem is institutionalized. It’s four centuries old and shines a light on an inherent negative consequence of not having black men in ownership positions. When a situation like 2015 and 2020 happens, white owners have empathy but they don’t have stories. They don’t have wounds. They don’t have scars. They aren’t triggered to look at a black kid running a cross country race and remember that once upon a time their kid was running in a race and was tackled to the ground because a car was burglarized and the kid running in the race looked like the suspect. That happened to my son. They can’t reflect on a cop following a new black man in town who just bought a house and was walking down the street minding his business. That happened to my brother. We all have stories.
Some of us have cemetery markers, graves, and heartbreak.
NBA players wanted to make an impact before the bubble and were in conflict about living in a sanitized space when their people were engaged in a new day. Players have an emotional investment in the outcome of police murders, as men and as fathers, as sons and as human beings. Although a boycott doesn’t solve a problem that has been present since slave patrols introduced policing on brown and black bodies, (google Casual Killing Act) they are making an impact, if not on the consequence, then on the process. They are refusing to accept business as usual and give them credit for their historical line in the sand even as it can feel superficial at times, all the hashtags when at the end of the day this is a policy issue that will be solved at the legislative level. And frankly, this is not even close to the worst it has ever been.
But the question is less about player advocacy- they are stakeholders. It is more about white owners and general managers and those in positions of power, political, and sports. How much are they willing to give up? How much are they willing to lose? As a policy, does black suffering even matter?