Reading the press, watching the news, and surfing the countless Internet outlets for the latest headlines has become a depressing undertaking. From craven enablers of President Donald Trump, to depressing COVID-19 statistics, to bleak economic data there is precious little to be inspired by. Even our national pastime, a traditional source of heroes, has a truncated season and is itself threatened by the insidious pandemic.
That is why it is so mystifying that two inspiring displays of personal and moral courage over the past few weeks did not garner greater press and public attention at a time when the public is craving even a morsel of inspiration. The acts were unsolicited demonstrations that noted figures can still and will act as one would hope—with moral courage and clarity and be willing to brave the consequences of their decisions.
Two weeks ago, Kareem Abdul Jabbar—arguably the greatest basketball player of all time and a widely recognized author and columnist— wrote a column in The Hollywood Reporter entitled “Where Is the Outrage Over Anti-Semitism in Sports and Hollywood?” The column is a well-argued excoriation of those who engage in anti-Semitism and those who fail to condemn that most ancient of bigotries.
Kareem is clear and unambiguous in his stand, he takes the issue on frontally. These famous, outspoken people [Ice Cube, DeSean Jackson, Stephen Jackson, Chelsea Handler] share the same scapegoat logic as all oppressive groups from Nazis to the KKK: all our troubles are because of bad-apple groups that worship wrong, have the wrong complexion, come from the wrong country, are the wrong gender or love the wrong gender.
He then focuses on the special obligation of celebrities—people take their words seriously. Celebrities have a responsibility to get the words right. It’s not enough to have good intentions, because it’s the actual deeds — and words — which have the real impact. In this case destructive impact.
But Kareem goes even further, he rightfully takes aim at those who look away, who avoid taking a stand against hate. He decries “the shocking lack of massive indignation. Given the New Wokefulness in Hollywood and the sports world, we expected more passionate public outrage.”
It is difficult to overstate the courage that it took for Kareem to write the column that he did.
He had no obligation to speak out, especially against members of his community—Black athletes and performers (with Chelsea Handler’s idiocy thrown in)—no one would have noticed had he chosen to remain silent. There is a myriad of instances when celebrities, politicians, “moral” and religious leaders, and people we encounter in our daily lives pass on speaking out in the face of bigotry. It is personally, and can be politically, uncomfortable. Choosing to take a stand against a member of your own tribe can be especially fraught.
Even before the Age of Trump and the inter-group tensions that have become commonplace, the willingness to speak out when ugliness appears in one’s community would have been noteworthy. Groups historically tend to extend the tribal tent to protect some of the most extreme elements of their communities.
The African American community was and is reticent to condemn the bigotry of Louis Farrakhan (Kareem takes him on too), Jewish groups were often mute in the face of Meir Kahane and the Jewish Defense League’s bigotry—this is a phenomenon with ancient roots.
For examples of avoiding speaking out, look no further than our Congress and the countless leaders who know racism and hate yet are mute in the face of Trump’s outrages. Who of us has not seen senators who, when asked by reporters to respond to an incendiary Trump tweet, act as if they are deaf: “I haven’t seen it” or “I’m late for a hearing….” Avoidance is their answer to bigotry in their camp, but had someone across the aisle uttered a phrase or reference that might be insensitive, they will immediately become self-righteous, indignant and camera-friendly.
There is a certain logic to their actions—few are those who will praise them for speaking out, but if they take a stand, their fellow tribe members will likely be vocal and nasty.
For a celebrity like Kareem, he knew that there are those fans who would welcome his comments (usually silently) and there were leaders in the African American community who would attack him (see Ice Cube’s condemnation that itself uses anti-Semitic tropes) because they can. He is a “big” target, but he chose to take a stand.
His forthrightness was rewarded when another basketball demi-god admired his courage and forthrightness and stood with him despite the risks.
Charles Barkley, hall of famer and admired ESPN announcer, praised Kareem and admonished the bigots, “Listen, DeSean Jackson, Stephen Jackson, Nick Cannon, Ice Cube…Man, what the hell are y’all doing? Y’all want racial equality. We all do. I do not understand how insulting another group helps our cause. And the only person who called y’all on it was Kareem.”
It is the courageous and morally upright leaders who speak up because they must and are willing to take the barbs and attacks the flow from that decision (John Lewis is the quintessential example).
Kareem’s and Barkley’s courageous stands should be recognized and lauded for the brave and all too rare acts that they are.
David Lehrer is the president of Community Advocates, Inc. and partner in the America at a Crossroads Virtual Town Hall reaching thousands each week.