No one, not even Lebron James, is immune to the disciplinary process meted out by the ruling class to maintain the lie of American exceptionalism on a mass scale,
“Black Americans are confronted with the irreconcilable contradiction of opposing a violent, racist, and exploitative system while being pressured to uphold its most egregious myths.”
In the age of “Black Lives Matter,” it has become impossible to ignore the regularity with which Black Americans are brutalized and often times murdered by police departments across the United States. Corporations and Democratic Party-aligned government officials have given statements, symbolically kneeled in Kente cloth, and taken part in numerous other substance-free activities to brand themselves as sensitive to the problem. Police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of all charges in large part because millions of people spent last summer marching in the streets in opposition to not only George Floyd’s murder but also the many other primarily Black victims of police homicide. In the 24 hours following the guilty verdict, six more people were killed by police in the United States.
Celebrities across the vast landscape of the corporate entertainment industry have felt compelled to make frequent commentary on police violence. Professional basketball in particular has been one of the most visible sports platforms to champion the slogan of “Black Lives Matter.” Last summer, both NBA and WNBA players went on strike to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake. NBA superstar Lebron James is one of the most prominent voices in the United States to speak out against the issue of racist policing. During the NBA strike, Lebron James played a critical role in persuading players to return to work after speaking on the phone with former president Barack Obama.
“Professional basketball in particular has been one of the most visible sports platforms to champion the slogan of ‘Black Lives Matter.’”
James is usually praised for his advocacy when it falls within the boundaries of the respectability politics sanctioned by the Black misleadership and liberal classes. Yet after the murder of Ma’Khia Bryant, James’ tweet “YOU’RE NEXT” above an image of the police officer who pulled the trigger brought universal condemnation from all sections of elite society. Donald Trump called Lebron James “RACIST” while a Cincinnati bar decided to boycott airing NBA games until Lebron James was expelled from the league. The Fraternal Order of the Police issued a statement on Twitter calling James’ comments “disgraceful” and “reckless.” Liberal corporate journalists on ESPN and Fox Sports lectured Lebron James to think first before he tweeted. A Black LAPD officer penned an open letter urging James to have coffee with him so he could show him that police departments make “positive contributions” to society. That Lebron James deleted the tweet immediately following the backlash did not stop the LAPD’s police union from requesting an NBA investigation into whether the superstar “incited violence” against police officers.
Lebron James is caught in the eye of the same white supremacist storm that built the United States root and branch. Even after two-plus centuries of political and economic violence in the forms of slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration, Black Americans are repeatedly told to “respect the process.” The Black misleadership class which occupies the halls of Congress, state legislatures, and municipal political offices are the most vocal advocates of respectability politics. According to James Foreman Jr., Black political leaders championed mass incarceration as a solution to the ills of crime and poverty facing the Black community during the “crack” era. Majorities of Congressional Black Caucus members voted to continue the Pentagon’s 1033 program which transfers military weaponry to police departments in 2014 and agreed to make U.S. police forces “a protected class” in 2018.
“The Black misleadership class are the most vocal advocates of respectability politics.”
Trusting the process in the United States is nothing more than a euphemism for remaining loyal to the establishment. Respectability politics delineate an acceptable form of white supremacy which is fully compatible with the mythical image of the United States as an exceptional and “democratic” society. Lebron James, for example, is allowed to support an abstract and largely undefined justice for Black families experiencing police homicide and violence. He cannot, however, publicly insinuate that the police officer who killed Ma’Khia Bryant deserves the same kind of conviction that Derek Chauvin received in the George Floyd case. Doing so questions the so-called integrity of the criminal justice system—the same system responsible for the murder of thousands of Black Americans and the incarceration of hundreds of thousands more over the past several decades.
No one is immune to the disciplinary process meted out by the ruling class to maintain the lie of American exceptionalism on a mass scale, not even Lebron James. Black Americans are thus confronted with the irreconcilable contradiction of opposing a violent, racist, and exploitative system while being pressured to uphold its most egregious myths. The ruling class has attempted to create a pressure release valve through its massive corporate investment in the politics of diversity and inclusion. Diversity and inclusion presume that Black Americans and their allies do not need to question institutions of power so long as they are granted prestigious positions of leadership. Inclusion renders such institutions more effective in their evildoing—a lesson that Barack Obama’s two-terms of diligent service to the dictates of war and austerity taught us so painfully well.
“Respectability politics delineate an acceptable form of white supremacy which is fully compatible with the mythical image of the United States as an exceptional and ‘democratic’ society.”
The disciplining of Lebron James for his “crime” of vocalizing a desire for the police officer who killed Ma’Khia Bryant to be charged and convicted is a manifestation of a much larger consequence of respectability politics: powerlessness. Black political leadership in the U.S. is expected to serve power exclusively, not the masses of Black people and the oppressed. Serving power means relinquishing the right to make any demands of the establishment. This includes the demand that cops are imprisoned for extrajudicially executing Black people in the streets. Such a low political bar also sends a strong message to Black people and the entire working class that demands for housing, education, healthcare, employment, a clean environment, and peace will not be met either, so they should refrain from making them at all.
The lower the expectations, the less power a given social movement possesses in transforming material reality. Low expectations among the oppressed is where the crisis of neoliberal capitalism and white supremacy meet to create a perfect storm of political confusion and opportunism. This isn’t the first time that Lebron James has been on the receiving end of elite antipathy in the realm of politics. In 2019, Lebron James’ refusal to support the “pro-democracy” protests in Hong Kong after former Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey voiced sympathy for the U.S.-backed movement led to another storm of condemnation of the league’s top superstar. Much of the condemnation of Lebron James for his recent tweet about Ma’Khia Bryant from the political right referenced James’ unwillingness to condemn China for alleged claims of human rights abuses.
“Black political leadership in the U.S. is expected to serve power exclusively, not the masses of Black people and the oppressed.”
In other words, Lebron James should be angry at China rather than murderous U.S. cops and pledge loyalty to the procedures of U.S. “democracy” instead of call for justice. The case of Lebron James exposes the double-edged sword of white supremacy. On one end resides the most loyal soldiers in the GOP who remain the loudest supporters of the U.S.’s violent “tradition” of apartheid at home and abroad. The other side is occupied by neoliberal Democrats who utilize proceduralism to modernize and conceal the rule of American apartheid in the 21st century. One side cannot exist without the other.
The storm of white supremacy which swept up Lebron James faces a deep crisis of legitimacy. Chauvin’s conviction was supposed to reduce tensions within a society drowning in a toxic soup of endless economic inequality, war, and racist police repression. Biden’s presidency was supposed to thrust the U.S. back into a position of global “leadership” yet a non-white socialist country, China, continues to strengthen its leadership on issues such as climate change, poverty alleviation, and pandemic containment. The days where the U.S. could claim superiority through the dual use of force and propaganda are over.
Any individual or movement that seeks to forge a path out of U.S. imperial rule is disciplined accordingly, whether in the political imprisonment of Julian Assange and Mumia Abu-Jamal, the expansion of military aggression toward Russia and China, or the softer approach of encouraging athletes such as Lebron James to “trust the process.” The message is the same: expect nothing from the system and face consequences should you stand up to it. U.S.-based social movements need to brave the eye of white supremacy’s storm. Nothing short of demanding that U.S. imperialism be torn down root and branch will improve the lives of the people, let alone transform a society whose foundations rest on the mass graves produced by white supremacy and empire.
Danny Haiphong is a contributing editor to Black Agenda Report and co-author of the book “American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People's History of Fake News- From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.” Follow his work on Twitter @SpiritofHo and on YouTube as co-host with Margaret Kimberley of Black Agenda Report Present's: The Left Lens. You can support Danny at www.patreon.com/dannyhaiphong
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