In finally raising voice on race, Michael Jordan echoes much of America

Michael Jordan broke a long silence on social issues, addressing the issue of police and the black community. In doing so, he echoed many Americans who can see both sides. 

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP/File
Michael Jordan, seen here in 2015, announced Monday that he’s giving $1 million to the Institute for Community-Police Relations and $1 million to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to help build trust between blacks and law enforcement.

When Michael Jordan broke a nearly lifelong silence on social issues this week, his statement illuminated, at least in part, the depth and complexity of Americans’ views on the issue.

In saying he “can no longer stay silent,” Mr. Jordan called for America to find a constructive path forward in addressing both the need for police reforms and the need to support and respect police officers. He backed the effort with a donation of $1 million each for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Institute for Community-Police Relations.

With the statement, Jordan has made an about-face on nearly a quarter century of refusing to be drawn in to topics beyond basketball – for instance, declining to comment on the Rodney King beating in 1991, the year he won his first championship.

To some critics, that makes his words and actions this week “a day late and a million dollars short.” As a former Chicago Bulls superstar and the National Basketball Association’s lone black team owner, it was incumbent upon him to speak out on racial issues well before now, they said.

Even now, some suggest that Jordan is merely continuing to walk, haltingly, a thin line between “commerce and conscience,” as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar jibed in 2015.

But in that halting effort – and in his painstakingly worded statement – Jordan represents the nuance and conflict in the views of many Americans, both black and white, others say.

“I do think a lot of people are like me: I’m hard on police [in some ways] because I have the perspective of … a black person, but I also completely understand where law enforcement comes from in the sense that most police officers don’t go into situations hoping there’s going to be a violent outcome,” says Kimya Dennis, a sociologist at Salem College in Winston-Salem, N.C.

“These different perspectives can coexist in people. They do coexist.”

Raising his voice

That voice has often not been loudest in the debate over how race affects the use of deadly force by police. Jordan was compelled to raise his voice after the police killings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minn., as well as attacks against police by black shooters in Dallas and Baton Rouge, killing eight.

The events seemed to Jordan “like a civil war,” according to Kevin Merida, editor of the Undefeated, the ESPN website that published Jordan’s letter and also interviewed him.

“Over the past three decades I have seen up close the dedication of the law enforcement officers who protect me and my family. I have the greatest respect for their sacrifice and service,” Jordan said in the statement. “I also recognize that for many people of color their experiences with law enforcement have been different than mine.”

The message was, to some experts, less a stand than a carefully wordsmithed corporate statement.

It “reminded me of someone wading into a pool, taking his time, going slowly, being very deliberate about it,” says David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. “He weighed in, but he did not tip the scale.”

But that corporate reticence to protect a brand mirrored the reaction from many Americans who are hesitant to wade into a debate where the stakes are so fundamental, adds Mr. Carter. The fact that the presidential election pits a Democratic Party in sympathy with the Black Lives Matter movement against a Republican Party led by a nominee calling for “law and order” to quell unrest only complicates matters further.

“A lot of Americans have very strong feelings about [trying to understand both sides], but they may not voice them in such a public way as Jordan did,” says Carter.

For his part, Jordan, could perhaps no longer afford to stay silent.

As owner of the Charlotte Hornets, he is already embroiled in another social issue. The NBA recently decided to relocate its 2017 All-Star game from Charlotte, saying that a state law discriminates against transgender people.

Moreover, more athletes are feeling comfortable speaking up for social causes. The Women’s National Basketball Association rescinded steep fines against players who wore pregame practice jerseys in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. And a new generation of players, such as Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James, are wading into the debate, making bold statements at the recent ESPY awards.

Jordan and race

But Jordan’s measured tone hints at a view of racial relations steeped in shades of gray.

“Michael Jordan, like other racial and ethnic minorities who have been celebrated by whites, oftentimes get celebrated because they have something that levels the playing field, like millions of dollars, which means, ‘You’re different than the rest of them, you’re not like those other people that I’m afraid of,’ ” says Professor Dennis.

Jordan’s vantage point underscores that “racism is not about mean people,” she says. “Discrimination doesn’t require prejudice. You can love people and still view them differently, in a bad way.”

Amid such conflict, Jordan may have a powerful role to play, suggest some observers.

For one, his life has been touched by senseless violence. His father, James Jordan, was murdered by carjackers in 1993. He also finds himself in a position where both sides could listen when he speaks.

“You can no longer say Jordan keeps his social views private,” writes Sam Laird, on Mashable. “And you can’t deny that now – more than ever – America needs its entertainer-leaders of all political views to promote unity and healing, not push division and fear.”

Mary Mitchell, a columnist with the Chicago Sun-Times, added: “Maybe because Jordan … has been quiet for so long, his voice will help us to listen to one another.”

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