NewBlackMan: Is the NBA Lockout About Race?



Is the NBA Lockout About Race?

by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan

thought I would write a follow-up to my piece, “Bill Simmons and the Bell Curve: The ‘limited intellectual capital’ of the NBA’s Players” which has elicited a significant reaction.   It should be clear from the outset, I am not interested in conversations about individuals, intention, or motivation.  To paraphrase the always-brilliant Jay Smooth, the conversations should focus around what has been said, what has been done, and what all of this means in a larger context rather than the individual actors.  The discussion needs to be about how ideology, narrative, and frames operate within these larger discussions. 

One of the common responses to Bill Simmons’ commentary and more specifically the criticism directed at me for reflecting on the racial meaning in those comments has been that Simmons was talking about all NBA players, not just those who are black.  Given the racial demographics of the league and the racial signifiers associated with basketball, it is hard to accept the idea that “NBA player” isn’t a mere code for blackness.  In other words, blackness and basketball become inextricably connected within the dominant imagination, akin to Kathryn Russell-Brown’s idea of the criminal blackman.  Just as the “criminal Blackman” exists as contained identity within the dominant white imagination, the blackballer functions in similar ways. 
The process of both essentializing and bifurcating the black baller is evident in the very distinct ways that the white racial frame conceives of both white and black players, playing upon ideas of intelligence and athleticism.  Whereas the blackballer is imagined as athletic, naturally gifted, and physically superior, white basketball players are celebrated for their intelligence, work ethic, and team orientation.  In Am I Black Enough for You, Todd Boyd identifies a dialectical relationship between racialization and styles of play where whiteness represents a “textbook or formal” style basketball, which operates in opposition “street or vernacular” styles of hooping that are connected to blackness within the collective consciousness.   In both styles of play, notions of intelligence, mental toughness, and mental agility are centrally in play. 
A second and widely circulated denunciation against those critical voices has been our lack of fairness or the double standards of this portion of the discourse.  Whereas I honed in on Simmons’ comments, little has been made about those of Jason Whitlock (Bryant Gumbel has been the at the center of media commentary).  Lets be clear: the comments of Jason Whitlock, irrespective of intent, are worthy of criticism in that his recent commentary plays upon and reinforces dominant narratives and frames about race and blackness.  Looking at his comments, alongside with those of Simmons, further illustrates the ways in which ideologies are circulated, and how commentaries such of these cannot be understood outside of these larger contexts.


A belief in the superiority of white intelligence has been commonplace within American history.  This remains the case today. In one earlier study (during 1990s; see here for another source) about the persistence of racial stereotypes, the author found the following:

More than half the survey respondents rated African Americans as less intelligent than whites. Fifty-seven percent of non-African Americans rated African Americans as less intelligent than whites and thirty percent of African Americans themselves rated African Americans as less intelligent than whites. Sixty-two percent of the entire sample rated African Americans as lazier than whites and more than three out of four survey respondents said that African Americans are more inclined than whites to prefer welfare over work.

In a 2010 study about race and politics, researchers at the University of Washington found that stereotypes about blacks as it relates to intelligence, work ethic, and trust-worthiness remain prominent. Another recent study about race, politics, and stereotypes found that while there has been slight progress in terms of the rejection of longstanding prejudices, they remain constant within the national discourse. 

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