One More Reason to Like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

I rarely post items to this site that don’t deal pretty directly with higher education, leaving such posts to my entertaining friend Marty Kich and others perhaps more worldly than I.  But today I thought I might post something about the case of Rachel Dolezal, the NAACP leader from Spokane, Washington, who stepped down after it was revealed that she was not African-American by birth, as she had claimed.  I figured I might write about the late, great Johnny Otis, R&B legend extraordinaire who also was “white” by birth but “black” by identification.  And then I read this funny and insightful piece by the basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the Time magazine website.  I’ve followed Kareem’s career since he was a high school star at Power Memorial in New York and was known as Lew Alcindor (we graduated from high school and college in the same year).  I’ve always admired him not only as a great player but as a keenly intelligent advocate for social justice — and a fine writer to boot.  Well, in this essay he hits the nail right on the head once more.  You should read the entire piece, but here is a choice excerpt:

. . . you can’t deny that Dolezal has proven herself a fierce and unrelenting champion for African-Americans politically and culturally. Perhaps some of this sensitivity comes from her adoptive black siblings. Whatever the reason, she has been fighting the fight for several years and seemingly doing a first-rate job. . . .  Bottom line: The black community is better off because of her efforts.

At no time in history has the challenge of personal identity seemed more relevant. Olympic champion Bruce Jenner struggled for years with her gender identity and only at the age of 65, as Caitlyn Jenner, seems to have come to some peace with it. The same with many in the gay community who have battled internal and external demons before embracing their true selves. The difference is that these people faced a biological imperative rather than a free will choice of orientation. Dolezal chose to identify with a racial group she was not born into, like Sean Connery as the Japanese expert in Rising Sun.

The thing about race is that, scientifically, there is no such thing. As far back as 1950, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) released the conclusions of an international group of anthropologists, geneticists, sociologists, and psychologists that stated that the concept of race was not a scientific entity but a myth. Since then, one scientific group after another has issued similar conclusions. What we use to determine race is really nothing more than some haphazard physical characteristics, cultural histories, and social conventions that distinguish one group from another. But, for the sake of communication, we will continue to misuse the word, myself included, in order to discuss our social issues so everyone understands them. As far as Dolezal is concerned, technically, since there is no such thing as race, she’s merely selected a cultural preference of which cultural group she most identifies with. Who can blame her? . . .

So, does it really matter whether Rachel Dolezal is black or white?

Dr. King said we should be judged by the content of character rather than color of skin, which is what makes this case so difficult. So, yes, it does matter. Apparently lying to employers and the public you’re representing when the lie benefits you personally and professionally is a deficit in character. However, the fight for equality is too important to all Americans to lose someone as passionate as she is and who has accomplished as much as she has. This seems more a case of her standing up and saying, “I am Spartacus!” rather than a conspiracy to defraud. Let’s give her a Bill Clinton Get Out of Jail Free card on this one and let her get back to doing what she clearly does exceptionally well—making America more American.

5 thoughts on “One More Reason to Like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

  1. This is one of the best pieces on the Dolezal case that I have read–and well worth sharing.

    Also, since she has been a faculty member and since her racial identification has been at the center of several issues in which she has been involved as a faculty member, this item is not as far from the core focus of the blog as you suggest that it may be.

    Since I began contributing to this blog several years ago, I have included posts on topics loosely related and even unrelated to higher education. Initially, I simply was looking for topics on which I could write intelligently (and even as I type the word “intelligently,” I know that I am inviting a tsunami of sneering remarks on my claim of intelligence). But gradually my focus in the posts has shifted more heavily toward higher education, largely because I have gradually become more knowledgeable about a broader range of higher-ed topics and issues.

    That said, I continue to do posts on other topics because I think that this blog has a broader function than Academe itself has. I think that the blog should ideally reach some faculty with a limited awareness of or little pressing interest in exploring our core principles and the issues related to them, but who might be introduced to those concerns through the blog if they come to it to read about some loosely related topic that piques their interest.

    More broadly, our cause ultimately depends on educating the general public, and the blog seems a good mechanism for introducing at least some general readers to some of the issues with which we are grappling. Even if the blog manages simply to create some level of increased awareness of the complexities of those issues, it will, I think, have accomplished a great deal. But, again, those readers need, I think, to be enticed into coming to the blog.

    Lastly, Hank, I have to believe that you being very ironic in describing me as “more worldly” than you are. Perhaps, more eclectic, more eccentric, more self-indulgent, or even just screwier–but not more worldly. If I described myself in that way, it would invite even more derision that my claim to having any intelligence is likely to provoke.

  2. I always find it strange to hear someone say, “There’s no such thing as race,” when there very obviously is classification by what we call race as a highly significant part of American society. Only way I can make sense of it is that two ideas are conflated in our historical use of that word in modern English: (1) an anthropological partitioning of species Homo sapiens into varieties, much as Canis canis is divided into breeds; (2) a cultural/social categorization aligned largely along familial lines and closely following visual markers in skin tone and the like. It is (1) that is referred to when people say, “Scientifically, there is no such thing as race,” meaning something like no clear demarcation by genotype (though it’s unclear to me it’s any less “scientific” to organize Homo sapiens by varieties than Canis canis or any other species–species, by definition, being an inter-fertile community, so varieties are never fixable, but always a complex mix with fuzzy boundaries). But it is (2) that is the day-to-day meaning of race, the only one that matters for practical purposes.

    The importance of the conflation of (1) and (2) is that for long ages, it was assumed (1) was in some sense “biologically valid” and that this justified (2), i.e., that visual markers were understood to be markers for “something biological”, i.e., something deeper than mere skin color. Well, it is, indeed, generally something much deeper than skin color–but it’s family and personal history and the mark that leaves on one’s psyche, rather than anything to be read off a genome.

    It follows that import of “proving race is a myth” is the rather narrow point that skin color is not highly correlated with much else in the way of genome. But since genome is not what anyone is looking at when dealing with someone on the basis of race, that’s not really of much importance; the only thing it does is repudiate very much already out-dated suppositions of “scientific racism”, something that’s not been au currant since the early 20th century.

    Race is one way we categorize one another in our society; and since that makes it ipso facto of social significance, it is very real. It doesn’t reside essentially in the skin or the genes (skin is a common marker–but, as Twain famously illustrated in “Pudd’nhead Wilson”, speech can be every bit as strong a marker); rather, its essence resides in how we perceive ourselves and are perceived by others. But because it is a social and cultural matter, this means it is also a psychological one, as psyche is informed by social pressures.

    And that is the crux of the matter with “passing as black”: Does one who has had only a bit of adult life informed by the social pressures of the African-American experience, have the same psychological experience as one who’s been subject to those pressures since birth? Well, it’s an extremely ill-posed question, as there is nothing unitary in *the* social pressures, *the* African-American experience, or *the* psychological experience of growing up Black. This makes it a highly judgmental, subjective question–which is why it’s a toughie.

    • This distinction between the two differing meanings of the slippery term “race,” is accurate. However, I would add to it that once we break the connection between sense #1 and sense #2, we are left with the everyday understanding as not only something socially and culturally defined but also historically determined, by which I mean that this sense is not only produced by socio-cultural factors but that it is also constantly changing as society and culture also do. In short, the concept of race in the non-biological sense needs to be understood not only synchronically but diachronically. During the Jim Crow era it was impossible for anyone with even a drop of “white blood” to be anything other than black. Take the case of the great Brooklyn Dodger catcher Roy Campanella, whose father was white (a “swarthy” Italian) and mother black. Today he might be called “mixed race,” but then he was without any doubt black (or in the argot of the day “negro”). When his father married Roy’s mother, in fact, socially and culturally he too became “black.” In other words, in some eras racial borders have been strictly policed, both in the legal and socio-cultural senses. But in other times, the borders grow more porous, which I, for one, think is a very good thing. But change doesn’t happen on its own; people make history, although as Marx argued, “they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” But people do make their history and they often do so by transgressing and altering the borders and boundaries that confine them, although not always intentionally and rarely with a clear sense of what will come of it. That may be what Rachel Dolezal has done, however clumsily, and under circumstances she too did not entirely choose.

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