Wednesday, June 22, 2011

“Post-Racial” America: The LeBron James Spectacle, in Black and White

Exaggerated self-importance is deemed an individual fault, but a racial virtue. -Kelly Millar

Yes, I watched it, and odds are that you did too. I’m talking about “The Decision” on ESPN, which left many of us slack jawed as superstar LeBron James revealed where his talents would reside over the next few years. In the beginning, I and most of the people I associate with, were united in our displeasure of his Miami Heat choice, because we knew the history of sports heartbreak that the City of Cleveland has endured over the years. We also viewed LeBron as a hometown hero and savior, since he was born and raised 40 minutes outside of Cleveland. Loyalty, or the lack thereof, was the word of the night, and consequently, LeBron lost much face for not staying in Ohio and delivering a World Title to the Championship starved city.

That was then…this is a year later, and America appears to have transitioned from a near uniform voice of disapproval, into a division of two distinct groups, seemingly correlated along the lines on race. I first noticed this as I meandered within my own social circles: some networks were comprised predominantly of Blacks and other minority groups, while other networks were comprised primarily of my White mainstream counterparts. Generally speaking, within my Black networks, the temperature of hate towards LeBron had cooled significantly over time, as they took the year to ponder such questions as, “What exactly did LeBron James do that was so wrong, and is the level of vitriol and criticism leveled at LeBron really justified?” Conversely, within my White social circles, the animosity towards LeBron had generally increased, and in some cases it had reached a fevered pitch, with individuals calling him every name in the book, save his own. There seemed to be no shortage of references to his perceived arrogance, selfishness, cowardice, and laziness, which only grew louder and more spiteful over time.

Naturally, I attributed the differences in opinion between my Black and White networks as being endemic to my own social sphere, largely because I had no way of extrapolating them to the general population. That was, until last week, when I was graced with two fortuitous emails, regarding LeBron and his decision.

The first email was a disparaging spoof of “The Decision”[1], with a snarky reporter questioning LeBron on his election to play in the WNBA (Women’s National Basketball Association) to compete for a championship. This piece was complete with the reporter affirming that LeBron let people down, included constant interruptions as he attempted to give his answers, condescendingly correcting his word pronunciation (as the camera showed a sheepish looking LeBron), and ultimately culminated with the reporter calling him a “F_cking a_shole”.

The second email was an article written by Roger Groves[2] of Forbes Magazine. In his article, he described the systematic demonization of LeBron by the media, despite facts that indicate he could, and should, be viewed as a positive role model for any child to follow. His article highlighted the $3 million raised and donated to the Boys and Girls Club of America (a direct result of The Decision), how LeBron actually LOST money by going to Miami (negating claims that he was selfish), explained how “The Decision” was more than likely a creation of the ESPN television network (rather than LeBron’s), and how the media effectively distanced themselves from the chaotic aftermath, leaving LeBron to hold the proverbial empty bag.

Through the power of Information Technology, I was able to harness Facebook to acquire historical and real-time updates of those posting the aforementioned Youtube clip and Forbes article, along with their apparent racial identities and “add-on” comments as they posted each piece. What I discovered, via the postings, was consistent with what I had already empirically observed in my real life networks. Upwards of 95% of those posting the disparaging LeBron Youtube clip were non-Black, and they would often accompany the post with jeers directed at LeBron, or exclamations of how humorous they found the clip to be. I observed nearly the opposite reaction with those that posted the Forbes article, in that approximately 85% of the posters were Black, and would often add commentary expressing frustration and disgust with the way the media and society were treating him.

All of this brings us to the question of why? Why do different groups coexisting within a society view the same thing, and yet walk away with reactions that are diametrically opposite?

The answer can be found in our cultural “mental models”, and our ontological assumptions of the world. Through our collective experiences of history, we create mental models (as short cut representations in our head) to understand and interpret a world that is far too complex and intricate to ever comprehend completely. The caveat is that these mental models have limitations and gaps in understanding of what is acceptable in the “real” world, or worlds other than our own, since it is only a shortcut representation. We always act rationally and in accordance with our mental models, but the mismatch between the model and the world can result in someone acting completely RATIONALLY according to their established mental model, but IRRATIONALLY towards the world in general.

This is what is happening in the LeBron saga. The White mainstream is acting rationally according to their traditional and cultural mental models, but their mental models translate to irrationality when viewed through the lens of Black cultural mental models. I do not believe that the mainstream majority are racist, or should I say, intentionally racist. Their cultural mental models simply do not include a deep understanding or calculus of historical African American oppression, suffering, and humiliation. It is for this reason that a Black person can view the derogatory Youtube clip and wince when the White interviewer treats LeBron James (a fully grown man) as an ignorant “boy”. Many within the mainstream majority can look at the same clip and laugh, without the slightest bit of indignation. Within a society built to cater and respond to White male patriarchy, there is a perceived hierarchy of power and authority, of servant and master, of first and last. According to mainstream majority mental models, this hierarchy is acceptable and rational, but to progressive Blacks and other minorities living in America, circa 2011 A.D., this hierarchy and subjugation is considered irrational madness.

It is this irrationality and inconsistency that causes LeBron to be lambasted for being disloyal to Cleveland, but elicits no outcry from the masses when the Los Angeles Clippers organization (this very year) unceremoniously traded Baron Davis to Cleveland, despite the fact that Baron Davis is an LA native, and was heartbroken to leave his home city. It is because of this irrationality and inconsistency that LeBron endures withering criticism of selfishness, while there is deafening silence from the population as Chauncey Billups is traded from the Denver Nuggets to the New York Knicks (also this year). Chauncey is a Denver native who likewise did not want to leave his hometown, and later received a public apology from the General Manager and the Coach of the Denver Nuggets, who cited the trade as a “business decision”. I never heard the outcry from the media, the mainstream population, or the city that was receiving or dismissing the players as chattel. How was LeBron’s decision any different? Yes, LeBron could have handled things better, but the reaction to his mistakes is by far disproportionate to what he deserves.

The past year has reaffirmed that despite having a Black President, we are by no means living in a post racial society. Blacks and Whites still live and function in two Americas, often with two different realities. The lack of empathy between the two communities is dangerous because of the ease in which it reproduces itself from generation to generation. However, the disconnection will never be resolved until we stop simply hearing each other, but LISTENING and seeking to truly understand.

Author: C. Frank Igwé, PhD



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