SHORTLY AFTER the Bucks made their announcement, the WNBA followed suit. The Washington Mystics, the L.A. Sparks, Atlanta Dream, and the Minnesota Lynx all took the court. However, instead of a basketball game, all the players took a knee. Then all four teams left the court. In the words of the Dream’s Elizabeth Williams, “We stand in solidarity with our brothers in the NBA.”1 In many ways, the WNBA has not only “stood in solidarity,” they have been a driving force for social justice. Twelve-year WNBA player Renee Montgomery of the Atlanta Dream opted out of the 2020 season in order to focus on political activism, following in the footsteps of the Maya Moore of the Minnesota Lynx, who chose the same path in 2019. A devout Christian, Moore saw it as her mission to pause her WNBA career in order to free Jonathan Irons, a black man who had been wrongfully imprisoned for more than twenty years. Only sixteen years old when he was arrested on burglary charges (home invasion) for a crime he did not commit, Irons was tried as an adult in 1998 in Missouri and sentenced to sixty-five years in prison. By an all-white jury, no less. In March 2020, thanks in no small measure to Moore’s efforts, Irons was released.2 (Moore and Irons have subsequently gotten married and for her efforts Moore was announced as Sports Illustrated’s “Inspiration of the Year.”) Moore’s determination to secure justice for Irons demands that we, as Dave Zirin phrases it, “redouble our efforts to fight for the wrongly convicted, fight for alternatives to prison, and fight for a country that doesn’t warehouse people who can’t afford justice.”3 What Zirin’s critique reminds is, rather chillingly, that Irons is the fortunate exception. He is the “lucky” one, those lost years of his life notwithstanding. Irons owes his release, in signal ways, to Christian fortuitousness. Before he was incarcerated, Irons had been a member of the church choir which Moore’s father led. Irons is literally a case of “There but for the Grace of God” goes another black man: behind bars, victim to the prison-industrial complex.
However, Moore’s antiracism work has a longer history. Following the police shooting of two black men, Alton Sterling (Baton Rouge, Louisiana) and Philando Castile (Minneapolis) in July 2016, Moore and the other three Lynx co-captains (Seimone Augustus, Lindsay Whalen, and Rebekkah Brunson) wore black t-shirts that read “Change Starts With Us. Justice & Accountability.”4 Together with other her colleagues in the WNBA, Moore has been instrumental in linking professional female athletes to the Say Her Name movement, an organization founded in 2014 to focus attention on female black victims of police violence—such as Michelle Cusseaux (Phoenix) and Kayla Moore (Berkeley, California).5 (The Say Her Name movement aligns itself with the broader struggle against police brutality but is committed to shining a spotlight on female victims. Hamilton wore his “Breonna Taylor” t-shirt in honor of this movement. Another articulation of this movement has been the campaign to “End White Silence,” in which “White Silence” is pronounced—denounced—as “complicity.”)
Like the NBA, the WNBA postponed its August 26th and 27th games. This brought renewed attention to the work done by a player such as Angel McCoughtry, a small forward with the Las Vegas Aces. McCoughtry was instrumental in having “Breanna Taylor” inscribed on all WNBA player uniforms. McCoughtry, who attended the University of Louisville, the very city in which Taylor was shot by police, wanted to make sure Taylor’s murder remained a focus for the WNBA—as well as, that is, reminding the wider American public of the cost black Americans bear, living as they do in the “most racist country in the world,”6 “warehoused” as they are in state and federal prisons (many of which are for-profit institutions), without any hope of justice and (largely) devoid of the means to secure a fair trial. Too many of them, especially women such as Cusseaux and Kayla Moore, condemned first to death by police violence and then summarily forgotten.
The NFL Steps Up
In the NFL, the other black majority (again, only in relation to its player personnel) sport in the United States, nine teams, including the Washington franchise, the New York Jets, the Green Bay Packers and the Indianapolis Colts, cancelled their Thursday (August 27) practices in order to address issues of racism and police brutality. Earlier that morning, a former player and currently the league’s head of player operations, Troy Vincent, broke down during an interview with ESPN Radio as he reflected on the dangers that his sons, two twenty-somethings and a 15-year-old, face as a matter of daily (black) life.
The shooting of Jacob Blake was simply the latest in a line of difficult issues that made life especially difficult for the NFL in the spring and summer of 2020. A league that is intensely image conscious and that prides itself on executive control, from the commissioner’s office (headed by Roger Goodell) to the coaches on the sidelines, spent most of the warmer months of 2020 feeling the heat. Jacob Blake in August 2020 stood then as a bookend to the murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, who held his knee on the neck of George Floyd for nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds (initially presumed to be for eight minutes and forty-six seconds) in Minneapolis. In the wake of this sadistic act of police brutality, the NFL’s star players put together an ad that expressly declared the players’ support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Most prominently, the ad headlined Patrick Mahomes, the Kansas City Chiefs quarterback and the league’s 2020 MVP, as well as being the NFL’s brightest talent. (Mahomes’s team, the Kansas City Chiefs, is a name that has itself come under scrutiny for its stereotyping of America’s indigenous communities. Especially, that is, after the NFL’s Washington franchise dropped its racist moniker, “Redskins,” in July 2020. The team did so under pressure from indigenous activists and, it should be noted, when corporate sponsors such as FedEx,7 Nike, and PepsiCo threatened to withdraw their financial support.) Also featured in the ad were players such as Odell Beckham Jr. (Cleveland Browns’ wide receiver), Saquon Barkeley (NY Giants, running back), Michael Thomas (New Orleans Saints, wide receiver), and Deshaun Watson (Houston Texans, quarterback, a player now under scrutiny for alleged sexual harassment). The NFL, a league in which many of the team owners are Trump supporters (Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys, Bob Kraft of the New England Patriots and Woody Johnson of the New York Jets, to name but three), has long been hostile to any form of public protest.
The risk, which we can also understand as the first condition of utopian thinking, is that the caution of subreption must be taken as a matter of good faith. That is, privileging utopia, with its lack of specificity, in its nonprogrammaticity, requires thinking the dissolution of representative democracy without knowing what is intended to take its place. Utopian thinking, then, as a leap of faith.
Utopian thinking as an absolute necessity. Reflecting on the work of Stokely Carmichael and the Black Power movement in the United States, revolutionary Marxist C.L.R. James reminds us of this. “For the Negro people of the US,” James writes, “the socialist society is not a hope, not what we may hope, but a compelling necessity.”8 What must be recognized in our moment, is that a utopian society is “not a hope, but a compelling necessity.”
We begin our thinking in the most general conceptual and foundational terms: a just, equitable society that guarantees all alimentary needs (housing, nutrition, education, healthcare, personal security, and so on), a comity that depends on a fair exchange between labor and reward, that provides for adequate leisure time (sport, in a reorganized form) and individual pursuit (painting, writing music or poetry, and so on) while also expecting communal commitment, broadly understood. Everyone contributes to, say, the upkeep of the community’s physical structures; rotation in executing the menial tasks (garbage collection, delivery of mail, etc.), all the while allowing for whatever special talents members of the community possesses. All this as we keep in mind Jameson’s model of the universal army in which everyone does their share.
Two struggles, conducted simultaneously, led by two different constituencies, each commanding its own particular set of resources. In anticipation of the second enfolding the first within its (eventual, utopian) self. In so doing, we raise the prospect of political relief, support, and possibly even the need to reorient the black athlete’s focus (from securing voting rights to campaigning for the superannuation of that very system). The black athlete’s struggle will be supplemented by a Leninist imperative.
The project is no longer to, as current capitalist discourse would have, “grow the pie.” (A position advocated, metonymically, by the likes of New York Times columnists Nicholas Kristof and Paul Krugman.) That is, capitalism is always the best elixir for all our social woes. More than that, its only solution. Create the conditions under which minority businesses can take root, flourish, and, in so doing, provide “uplift” not only for the entrepreneurial class, but for a broader swathe of structurally bereft, economically underresourced communities.
This is the sort of bastard capitalist logic, one in which Reaganesque rhetoric—“a rising tide lifts all boats”9—meets Booker T. Washington self-help—repurposed, of course, so that the rallying cry is no longer “Up from slavery” but capitalist ascension for “all.” Known to us as the determination to found and sustain black and minority owned businesses. “Increase minority ownership.” “More black-owned businesses.” “Support black businesses.”10
A greater slice of the pie is not the answer.
The nature of the pie is such that it will never be equitably sliced. In fact, nothing about the model and metaphor of the pie is about equity.
LeBron James’s stake in Fenway Sports Group, whose holdings include the Boston Red Sox and Liverpool F.C., expands and intensifies LeBron’s investment in capital—increases his wealth. And, to shift historic black paradigms radically, LeBron’s wealthiness—or the wealthiness of any other minority figure—elevates him to the status of the “Talented . . . Two Percent?”
It does nothing to reimagine how we might be in the world.
The problem is not that there are too few black billionaires. The problem is that there are billionaires at all.
Let us address that problem by disposing of the logic of the pie entirely.
Chris Rock, a black man of no small means, understands the logic of wealth and how it perpetuates itself im-perfectly.
As encapsulated in a Chris Rock joke. A little dated, but, indulge me: “What’s the difference between Shaq and the guy who signs his checks?”
“Shaq is rich. The guy who signs his checks . . . that guy is wealthy.”
Wealth is the product of capital accumulated over generations. “Rich” as LeBron might be, the best he can hope for is that his grandchildren will be wealthy. (Jordan, for his part, is well on the way to being wealthy, part owner of an NBA franchise, among his other assets and investments.) Wealth, largely the product of “unearned”—“smart investments,” “smart investment strategies”—capital (or, capital reproducing itself without labor), is the history of capital accumulation.
To phrase the matter crudely. Riches can be enjoyed, shared, even. Wealth is inherited. Wealth in itself inscribes the history of capital accumulation. And wealth can only be accumulated through exploitation.
And the ability to exploit is not bound to race.
It is driven by the desire for capital accumulation.
In Chris Rock’s terms, it is Shaq’s or LeBron’s or Chris Paul’s ambition to turn the economic tables and, instead of cashing the checks he is given (which makes him richer), he becomes the one who “signs the checks.” The surest sign of his having become wealthy.
Michael Jordan signs checks.