In his book, Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Black Athlete, New York Times columnist William Rhoden shares how he came up with the title: “The title of this book comes from a remark made by a white spectator during a professional basketball game in Los Angeles. The comment was aimed at Larry Johnson, then a player with the New York Knicks. The previous season, Johnson had referred to some of his Knicks teammates as “rebellious slaves,” unleashing a storm of controversy. That night in Los Angeles, as his team headed toward the bench during a time-out, a heckler yelled out: “Johnson, you’re nothing but a $40 million slave.””
Rhoden was affected by that statement, and began writing the seminal book in 1997; it was copyrighted in 2006. And now here, in 2014, we Americans who want to believe so badly that racism is gone are hearing the disparaging and disturbing statements allegedly made by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, telling his then-girlfriend that he didn’t want her to bring “blacks” to his games.
His comments were not surprising; anyone and everyone knows that people in all ethnic groups have conversations where they say what they really feel about issues and people when they are in “safe” spaces.
What was particularly angering, however, was the fact that it i predominantly black players who are making Sterling wealthy. A new plantation system, professional sports, yields big earnings for the players, yes, but also huge profits for their owners. That Sterling would not want his mixed-race girlfriend (Mexican and African – American) to bring blacks to his games, or to pose publicly with black people, smacks of historical racism, historical paternalism, the system of slavery, which exploited black labor to make the rich richer and make the slavocracy thrive.
Athletics was and has been for many black people a way out of poverty and the hopelessness that poverty necessarily breeds and inspires. How wonderful it has been for a very few to make it out of hopelessness and have a shot at the American dream, doing something they love. But the parallels between the old system of slavery and this new slavery are daunting; as in history, white people “own” the workers. White people are the biggest beneficiaries. All or most of the owners of the professional teams are white. Former NBA great Michael Jordan is majority owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, acquiring the team in 2010 from Robert Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET) , who was the first black majority owner of a major U.S. pro sports team.
The driving force for any owner, black or white, is not the need to make the world better for democracy, or to set up an example of “how we can all get along.” No, the motivation is profit; those who are after profit don’t care who makes the money for them as long as someone does. In the area of sports, unfortunately or fortunately, depending on where one’s mind is, the workers have been, for the most part, black, and the owners and managers have been white.
New plantations. Sports teams and the sports organizations seem to be nothing more and nothing less than new plantations, where owners and managers “take care” of “their” boys until the usefulness of those boys wears off, and then they are discarded. Sterling, it seems, is just a good old plantation boss who “takes care of his boys” and doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about.
Sterling also placates the community of people he apparently despises by giving away free basketball tickets every year. The Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP has thought that that gesture was “nice” and was going to give an award next month.
Many sports players would undoubtedly tell me to shut up. They’re making good money; what Sterling said was not all that big a deal, as long as they get paid. But they fail to see how they are being used – for the sake of, or in the name of – making a profit. Rhoden writes, “History suggests that African-Americans should ever be on the lookout. Their predecessors were excluded, blocked, persecuted and eased out when white owners decided they weren’t needed or wanted.”
Plantation thinking, it seems.
Sterling may suffer some for his faux pas; wealthy white men, like Donald Trump, will come to his defense, at a time when there is no defense. The good old boys, however, protect and support each other. Sterling hasn’t said anything that many of them most likely say…
But black people, black athletes, should pay special attention to the new plantations called pro-sports. We are being used again to bolster the economy and support the life style of those who “own” us, and while the players make good money, the fact of the matter is that too many of those who love pro sports and who dream of making it out of despair will never achieve that dream…even as they continue to make the white owners more and more wealthy.
A candid observation …