Thursday, July 15, 2010

Talk Of Slavery

Slate's Joan Walsh laments the reaction of the Reverend Jesse Jackson to the reaction of Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert to the departure of NBA superstar Lebron James to the Miami Heat. In a reprehensible press release, the head of Rainbow PUSH coalition wrote:

He speaks as an owner of LeBron and not the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers. His feelings of betrayal personify a slave master mentality. He sees LeBron as a runaway slave. This is an owner employee relationship -- between business partners -- and LeBron honored his contract.

Walsh writes that she "winced" at Jackson's rhetoric and as a "stickler about language" avoids "terms like 'psychological rape,' 'emotional incest,' 'cultural genocide,' 'environmental holocaust' or pretty much any metaphorical variations on the term 'slavery.' All those words have real-world meanings, and to use them as metaphor diminishes that impact."

Well-played, and Walsh obtained statements from "folks I admire" (we're supposed to know they're all black) about the affair. Although there was considerable sympathy for James' assertiveness against a wealthy, paternalistic owner, some of the statements specifically about the promiscuous use of the term "slavery" were on target.

Sportswriter Howard Bryant notes "Unless you're talking about the actual American institution of slavery, or the German National Socialist Party, the terms should never be used. The acts are too heinous, the shadows loom too large, the images are too broad and powerful to have any equivalent." Author Brad Snyder observes "slavery is an inappropriate and ahistorical metaphor to describe the current state of labor relations in professional sports." Author and columnist Toure reasons "if you're becoming rich by willingly doing something you love you're not a slave." Author and comedian Elon James White argues "slavery has zero to do with this and to bring it up with something so trivial when the verdict of the police officer who shot Oscar Grant just came out makes this sillier and downright irresponsible. " Author Debra Dickerson realizes "just as comparing run-of-the-mill morons to Hitler is an insult to the planet, let alone those harmed by WWII, so is comparing Kunta and Kizzy to LeBron." Professor and author Blair LM Kelley explains

Although elements like the draft and trades made from team to team lend themselves to hyperbolic comparison to slavery, it’s a comparison that fails to account for the extreme nature of the lived experience of American slavery.

The enslaved African-American ancestors of most of today’s NBA players suffered from an extreme deprivation of basic rights. Slaves performed the most grueling work for no pay, they were provided only the subsistence necessary to support life. Slaves had no ability to improve their status or the status of their children through hard work. In fact, according to the slave codes that governed Southern states, slaves could not take advantage of the most basic freedoms most Americans take for granted like raising their own children, gathering to worship, learning to read or even entering into the most basic legal contracts. There was certainly an ugly tone in Gilbert’s letter, and such a tone should be condemned.

However, it was just a tone; slavery was an all-encompassing, constitutionally enforced system. LeBron James is a free man. He freely chose to determine where he would work, where he and his family will live and the best way to carve out his own future. None of this has anything to do with slavery.

But wait! The right will not be outdone! Responding to the NAACP's draft statement condemning the "racist" elements of the Tea Party, Tea Party Express chairman Mark Williams made his own comparison to slavery, referring to the NAACP as a "vile, racist organization(s)." Being among "professional race-baiters," "they make more money off of race than any slave trader ever." Because nothing says tolerant and reasonable better than comparing a civil rights organization to a "slave trader" and relegating it to "the trash heap of history."

Williams is a little touchy. But what's the excuse of Representative Michelle Bachmann (R-MN)? At the Western Conservative Summit in Denver on July 9, Bachman commented “We will talk a little bit about what has transpired in the last 18 months and would we count what has transpired into turning our country into a nation of slaves.” Because nothing says respect for her fellow citizens and confidence in the U.S.A. better than saying we have become "a nation of slaves."

Ridiculous statements have emerged from one longtime leftist activist and one emerging right-wing activist. But Michelle Bachman is a member of the United States Congress- and none of her colleagues even has questioned her remarks. And that tells us something about the modern Republican Party.

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