New generation of activist-athletes

Athletes like Derrick Rose and LeBron James are bringing the noise. Al Bello/Getty Images; Dennis Wierzbicki/USA TODAY Sports

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THERE AGAIN WAS the imagery, looking like cinema that took leave of the screen -- or a remake being shot on a Staten Island street corner. Even before Spike Lee dropped a video mashup of Eric Garner's death and the Radio Raheem scene from Do the Right Thing, the whole affair had the ring of something we'd seen before, seen too many times, never wanted to see again but knew was somehow waiting to spring before our eyes. The big man raised his hands. He'd had enough. "This ends today," he said in tragic prophecy. Officers swarmed, and in a moment he uttered the last words he's known to have spoken: "I can't breathe." A metaphor in three words.

If you joined in progress, this looks like life imitating art, but the reality is more like artists, at points, attempting to step outside of history altogether. Three months before Garner died, Pharrell Williams spoke to Oprah Winfrey about the virtues of being a "new black" -- first among them, he said, is that this novel category "doesn't blame other races for our issues." In the wake of Garner's death, Charles Barkley waded in to defend racial profiling because, in his estimation, "we have a lot of crooks in our race." No one has done more to chronicle the specific ills of the streets where Garner lived and died than the Wu-Tang Clan, but even its founder and guiding light, RZA, stopped short of saying Garner's death was the result of racism, telling Gawker that "racism is played out." The denial has become a refrain. Garner's own family voiced a similar sentiment. As did Michael Brown's. Trayvon Martin's parents assured the world that their son's death was "not about race." Yet the math disagrees. Nothing so establishes the enduring presence of racism as the fact that we are presented with so many opportunities to deny it.

We've cultivated a habit of such denial because it allows us to pretend we've slipped beyond the grasp of history, that the past is dead, that Emmett Till died once, in Mississippi, almost 50 years ago, not many times and in many places and with numbing regularity in the years since. Such a fantasy was at work in the words of the normally sage Kendrick Lamar, who told Billboard magazine, "What happened [to Brown] should've never happened. Never. But when we don't have respect for ourselves, how do we expect them to respect us? It starts from within. Don't start with just a rally, don't start from looting -- it starts from within." But this is precisely the opposite 
of insight. The entire point of protests roiling in streets, of keening in public and of insisting that #blacklivesmatter is that the moment you place prerequisites upon equality, you've also rationalized injustice. No such dignity voucher is required of the hoodied white teenager encountering the police. Nor did the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s impregnable self-respect leave him any less vulnerable the day he stepped onto the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

This is America in 2015, a place where denial of the known past taints the foreseeable future. The most immediately noticeable distinction between the fictional death of Raheem in 1989 and that of Garner in 2014 is that a young black lawyer who saw that film on a first date with a co-worker is now the president of the United States and a man who must counsel calm in the wake of the periodic outrages that have defined the era in which he operates. Six years ago, a black man placed his hand upon a Bible held by his deeply brown wife and took the oath of office. In that span of time, "Yes We Can" has given way to "I Can't Breathe" -- damningly ending the postracial fantasy we'd allowed ourselves.

For this reason and several others, it was eyebrow-raising to witness the spread of the "I Can't Breathe" idea beyond the agitated streets and into places where the signs in question are more commonly dollar than picket. Derrick Rose, injury-prone and already the object of scorn for his insistence upon taking time to fully recover, showed up on court in a T-shirt bearing Garner's last words. Days later, with Prince William and his wife in attendance, the Cavaliers and the Nets took to the court of Barclays Center in shirts with "I Can't Breathe" printed on the front. (Jay Z helped procure the shirts but didn't wear one himself -- purportedly because they didn't have one in his size.) The gestures were notable not solely as rejections of the wrongheaded cliché about sports being somehow exempt from the concerns of society at large but also because they took place upon a world stage. The players were acting up in front of royal company and stating without reservation that they are more than millionaire action figures moving around on the hardwood and enriching the gentrifiers of Barclays-era Brooklyn. It echoed a scene from three years ago when the Miami Heat, en route to demolishing their division and claiming a championship, were photographed wearing hoodies in solidarity with those who understood the death of Martin as not just a tragedy but part of a broader pattern, one that affects them and men who look like them and has for as far back as we have memory.

In 1967, when superstars Jim Brown, Bill Russell and Lew Alcindor and half a dozen black NFL players came together in defense of an embattled Muhammad Ali, Ali's persecution for refusing to go to Vietnam was understood as a matter of common concern. Black men recognized that Ali's status as a pariah was just the most obvious metaphor for the entire demographic to which they belonged. It was also a reflection of the era -- "the time dictated the passions," as Brown phrased it. The common lament about the apolitical habits of modern athletes and entertainers overlooks the fact that Brown's generation was its own new black -- one that rejected the patient patriotism its members inherited from their parents in favor of something more indignant and appropriate to the era in which they were living. Amid John Carlos and Tommie Smith's Black Power defiance at the 1968 Olympics, George Foreman's innocuous bow to the crowd while holding an American flag all but earned him racial excommunication in some quarters of black America. Carlos and Smith were primarily responding to the death of Dr. King earlier that year. In the bedlam of 1968, it was impossible to recognize that on some level Foreman was responding to King's death too. James Brown's "I'm Black and I'm Proud" became an anthem for the Black Power age, but it was also a nod to the audiences that viewed the world differently than they had when he first emerged singing unvarnished soul ballads. No coincidence then that Brown himself (albeit temporarily) traded in his own conked-and-laid glory for the short Afro he rocked in keeping with mass tastes.

Things have changed since then. Foreman once was castigated for the simplest act of patriotic deference, but the idea of athletes and entertainers being expected to act as a racial vanguard long ago expired. Along with that new reality, one freed of black expectations though not necessarily of white ones, came a broader slate of personal options.

It means something then that Azealia Banks, fresh off her turn at revoking Iggy Azalea's race pass, took to Twitter to light into Lamar's inverted analysis of Ferguson. "LOL," she started, "do you know about the generational effects of poverty, racism and discrimination?" The more apt question, though, is do we? I Can't Breathe. Black Lives Matter. Hands Up, Don't Shoot. Are we willing to demand the right to freedom without asterisks?

So there we found ourselves, watching a spectacle on the floor of Barclays Center, 46 years past that moment of showing out on the Olympic dais in Mexico City -- once again grappling with the abrasive truth that history doesn't repeat itself. Humans do. This is our context. What will emerge from this -- from the waning days of a black presidency and the drumbeat regularity of injustice -- remains to be seen. But the sad likelihood is that we will have more occasion to find out, more occasion that warrants outrage and angst, more need for athletes to flex their consciousness, more hashtags and more denial. More impatient requests for justice while pondering, fearing and deeply hoping that we have not been, for all this time, wasting our breath.