Allow me to start off with a provoking statement, and then walk it back a little bit later: LeBron James was a whiny millennial this week that actually deepened racial divides with his rebuke of Phil Jackson, and probably left a lot of people clueless about how to actually come together racially in this country. Characterizing benign, un-racist comments as racist sows confusion, and effectively leads to an overall net increase in racism. For the full comments from Jackson, and Lebron’s response, scroll down to the bottom of this post, just under the Youtube video of LeBron’s interview. For a couple of paragraphs of semi-virtue signalling, and a discussion on how I struggled to write this post, and whether or not a white guy should weigh in at all, scroll down to the yellow and black picture. Maybe start there if your take is that I, as a Caucasian, shouldn’t have an opinion on this issue. LeBron James is NOT the “boy” referred to in TBWCWS!
Note: This is part 3 of an ongoing series on racial harmony. Click the links below to read the first two articles, though they are not necessary to read before this one:
Part 1: A Meditation on White Privilege
Part 2: The Deadly, Draining Danger of Outrage
Part 3: LeBron James and the Tyranny of Offense.
As you can read in the comments below (at the very bottom of this post,) NBA superstar LeBron James this week took exception to Hall of Fame Coach Phil Jackson labeling LeBron’s business partners as “his posse.” To James, the use of the word “posse” was highly offensive and had racial overtones:
“To use that label and if you go and read the definition of what the word ‘posse’ is, it’s not what I’ve built over my career,” James said. “It’s not what I stand for, it’s not what my family stands for. I believe the only reason he used that word is because he sees young African-Americans trying to make a difference.” – LeBron James
Technically, James is correct. The textbook definition of “posse” is, “1. A group of people who were gathered together by a sheriff in the past to help search for a criminal. 2. A group of people who are together for a particular purpose. 3. A group of friends” (According to Merriam-Webster) If Jackson is intending to imply that LeBron’s friends were gathered by the sheriff to search for a criminal, then I guess that would probably be inaccurate, but not racially offensive. Likewise, the other two definitions seem very benign as well. And yet, many people thousands of people, including former NBA star Reggie Miller, consider Jackson’s words as racist, and writer Victoria Uwumarogie goes so far as to say, “I do think it’s a shame that such language is used when speaking on young men of color who are doing great things.” I would agree with LeBron and Reggie and Victoria if, in fact, the use of the word “posse” had some sort of racial or negative connotations. The trouble is, that it doesn’t. And I don’t think it is fair to just pick a word, or phrase, or idea, and then all of the sudden assign negative racial overtones to it, and then attack people for using it. Below, I want to consider two things highly relative to the use of the word “posse,” and how we handle offense (particularly racial offense), in this country. First, an analysis of whether the word “posse” should be considered offensive or not, followed by a few words on handling offense in a healthy, peace-making way.
When I hear “posse,” I think of western style cowboys going after criminals. It would never cross my mind that the word has some sort of racial overtones. How is this actually an offensive word? I remember the first time, a couple of years ago, that I began to realize that the word “thug” had come to carry with it racial overtones. That initially surprised me, but nobody would disagree that “thug” is an unpleasant word that is not meant to be a positive characterization of whomever it is applied to, so I can understand that word being offensive to African American groups (as well as those from India, where the word actually originated.) Posse, however, seems to be a word that actually has positive connotations, not negative ones, and I can find scant etymological evidence of the word being used in a disparaging way in recent history. Indeed, here are some examples:
1. The New York Times, in 2007, refers to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his Posse. (For reference, McConnell, a white guy, was 65 at the time.)
Speaking of Bill Gates and his posse, the video below is brought up on a search of those words. If LeBron is offended because he thought Phil Jackson was comparing his crew to Bill Gates’ posse below, then I completely understand. Gates, Ballmer and company by themselves set back the coolness factor of Caucasians in general by about 25 percent the year that Windows 95 released:
BONUS! Here is African American sportswriter Ron Glover writing about LeBron and his “posse.” I see nobody taking offense in the comments about Glover’s use of the word.
Bottom line, as evidenced above, there is scant (if any) evidence of “posse” being used as a consistently derogatory or racially loaded term prior to November of 2016. I suppose now, going forward, that the use of this word will change, which is fine with me. The point I wish to make here is that there is little, if any, evidence supporting the use of this word as a racial code word of some kind, and as such – we should be very careful about raising a false alarm. The problem with false alarms is that the more they are raised, the less meaningful true alarms become. I believe the way to change the climate of our country for the better in terms of race relations is not to confront benign activities but to reveal racial heart-hatreds and genuine prejudices and deal strongly with those!
Here’s my big question – how are people of differing races to know what words, phrases or ideas are offensive to other cultures? Is there a big list somewhere? I think racism requires heart intent and prejudice. In other words, somebody could actually use the word “posse” in a derogatory way that is meant to wound, slander, or denigrate another race, and somebody else could use the word in a completely innocent sense. The key with these sorts of neutral words is the heart and attitude that lies behind their use. The danger in what LeBron has apparently done here (implicitly accuse somebody of racism for using a demonstrably benign word) is that it actually creates the kind of atmosphere where racism and genuine racist language can flourish. How? Because of the Boy Who Cried Wolf Syndrome. Do you remember the old nursery tale about that boy? He was a shepherd watching sheep, and, for whatever reason, he raised a false alarm about wolves attacking multiple times. When an actual wolf appeared and began doing damage – nobody listened to his cries of alarm! Similarly, when language use is so scrutinized that we get upset and offended over demonstrably benign utterances, then it is possible that many people will ignore the noise when actual racist language is used.
Bullying is a big cultural enemy right now. When I was young, a bully was somebody that physically threatened or intimidated you in a frightening way. That word has expanded its meaning exponentially today, so that people are declaring themselves bullied over a wide variety of issues. The trouble with that is that the original meaning of the word is actually watered down quite a bit. When every act can be interpreted as bullying, then the word loses its power and NOTHING is bullying. When everybody gets a trophy for participating, then the value of a trophy actually goes down. It’s simple economics. Similarly, when the hue and cry of racism is voiced loudly and often (in the seeming absence of true racism), then people become numb and deaf to it – and that is a terrible, terrible danger! Racism is a terrible evil, and it should be confronted powerfully. Benign use of words, however, should not be labeled as racism, nor intimated to be racist.
Addressing our shared culture right now is like stepping through a mine field. It is incredibly difficult to know how to avoid offending every subculture and group. I am not sure that is the best way for a society built on liberty to function. Part of the reason for the rise of Trump and his surprising election win could be, that In a climate where people get offended at pretty much everything, at some point, somebody is going to throw up their hands and stop caring that their speech and actions offend everybody. Donald Trump said multiple offensive things during the presidential campaign, and there were several offensive statements that he said previously that also came out during the campaign. In the past, those statements would have been enough to shut down his presidential bid, and he would have resigned from the race. In 2016, not only did that not happen, but Trump actually pulled off an upset win. This, despite the fact that the news media almost everywhere decried him as a sexist, racist, misogynist, and plenty of other “ists.” Why didn’t this end his campaign? Why did people vote for him? Was it because a majority of white Americans are racists? Possibly, but I want to offer a second theory: In a culture with so many accusations of sexism and racism and misogyny, is it possible that those words have lost their power to condemn because of situations like these? It could be we are dealing with The Boy Who Cried Wolf Syndrome. How do we change that? – I would suggest that the best way to change it is to only cry wolf when there is an actual wolf.
When everything is offensive speech then what? Do we stop talking to each other? Do we walk around on egg shells? Do we think so much about every word that we become stiff and wooden? When we get THIS offended by everything that could be possibly interpreted as a slur(racial/sexual/religion/body-type/gender, etc) then the people that really are hard-core racists and awful people are essentially cloaked and hidden in with everybody else. Is Phil Jackson a racist? Well – he IS an old white man…does that make him a racist? I don’t think so. Well, he did use the word “posse” – does that make him a racist?! Does that make him somebody who is using “coded language?” I guess that is possible, but highly unlikely. I guarantee that Phil will take the word “posse” out of his everyday vocabulary, but has good been done in dragging his name through the mud? I doubt it. Rather than strengthen racial reconciliation as a whole in this country, I suspect that this episode has caused resentment, confusion and anything but racial harmony. I don’t want to be complicit with that in this article – I just want to sound a somewhat muted alarm that we should be careful about veiled accusations of racism targeted towards people who aren’t, in fact racists.
I’ll close the main part of this article with a solution that is based on Jesus’ teaching on peacemaking from Matthew 18. If LeBron was genuinely offended by Jackson’s use of the word “posse.” How should he have handled it? I think he should have gone to Phil Jackson first, in private. Maybe a phone call or a text message. There’s no doubt in my mind that LeBron would have any difficulty in getting a message to Jackson. I don’t know how Jackson would have received such a message, but I imagine that he might well have apologized to LeBron for unintentionally wounding him, and that would have been a good thing. Maybe we should all consider handling offenses the way that Jesus suggested! Rather than immediately airing our offense out, or pointing fingers of accusation, or vague-booking…maybe a simple text, or email, or what have you might be just the thing that would lead towards peace. And I am a fan of peace!
1 Peter 3:10-12 “Whoever would love life and see good days must keep their tongue from evil and their lips from deceitful speech. 11 They must turn from evil and do good; they must seek peace and pursue it. 12 For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil“
Virtueish Signaling: Most white people begin these kind of stories with some kind of language to indicate that they aren’t racists in any way. Part of me would like to do that, but the fact of the matter is that, in some ways, I am sinfully racist. I don’t want to be. I really have no idea where those areas might be and how they might manifest themselves in my life, but I am quite certain that there are some racist tendencies bound up in my heart right there with tendencies to be greedy, to gossip, to lie, to be selfish, to be overly sexual, to be prideful, to be the center of attention, etc. John Piper wrote an eye-opening article on the subject of systemic racism this week, and you should read it. I don’t want to be a racist. I repudiate racism in all of its forms. But I am quite sure it is there somewhere in me.
Some might say that, as a white guy, I should have no say in what words are or are not racist, and really should’t write any sort of article that is critical of a man or woman of color. They might be right, and I am trying here to be wise and careful. That said, I am not sure how it is not also some form of racism for one to think that somebody’s opinion is invalid because of the color of their skin – even when that color is white (or, more accurately, pinkish-white.) Yes, I could never understand racism from the point of view of somebody being racially oppressed. I suspect most people could also not understand what its like to be the parents of five kids with asthma…but that doesn’t mean that I tune out all health related opinions from people who don’t have kids with asthma.
As a budding writer, sometimes it is difficult to know when to write/comment about a particular subject, and when to stay away. Personally, I desire to be both somewhat provocative and irenic as a writer, but not go too far in either direction. One who is too irenic in writing often avoids any controversial topic whatsoever, and therefore never writes anything of substance or interest. Similarly, one who is overly provocative simply engages in the literary equivalent of click-bait – focusing on lots of controversy, and engendering vehement agreement or disagreement. I want to avoid both of those. Therefore, I took about a month off of writing, because, though I had much to say about the election and some very strong opinions about it – I didn’t think I could say them in a way that would be particularly edifying and beneficial to readers and friends. From a writing perspective, this particular topic makes me tremble. I like LeBron James, and regularly root for him. He was my number one draft pick in fantasy basketball this year, and I follow almost all of his games. He is an amazing player, a great athlete and a thoughtful and intelligent philanthropist. This article is not a hit piece on LeBron – I’m a fan! – but it is a very strong disagreement with his stance this week. Also – in case anybody wonders, I voted for neither Hillary nor Trump. /Virtue Signaling.
Here is Phil Jackson’s comment that started the whole kerfuffle:
“It had to hurt when they lost LeBron. That was definitely a slap in the face. But there were a lot of little things that came out of that. When LeBron was playing with the Heat, they went to Cleveland and he wanted to spend the night. They don’t do overnights. Teams just don’t. So now (coach Erik) Spoelstra has to text Riley and say, ‘What do I do in this situation?’ And Pat, who has iron-fist rules, answers, ‘You are on the plane, you are with this team.’ You can’t hold up the whole team because you and your mom and your posse want to spend an extra night in Cleveland.”
Here’s is what Lebron said, in response:
“To use that label and if you go and read the definition of what the word ‘posse’ is, it’s not what I’ve built over my career,” James said. “It’s not what I stand for, it’s not what my family stands for. I believe the only reason he used that word is because he sees young African-Americans trying to make a difference. “I’ve been in the league for 14 years and from the beginning two years in, I felt like I wanted to put my guys in positions of power, five of those guys an opportunity to better themselves and in the beginning we were highly criticized and I was highly criticized about what I wanted to do to help some guys around me become very successful in business,” James said. “It just sucks that now at this point having one of the biggest businesses you can have both on and off the floor, having a certified agent in Rich Paul, having a certified business partner in Maverick Carter, that’s done so many great business, that the title for young African-Americans is the word ‘posse.”We see the success that we have, but then there is always someone that lets you know still how far we still have to go as African-Americans, and I don’t believe that Phil Jackson would have used that term if he was doing business with someone else and working with another team or if he was working with anybody in sports that was owning a team that wasn’t African-American and had a group of guys around them that didn’t agree with what they did, I don’t think he would have called them a posse.”