As Doug Jones gave his improbable victory speech on Tuesday night, he was joined on stage by NBA legend Charles Barkley. The 53-year-old Barkley, who was born and raised in Leeds, Alabama, had given a speech for Jones the night before at a rally where he said, “At some point, we’ve got to stop looking like idiots to the nation. I love Alabama, but we’ve got to draw a line in the sand. We’re not a bunch of damn idiots.”
The next night, basking in the glow of the Jones victory, Barkley told Democrats that they had to stop taking black votes as a given and offering nothing in return. He also said, in what CNN’s Jake Tapper described as “a blistering message to the Democratic Party,” “This is a wake-up call for Democrats to do better for black people and poor white people. It’s time for them to get off their ass and start making life better for black folks and people who are poor.”
On this issue of race, class, and division, he has been remarkably consistent over the course of his public life. Fifteen years ago he said,“My No. 1 priority is to help poor people. In this country, 90 percent of the money is controlled by 10 percent of the people, and that’s not right.” Last year in Baltimore he said, “America discriminates against poor people, whether you’re white, black, Hispanic, whatever. Poor people are dealt a crappy hand.”
But it should be noted that Barkley’s political views have always been a scattershot mess. While he has supported movements for immigrant and LGBT rights, he also called people in the streets of Ferguson facing off against militarized police “scumbags.” He was given a show on Turner television called The Race Card to talk about racial issues and gave air time to Nazi Richard Spencer. In appearance at a Baltimore church after the police killing of Freddie Gray—at the same event where he said the poor were dealt that “crappy hand”—he was angrily jeered off the stage after lecturing the working-class crowd to embrace the police and stop focusing on police killings. There were people in the crowd who had in fact lost loved ones to the police, and the message did not go down well, as he was whisked from the stage by security.
When asked in 2016 about the police killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, his answer was, “Why don’t black people get mad when we kill each other? I’m not trying to deflect or place blame. That’s just a fact.” It sounded like something that would be said by Trump rather than by someone rooted in the reality of these communities.
His broadcast partner Kenny Smith wrote an open letter to Barkley after he called those in Ferguson “scumbags,” saying:
For those of us who are decades removed from “the struggle” because of our life through sports or business, we now have to acknowledge that every option listed exists. If not, then we are the ignorant ones.
That leads me to the looters and civilians burning buildings which you referred to as “scumbags.” Here’s an analogy: If you put 100 people on an island with no food, no water, no hope of a ship coming, then some will overcome it and be resourceful, some will live in it, others will panic and others will show horrific character, which is wrong. But not to understand that all alternatives are possible is wrong as well.
So when prominent people like CNN contributor Ana Navarro—a “Never-Trump Republican”—say things like, “Seriously though, Democrats need to make #CharlesBarkley Chair of the DNC” after the Jones victory, it’s important to remember which sides Barkley has chosen to take over the years. There is no discernible philosophy other than speaking out in solidarity and support with all movements, save those that are explicitly against racism.
So all gratitude to Charles Barkley for speaking out consistently about poverty, and his willingness to take a stand for Doug Jones deserves every compliment. But his political legacy is best summed up by something he said a dozen years ago: “I was a Republican until they lost their damn minds.”
I’m sure that reflects the beliefs of many people out there in Donald Trump’s America. But without anti-racism, racial solidarity is a pipe dream. That’s not only the case in Alabama. That’s a reality for all 50 states.