There is so much good in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Time magazine essay about the protests following the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, that it almost feels churlish to raise any kind of criticism. After all, here is a basketball legend, the all-time leading scorer in NBA history, the master of the skyhook, marshaling his platform to speak about poverty and class in the United States. Kareem even references the new book Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution, by radical journalist Laurie Penny.
Everyone should read his piece. People in the United States with positions of authority rarely, if ever, talk about class. And yet here is Kareem putting not just Ferguson but the whole of the United States directly under that economic microscope saying, “We have to address the situation not just as another act of systemic racism, but as what else it is: class warfare.”
Kareem says—and this is unarguable in my view—that if the 50 million people who live below the poverty line joined together, they would become “a powerful block if they ever organized in an effort to pursue their common economic goals.”
He talks about the rise in poverty and the ways the modern media and “the 1 percent” keep the poor at each other’s throats. He even references how the mammoth success of dystopian teen fiction like Divergent and The Hunger Games symbolizes the ways that so many young people feel hopeless and helpless about their economic futures.
Thank you, Kareem, for writing about class. Thank you for writing about the ways the wealthy divide to conquer. Thank you for quoting John Steinbeck and Marvin Gaye. The entire essay reminded me of the famous quote that if the poor could be organized to spit at the halls of power simultaneously, corruption would be washed away in a righteous flood.
And yet… there is also a serious and extremely fundamental problem with Kareem’s piece. This is first seen when he writes that making Ferguson about the “fist-shaking of everyone’s racial agenda distracts America from the larger issue that the targets of police overreaction are based less on skin color and more on an even worse Ebola-level affliction: being poor.”
Michael Brown was shot dead by the police because he is black. If he was white, no matter how poor, he almost certainly wouldn’t have died. If that is not your starting point, then you are lost without a compass. Yes, Ferguson is in so many ways a “class issue”. But Ferguson and the death of Michael Brown is about racism. If we don’t acknowledge the centrality of racism both in this case and in how racism is used to divide people, then the unity of the 50 million poor people that Kareem wants to see will forever be a pipe dream.