A Flagrant Foul: Kobe Bryant and the Politics of Identity

In March of 2012 when the Miami Heat players donned hoodies to stand in sacred solidarity with the murdered Trayvon Martin and his family, it was a powerful moment that sent shock-waves through social media. The photograph itself articulated a message of profundity about the Trayvon Martin murder and the way young Black men are seen as innately criminal. The hashtags of the photo were #WeAreTrayvon, #Stereotyped, #WeWantJustice, #Hoodies. LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh left the Michael Jordan non-controversial, “say the right thing,” “republicans  buy sneakers too,” blueprint of a safe image motif behind and they used their collective celebrity and influence to draw attention to an issue that had a tremendous impact on them. Kobe Bryant has another perspective on such matters and public display of cultural connectivity. The recent comments of Kobe Bryant have caused a firestorm across the landscape of social media. Mr. Bryant’s commentary stems from the his interview in the New Yorker magazine about his views on the murder of Trayvon Martin and the Miami Heat standing in solidarity with the Martin family. According to his remarks, Bryant doesn’t see American society or the world through the prism of race. He seems to prefer a colorless, post-racial utopia that can only exist with the erasure of how complex race is in America. He said,

 “I won’t react to something just because I’m supposed to, because I’m an African-American,” Bryant pontificated. “That argument doesn’t make any sense to me. So we want to advance as a society and a culture, but, say, if something happens to an African-American we immediately come to his defense? Yet you want to talk about how far we’ve progressed as a society? Well… then don’t jump to somebody’s defense just because they’re African-American. You sit and you listen to the facts just like you would in any other situation, right? So I won’t assert myself.”

In a nutshell that is Kobe Bryant giving his take on how matters on race should be deployed in society. To his credit, Kobe Bryant doesn’t and probably never had to see himself as a possible “Trayvon” because of his rearing. Bryant grew up the son of a professional basketball player, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant who played in the N.B.A. and overseas. Kobe grew up in Italy and went to high school in the wealthy suburbs of Philadelphia at Lower Merion High School not in the inner “City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection.” Because of his father’s celebrity and prestige, Kobe really never had to navigate through the racialized terrain that most young Black men have to go through on a daily basis. His upbringing makes him an exception but the pervasive rule is that young Black men are inherently “problems’ as Du Bois famously stated. These realities alone create an economical, cultural, and sociological distance away from the average Black teenager and better yet the average Black  N.B.A. player.

This sheltered existence that shaped Mr. Bryant comes out every time he feels led to speak on social situations. Kobe Bryant sees the world through a lens where his Blackness has rarely made him a suspect so his ideology is developed from his experiences. The Bryant’s need not to apologize for their success, but upper-class status and social acceptance has the potential to blind one to be able to really see the harsh reality of everyday Blackness in a society which is based on White supremacy. Mr. Bryant can’t really see in those kinds of ways. That’s why when Kobe Bryant speaks to social issues he comes off as if he’s auditioning for a spot on Fox news. The individualism that makes him brilliant on the court simultaneously renders him inadequate on racial and social situations.

Also, Kobe seems to belittle and characterize the actions of his fellow colleagues on the Miami Heat as insignificant. His comments immediately came off as smug and arrogant, two qualities that he has been associated with in the pass. Mr. Bryant failed to make the connection that the same “Stand Your Ground” law impacted the Trayvon Martin case is same law the Miami Heat players have to raise their son’s under. The Miami Heat players have a completely different system of reality when it comes to how race has been a part of their lives.

What’s troubling about the position that Kobe takes is that he didn’t speak out against this racial solidarity when he was the beneficiary of it during his own legal woes. The groundswell of support that Mr. Bryant received from the Black community during the investigation and the allegations of his sexual assault in Denver may have not been solicited, but the support wasn’t turned away. In fact, Bryant’s legal defense played the race card in the trial with no apparent opposition from Kobe. Most Black women even looked beyond the gender issue because they felt they were witnessing another Black man being defamed by a white woman.You can’t have it both ways.

We should not expect modern athletes to be Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ail, Curt Flood, and Bill Russell who stood up to the power structures that tried dehumanize them. Some will never have the political savvy and frankly, will never be anything but entertainers. That’s cool. Do you. But we should critique athletes when they miss the mark by acting as if racial solidarity is automatically associated with blind support. Bryant must understand that we live in a country that was founded upon racial superiority. While progress has been made, mass incarceration, institutional racism and sexism, educational inequity, economic injustice, gender inequality, and a host of other realities are very much apart of the fabric of the American way of life. We don’t expect you Mr. Bryant to be a political activist. But don’t be blind to what the majority of African-Americans have no choice but to live and see.


Rev. Rashad D.Grove is the Senior Pastor of The First Baptist Church of Wayne in Wayne, PA, in the suburbs of Philadelphia. He's a graduate of Genvea College and is currently a graduate student at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Empire State College studying African-American studies. You can visit the church at www.fbcwayne.org and you can follow him @thegroveness.

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