On Wednesday, the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, scheduled to play the fifth game of their first-round playoff series against the Orland Magic, walked out. The players of five other teams joined their strike. WNBA players pushed the league to cancel the three games on its docket. Major League Baseball’s Milwaukee Brewers, scheduled to face the Cincinnati Reds, decided not to play. Major League Soccer players did likewise. Kenny “The Jet” Smith, a former player and a staple on TNT’s award-winning NBA show, walked off the set in support. Naomi Osaka declined to play in Thursday’s Western & Southern semifinal match, and after her decision tournament organizers paused the tournament entirely. We can directly connect these actions to the shooting of Jacob Blake by a Kenosha, Wisconsin, police officer. Blake, called to intervene in a neighborhood dispute because the members of the neighborhood did not want to call police, was shot seven times in the back while his children were in the car. Later, amid demonstrations over his shooting, a 17-year-old murdered two protesters and injured a third with the implicit support of the police.
For decades sports served to reinforce neoliberal capitalist ideals of competition and human capital development, and to further extend the reach of corporate power—ESPN has a virtual monopoly on sports coverage and is owned by Disney—and of individual billionaires. Michael Jordan ascended to define greatness itself by eschewing politics, even as his player-to-owner story was used as a modern example of an individual pulling himself up by his own bootstraps. From the start of his celebrity, in a league considered too Black for general consumption, he offered an example of neoliberal racial integration—the exceptional individual rising above his race and then bringing his race with him (“started from the bottom now we here”). In fact, no league better emphasizes the dynamics around sports and race and expansion than the NBA, which over the past few decades has become a global brand—the average NBA team is worth $2.12 billion, per Forbes, and over the past two decades league revenue has grown over 300 percent to reach approximately $8.75 billion annually. But because of a movement based around one simple idea—that Black life should matter—we are seeing that idea transforming Black popular culture and then being folded back upon itself.
The tide receded this time, and NBA players elected to return to work, but something radical happened on Wednesday, and the moving finger writes and having written moves on. What we saw in sports was a Black millionaire–led wildcat strike—a strike generated by a Black social/political movement against police brutality working in tandem with Black popular culture and the Black people who produce it. As I write this on Friday, I receive word that the University of Mississippi football team has walked out of practice. Once something like this becomes a reality, a whole world of possibilities open up.
In the wake of Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter protests against economic exploitation on the one hand and political repression on the other, we’ve had a spate of intellectual arguments with political consequences about the role of racial identity. Class reductionists, as they’re called, argue that social inequality is largely (if not solely) a function of capitalism. Race reductionists argue that Black populations constitute a unique caste that cannot be integrated, no matter the income of individual Blacks.
I’ve increasingly argued for an Afro-realist position that takes class dynamics within Black communities seriously, takes Black institutions and Black popular culture within American politics seriously, and allows for the possibility of change, development, and regression. It acknowledges that race is an enduring but not immutable social force in life.
I’ve written about politics and Black culture before, using hip-hop to examine the neoliberalization of Black politics. But in that work I didn’t do enough to think through the possibilities inherent within cultural production. Influenced here by Errol Henderson’s important work and by Canadian sociologist Kasia Rukszto, I suggest that we use W.E.B. Du Bois to show how Black culture works in this moment. Du Bois wrote Black Reconstruction in America, at the behest of Anna Julia Cooper, to contest the prevailing Dunning School view of Reconstruction and slavery, which held that slavery helped rather than hurt Blacks and that Reconstruction was a miserable failure. He also wanted to mount the argument that the Black slave, not the white worker, was the key revolutionary figure in the American context. Rather than awaiting manumission, Black slaves in effect emancipated themselves by conducting a general strike, walking off plantations en masse after the war began.
Writing of how Black slaves came to a Union fortress in Virginia first in a trickle and then in a flood, Du Bois quotes from an account that describes them as having appeared “by means of a mysterious spiritual telegraph.” The mysterious spiritual telegraph wasn’t so mysterious once one understands that Black slaves had developed an independent religion that contained within it the seeds of a revolutionary consciousness. It presented them with an alternative means of communication, an alternative narrative with which to understand current events, and an alternative set of ideas with which to put their interests into action. Their religion had the capacity both to affirm Black people’s identity as an oppressed class and give them a sense of what was politically possible. When the moment was right, they worked to withhold their labor from the South. Culture works here as a bundle of ideas (about the relationship between people, the relationship between God and humankind) that shape interests, institutions, and identities. But it also works as an independent institution (“the Black church”) that shapes ideas, interests and identities. “[T]he nexus between the slave revolts and the Civil War insurgency was the development of the social networks facilitated by the cultural institutions of black communities,” Henderson writes.
Recall that the Civil War was not originally about slavery—Lincoln had no parts of ending slavery. Black slaves withheld their labor in a general strike and then not only ended the Civil War in their favor but then worked to reconstruct the very meaning of democracy. Du Bois wasn’t necessarily arguing that Black religion “naturally” served a revolutionary function, but rather that under the right conditions it could. Whereas white workers consistently saw themselves more connected to white slaveowners, Black slaves, mobilized through Black cultural institutions, became the vanguard of the revolutionary struggle.
In 2014, Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s girlfriend taped Sterling telling her he did not want her bringing Black people to his basketball games. When TMZ aired the tape, the Clippers’ players, competitive for the first time in decades, met and reportedly came this close to boycotting games until the NBA removed Sterling as an owner. Ultimately Sterling was dumped, representing the first time in any major sports league that workers had brought about the removal an owner for racism. We can question the cause of Sterling’s removal—in fact sports journalist Bomani Jones did at the time. Since long before the audio leaked, Sterling was known to be a racist landlord, and he’d been sued by the US Department of Justice for housing discrimination, and yet it was his comments rather than these actions that led to his being forced to sell the team. The real outrage, as Jones pointed out, was what the league apparently didn’t consider an outrage at all.
However, the seed had been planted. Two years after that, Colin Kaepernick began a peaceful protest against police brutality—a protest that resulted in the short term with the NFL blackballing him. One year after that the University of Missouri college football team threatened to boycott the rest of the season until the school dealt with its own racist climate. Mississippi college athletes, in tandem with organizers, professors, political representatives, and policymakers, pushed Mississippi to remove the state flag. And a number of NBA figures, fearing voter suppression in November, have pushed their teams to use their arenas as polling sites. What’s unfolding before our eyes is the process whereby Black athletes move to the center of the struggle, seeing themselves not just victimized by racism but seeing their power to change it. From a trickle to a flood. “When you lookin’ at me, tell me what do you see?”
The primary victims of police brutality are not just Black but Black and working class. George Floyd had two jobs, and probably as a result he had tested positive for Covid-19. Breonna Taylor had a job as an emergency medical technician but was in a gentrifying neighborhood that used police to reconstruct it for the purpose of real estate capital. Jacob Blake was in the middle of intervening in a dispute between two apartment residents. Over the past four decades police departments have come to soak up more and more of city budgets—in 2020, 24 percent of Kenosha’s municipal budget went to the police force, its largest line item. In most instances these funds are used to build an apparatus of social control over a population that was largely left behind as the country de-industrialized and then financialized. If we were to take a class approach to try to understand why the members of the Milwaukee Bucks would decide to end work to support these people, we’d be at a loss. Their star, Giannis Antetokounmpo, a leading candidate for NBA MVP, has a net worth of $60 million. LeBron James, who has long spoken out about these issues, is worth $480 million. With their strike, they weren’t just sacrificing revenue; they were risking their opportunity to compete for an NBA championship.
How does this happen? Black popular culture connected to Black social movements. What Black Lives Matter has achieved is a significant reorientation not just of Black identity—getting Blacks to organize on behalf of all individuals, “respectable” or no—but of Black interests and Black institutions.
The class reductionists are right to point out that Blacks are not the only victims of the carceral state but rather are disproportionately represented among them. Although some major sports figures have had run-ins with police, the reductionists are also right to suggest that Black middle- and upper-income professionals are not the ones murdered by police. Further, they were not necessarily wrong at the outset when they suggested years ago that Black Lives Matter was not a political movement—that is, a movement that on its own had the potential to generate durable public policy change. However, they misunderstood (and consistently misunderstand) the powerful function that Black popular culture had and can have in using Black disproportionality to generate support for radical change, both among Black populations but increasingly among non-Black populations (in the US and worldwide). It’s unlikely that LeBron James or any of his family members will be the victim of police brutality; nevertheless, James sees himself in Jacob Blake, in George Floyd, in Breonna Taylor. In some ways that’s because the movement itself, acting independently and communicating through social media, has consistently articulated police violence against working-class Blacks as police violence against Blacks as a whole—as part of a complex of interwoven issues, in fact, that all Black people face regardless of class. This message likely fits with how James understands his own experience growing up, and his experience even as he became a millionaire several times over.
Now, in writing about Black politics, I’ve consistently taken the approach that what we believe “the Black agenda” to be at any given moment is constructed, often by more powerful members of Black communities. This dynamic is still at work, as shown by the actions of a figure like Jay-Z, who tried to capitalize on Occupy Wall Street by selling OWS shirts through his clothing label and who later undermined the Kaepernick protests by cutting a partnership deal with the NFL (“I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man”). Michael Jordan, now an owner, helped to broker an end to the wildcat strike (“Cash rules everything around me, CREAM get the money, dollar dollar bill, y’all”). But the NBA wildcat strike also suggests the possibility of a radically different relationship between the Black agenda and the makers of Black culture. We can’t quite draw a straight line between Black Lives Matter protesters and Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé and Ryan Coogler and then LeBron James and Naomi Osaka. But Black popular culture and Black popular culture producers have played a powerful role in reorienting Black identities toward working-class populations, generating more sophisticated accounts of what racial justice looks like, and then articulating critiques of existing institutions in ways that generate meaningful political change.
We still have not gotten to the point where Black sports figures, much less Black Lives Matter organizations themselves, are routinely organizing against the type of economic violence that has indirectly led to thousands and thousands of deaths during the current Covid-19 epidemic. Black, Brown, and Indigenous populations are far more likely to die than their white counterparts not because they are genetically predisposed to do so but because they are the ones most likely to serve as “essential workers” and least likely to have health care. There is still a great deal of work to be done, but we are closer to durable shifts in the power of the police and in police policy than we’ve ever been. Black professionals in a number of sectors have begun to talk about conducting their own walkout, something I have never heard before. The solidarity generated in this moment for the Black populations most likely to be the victims of police violence and not coincidentally most likely to be the victims of Covid-19 has transformative potential. We again have our mysterious spiritual telegraph. It’s not the Black church this time but Black culture writ large. “Every ghetto, every city and suburban place I’ve been / Make me recall my days in New Jerusalem.”
Lester Spence is a professor of political science and Africana studies at Johns Hopkins University.