Not Every Black Public Figure Can Be an Activist
Michael Jordan at Sports Illustrated’s 20th Century Sports Awards in 1999. Photo: Brenda Chase/Getty Images

Not Every Black Public Figure Can Be an Activist

From Jordan to Jay-Z, we expect Black celebrities to be endlessly knowledgeable and tirelessly dedicated—but that's simply not realistic

After 10 episodes spanning five weeks and spawning countless online conversations and memes, The Last Dance took its last step Sunday night. ESPN’s documentary series exploring the Chicago Bulls’ historic 1990s dynasty aired new stories, retold old ones, and aimed to reaffirm the notion that Michael Jordan was the best to ever play the sport of basketball — and one of the best athletes in the history of all sports.

But every legacy has an underbelly. In 2020, a public figure’s eventual obituary is no longer confined to the deeds that made them famous; what one has done off the court (or course, or stage, or studio) will now be entered into the ledger. And for many people, Jordan’s refusal to endorse Harvey Gantt, the first Black mayor of Charlotte who was running against notorious racist Jesse Helms in the 1990 North Carolina Senate race — reportedly saying “Republicans buy sneakers too” — has long been a stain on his record.

His original hesitation, and his quip, first became public knowledge via Sam Smith’s 1995 book, Second Coming: The Strange Odyssey of Michael Jordan, cementing what many felt was Jordan’s reputation for valuing his personal brand over his community. Confronted with the quote in The Last Dance, Jordan called it a joke, but there’s often truth to certain jokes — especially when they’re validated by inaction. And as much as Jordan might have wanted to distance himself from political discourse, his words were so apolitical that they became unmistakably political.

For decades, the response to his silence haunted his legacy. Yes, we love what you did on the court. But what have you done for your people? It’s fair. And perhaps it’s why, eight years ago, he began to operate differently. In 2012, he co-headlined a fundraising dinner for then-President Obama. In 2016, following the fatal police shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, he released a statement saying he could “no longer stay silent,” and donated $1 million each to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and International Association of Chiefs of Police — a safe, “both sides” approach to addressing the matter.

Did he do this to protect his legacy? Or is this who he has always been, and it’s now simply safer to speak up?

Does it matter?

The truth is, we can’t expect every Black person with status to be an activist. We can’t make any assumptions that people who can dribble — or anything else that brings them celebrity — must be well-versed in the realities and ills of their communities. Financial support is one thing. But when it becomes a matter of speaking out and articulating their stance on an issue, are they supposed to know the right political candidate for local, state, and federal elections? Are they supposed to know which bills should make it through the House or Senate? Should they understand what business moves make the most sense for not just their own portfolio but the 40 million African Americans in the United States who are in no way a monolith?

Even when being on the right side of history is crucial and public statements supporting the Black community are the norm, it’s still unreasonable to expect every Black person with status to be an activist. That outlook can disappoint in myriad ways.

Holding Jordan accountable requires that all peers be subject to the same scrutiny. And that doesn’t usually happen. Although Earvin “Magic” Johnson has generously supported the Black community financially and has endorsed several political candidates within the last 20 years, he was never an outspoken figure politically — and certainly not at the time when Jordan was being criticized over his silence on the Gantt-Helms race. In his 2016 book Long Shot: The Triumphs and Struggles of an NBA Freedom Fighter, Jordan’s former teammate Craig Hodges says he told Jordan and Johnson that the Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers should boycott the first game of the 1991 NBA Finals in protest of Rodney King’s beating at the hands of the LAPD and systemic racism at large. Hodges says Jordan called him “crazy,” while Johnson called the measure “too extreme.”

President Barack Obama spoke to Jordan’s no-win situation in The Last Dance’s fifth episode. “You would have wanted to see Michael push harder on that,” he said of the Gantt-Helms race. “On the other hand, he was still trying to figure out, ‘How am I managing this image that has been created around me, and how do I live up to it?’” (However, turnabout is fair play; in 2012, when he was criticized for a supposed lack of support for Black businesses, Obama told Black Enterprise “I’m not the president of Black America, I’m the president of the United States of America.”)

Hodges, who sued the NBA in 1996 for allegedly blackballing him over his political views and has been critical of Jordan, believes this was at the root of his former teammate’s silence. “Michael didn’t speak out largely because he didn’t know what to say — not because he was a bad person,” he told The Guardian in 2017.

Now 30 years later, things have changed to a degree. And while we can credit some public figures like LeBron James for being forthright and engaged as activists, it’s something that would have been infinitely more difficult to do in Jordan’s day.

LeBron James’ merits will be compared to Jordan’s for the rest of his life. Their approaches to Black empowerment differ, but James’ activism is the result of personal evolution (as well as a younger NBA fan base, and sponsors like Nike who see the marketing potential in such awareness.) He identifies Trayvon Martin’s 2012 killing as his awakening. “From that point on, I knew that my voice and my platform had to be used for more than just sports,” he told CNN’s Don Lemon in 2018.

Since then, James has used his biggest asset — his name — for advocacy, even opening a public school in his hometown, and he’s done so without losing cachet or cash. His outspokenness had its limits, however; in 2019 he received some flak for not denouncing China’s efforts to pressure Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey into apologizing for tweets supporting Hong Kong protesters.

Is it possible that James declined to speak up for fear of further harming the NBA’s global business interests? Of course. But we have to stop attaching shame to a public figure saying they’re not well-versed enough to make a statement. Just because James accepted the challenge of being “more than an athlete” on matters concerning Black America doesn’t mean he’s able to provide insightful commentary on every situation, let alone a sensitive geopolitical matter most people lack the range to properly address.

If we want more from prominent Black figures, that’s understandable. There are enough urgent issues plaguing our community that their voices and resources are needed. But to expect omniscience is a different matter entirely.

Those expectations stretch even further when we place them over musicians. When Kanye West stared directly into a news camera during a 2005 Hurricane Katrina telethon and said “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people,” he was only a year into his career as a rapper; while he wasn’t always articulate, he was passionate. Since then, as he’s descended into red-pill ideology and MAGA evangelism, it has become clear that people assumed he represented Black interests simply because he spoke up occasionally. Black people thought they knew who Kanye was — but in hindsight, not even Kanye knew who Kanye was.

Jay-Z, on the other hand, has followed an opposite trajectory as his onetime labelmate. In 2008, after more than a decade of seeming apathy, he began stumping for Obama, and became increasingly more involved. But that road hasn’t been without its bumps. In 2011, he came under fire for selling “Occupy All Streets” T-shirts without pledging to donate the proceeds to Occupy Wall Street. (Later, he criticized the movement for being unclear in its purpose and characterizing everyone in the 1% as evil.) He was also criticized for partnering with Barneys New York after the luxury retailer was accused of racially profiling customers.

After Harry Belafonte accused Jay in 2012 of not doing enough with his power, the rapper showed flashes of more explicit involvement, collaborating on a 2016 New York Times op-ed video about the hypocrisy of the War on Drugs. But his “entertainment and social justice partnership” with the NFL last year drew blowback for seemingly undermining Colin Kaepernick’s protest and shielding the league. (Jay-Z is leaning into the ways in which he can make a difference, particularly in media; he has production credits on both Rest In Power: The Trayvon Martin Story and The Kalief Browder Story.)

If we want more from prominent Black figures, that’s understandable. There are enough urgent issues plaguing our community that their voices and resources are needed. But to expect not just convictions, but omniscience — a limitless understanding of systems and structures, a specialist’s grasp of nuanced issues, an unerring instinct to thread every possible needle and satisfy everybody — is a different matter entirely. It’s okay for a celebrity to write a check. It’s okay for a celebrity to do more than that. It also has to be okay, though, for a celebrity to sit one out. A moment of silence doesn’t equal a lifetime of apathy. And the more we conflate the two, the more disappointment our outsized expectations will bring.