Let’s All Keep Charles Barkley’s (Latest) Tirade in Context

There they go again, the outside world making it all but impossible for me to stay in my lane, mind my own business, and live a quiet mixed-family life. This time, Charles Barkley — not known to keep his highly charged opinions to himself — has weighed in on some intra-racial conflicts between a couple of NFL players.

The backstory, according to a report in The Grio, is that one of the reasons wide receiver Percy Harvin was traded to the Jets was his “increasing animosity” towards Russell Wilson, the quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks. Part of the root of that animosity, Freeman writes, is that Harvin and several other players felt Wilson was “too close” to the front office and – yes, not “black enough.” That was enough to set off basketball legend Barkley, who expressed complete frustration with whom he called “unintelligent Blacks.” Appearing on a Philadelphia radio talk show, Barkley said:

It’s a dirty dark secret in the black community. One of the reasons we’re never going to be successful as a whole [is] because of other black people. For some reason, we are brainwashed to think that if you’re not a thug, or an idiot, you’re not black enough. If you go to school, make good grades and speak intelligent[ly] and don’t break the law, you’re not a good black person.

I can’t say I disagree with Barkley here. I can remember being harassed very early on in grade school by other classmates for “acting white.” Yes, that whole tendency of mine to use clean language, solid grammar, dress neatly, not participate in cheating in the classroom and making great grades. That sort of “white behavior.”

But the worst stings came from the people in church who felt the same way. There was no escape from peers who were skeptical about my conservative ways. There was no sanctuary in the sanctuary of our little cathedral in Paterson, or the Sunday School class sessions in the mezzanine loft, or the small grassy yard where we had “recess” between Sunday School and midday service. Every now and then, I would get peppered with silly questions:

‘Why do you always use those ‘big words?’

‘You act so white!’

One day at church, while the kids were waiting to be served supper in the Fellowship Hall, I pulled out a paperback and started to read. A few minutes in, a female voice over my head snarled “Give me a break!” Then a hand reached down and snatched the book out of my hand. It was the daughter of our bishop and prelate, a full-grown woman with kids younger than me, who just felt like the sight of me reading, yet again, was irritating at that moment.

Barkley makes a good point — even if it is easily overshadowed by an important counterargument, which I will get to later. Blacks can’t succeed corporately without a few good brains behind the operations. We need a deeper appreciation of the discipline, focus, and yes, good old-fashioned smarts that it takes to succeed in today’s world. We’ve all heard the stories of how President Barack Obama’s mother used to wake him up in the hellacious wee hours of the morning to review homework before school. How do the boneheads harassing Russell Wilson, and others in that ilk, think we got the likes of Ursula Burns, Eric Holder, or Cheryl Boone Isaacs. Do they think these good people goofed around half the day? Do they even know who those people are and how they shape our culture?

We will probably never put away the petty, low-brow nitpicking on people with first-rate brains. In what culture, nation, race or other large cohort do the smart ones ever have it easy? If you look into the childhood stories of some of humanity’s best minds, you’ll probably find sad stories from childhoods punctuated with taunting and torment from peers, no doubt. Being intelligent and accomplished often means being different, and kids punish the different ones. A lot of people just don’t think it’s a big deal at all to be uneducated and uninformed about life around them. A friend of mine openly admitted to me about 10 years ago — in casual conversation, now — that she had just realized the Earth revolved around the Sun. We were both grown women at the time — she had been working for a number of years and I was out of college. I remember once goofing the location of Peru once in the office, and I felt like disappearing. I would never want to admit openly to not knowing things like that. But some people — and I’m sure they exist in every culture — feel no shame about betraying their own ignorance in open, casual conversation.

I think it’s best if the undereducated and underperforming ones in our midst just quiet down and get used to the fact that the thinking, reading, rational, well-rounded achievers are not going anywhere. Better get used to the likes of Russell Wilson and the others I’ve mentioned above, since a lot of Black people actually revere erudition and achievement over feckless coonery.

And for the record, I don’t agree with some of the readers comments I’ve seen on this issue. In a frightening betrayal of ignorance about U.S. history, some are claiming that this petty internal strife is what’s really holding Black people back. But also, Charles Barkley himself puts another stunningly ignorant and patently false notion out there about what impedes our progress. He said:

“Unfortunately, as I tell my white friends, we as black people, we’re never going to be successful not because of you white people but because of other black people,” Barkley said. “When you’re black, you have to deal with so much crap in your life from other black people. It’s a dirty, dark secret; I’m glad it’s coming out.”

No ma’am! It is safe to say Jim Crow laws, three-fifths rules, the Willie Lynch papers, and other written, documented blueprints for racism and oppression written into the code of the United States have been the bigger enemy to Blacks than petty infighting between the brazenly ignorant and the smart kids. If you want to talk about what the impediment has been to our progress over the years, it’s been Jim Crow laws, redlining and social and economic disenfranchisement. In modern times, we continue to contend with voter suppression laws and police brutality, mainly. The nitwits who taunted Wilson for being “too white,” or the myopic ward heelers who harangued U.S. Senator Cory Cooker (D-N.J.) for not being Black enough, or even the ones from my childhood who tried to throw fists with me over the issue, are nothing compared to the legislators — sworn to uphold the U.S. Constitution, by the way — who are conspiring to weaken our fundamental rights to vote. Their taunts are a hiccup compared to oppression of the armed and uniformed brutes who are supposed to protect all citizens, but wield justice with deadly force when it comes to Black men. Barkley doesn’t know what he’s talking about here. He can placate and brainwash his white friends if he wants to, people who are informed know better.

Every so often I run into a young Black person who claims that college, “isn’t for me,” or that the experience of being in a lecture hall or classroom is “soul sucking,” because “my heart wasn’t in it.” I tell those young people to awaken their brains, and push themselves to get something after high school. When it comes to succeeding in today’s world, you’ll find that the ones who can sit down, focus and string together trains of thought in a smooth and logical way are the ones who will call the shots. So to bring it back to the NFL, Russell Wilson holds the position of quarterback, the thinker who has to keep strategies in mind and run the plays. If he’s doing a great job, of course they’re going to keep him over idiot playing petty games off the field. It’s the same way in the big, wide world. So get with it: Use your ever-loving mind, before you lose the race.