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LeBron’s defaced gate brings racism into focus

The N-word is never about an individual, it’s about the collective

Editor’s note: This story contains explicit language.


It was plural. Keep that in mind. The racial slur spray-painted on the gate outside LeBron James’ house in Brentwood, California, wasn’t just directed at him, it was directed at his wife and children as well.

LeBron’s business manager, Maverick Carter, showed me a picture of the defaced gate Thursday night, after Game 1 of the NBA Finals. Since I’d only read euphemisms, I asked Carter the exact wording, so he went through his cellphone and pulled up a photo. Seeing the image of the white letters painted on the black fence in big, no-doubt capital letters made it even more jarring. Now it’s stuck in my head. I wish that one of Kevin Durant’s dunks or Stephen Curry’s 3-pointers or even the sight of Rihanna waving a pompom as she left Oracle Arena was my lasting image from Thursday night. Instead it’s that word on that gate.

We don’t know the perpetrator(s) and we don’t know the motive. It’s disrespectful at least, hateful at worst. We don’t know if the perpetrator(s) knew that the house belonged to James, although it seems unlikely a home in Brentwood would’ve been randomly tagged with the N-word. What we do know is that it was aimed at every African-American, really. The N-word is never about an individual, it’s about the collective. It’s not only about reducing a person, regardless of his accomplishments, to nothing more than his skin color — it’s about keeping an entire race in its place.

LeBron recognizes this, which is why he spoke at length about the incident. He wants everyone else who’s facing discrimination to know that he’s right there with them, or they are with him, that there’s no amount of success that grants immunity from racists. Even if, in this case, the only ramification was that he had to deal with a dreaded “distraction” on the eve of the NBA Finals, it’s still an inconvenience he experienced strictly because of his skin color. Put it this way: Under what circumstances is inequality ever acceptable?

Society generally limits the avenues in which African-Americans can excel to sports and entertainment, and even in these realms there’s never complete liberty from race. In this week alone we’ve seen two black athletes who have ascended to the pinnacle of their sports tied down to the color of their skin.

Before the LeBron incident there was the Tiger Woods DUI. In Tiger’s case, a nonpejorative word stood out for its stark inflexibility. The police report listed his race as black, neglecting to take into account his own preference for acknowledging his white, Asian and Native American heritage. It was a scary reminder of how race is viewed through the eyes of the law, even more chilling given the racial discrepancies in the justice system.

If we are not allowed to choose our race, we should at least be allowed to choose what it means. Some anonymous vandal(s) took that freedom away from LeBron’s family this week. To this outsider, ethnicity should be considered shameful, not honorable. The world that LeBron’s children inhabit became a little crueler. LeBron had to explain why someone would use that word to describe them. And there’s another imposition. He didn’t get the option of having that conversation about race on his own schedule. He was essentially told what to do by some coward(s), and he had to obey.

No one ordered me to look at that picture. It was my own curiosity, perhaps even responsibility, as a journalist seeking clarification that led me to it. When asked about the issue, LeBron felt a similar obligation to address it rather than pass under the premise that the topic at this time, during what’s become his annual June excursion to the NBA Finals, is supposed to be basketball.

Racism demands a response, even if history tells us it’s impossible to eradicate. The human condition is to push back despite the evidence of inevitability. LeBron could not avoid speaking out. And I can’t unsee that photo.

J.A. Adande is the director of sports journalism at Northwestern University and has been a staff writer at ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and the Chicago Sun-Times. He believes SiriusXM's FLY channel is one of the greatest developments of the 21st century.