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Stop using basketball as a Band-Aid for racial progress

The Grizzlies, or any NBA team, can’t fix what systemic racism created

Every time the Memphis Grizzlies make the playoffs, which they have for seven years running, the same storyline emerges: Look at how basketball brings this city together. The most recent example showed up in the city’s daily newspaper before Game 5 of the first-round series against the San Antonio Spurs.

The headline: “Grizzlies help break down barriers.”

“In a region where income inequality rules, neighborhood segregation is rife and there are precious few places where people from different income groups and races regularly mix, the Grizzlies have been a unifying force,” read an editorial in The Commercial Appeal.

“When the Grizzlies tip off at FedExForum, folks from Frayser to Fisherville will be rooting for the team whose players and organization has helped bridge divides across race, geography and income. … Even after this season ends, we should remember how effortlessly we connected over the shared joy of watching our NBA team.”


I say this as a Grizzlies fan with a box full of yellow growl towels to prove it: Don’t use basketball as a Band-Aid for the racial inequality that Memphis can’t shake.

This city has a sore spot when it comes to race. Being the place where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated will do that to you.

Sometimes we act like we’ve forgotten why King interrupted planning for the Poor People’s Campaign to come to Tennessee in 1968. He came on behalf of striking black Memphis sanitation workers who were underpaid, mistreated and trying to unionize. Back then, the poverty rate for black Memphians was 60 percent. Today the poverty rate for black children is nearly 50 percent.

Memphis is not unique. The racial disparities in this city are the same as in cities across the nation.

But we dishonor King’s dream to suggest that anything other than “a radical redistribution of economic power,” as King said, can bridge the racial and economic divide created and maintained by systemic racism and flawed public policy.

I intend no shade toward any NBA team. The Grizzlies are good, generous members of our community; Memphis is one of two teams with two nominees (Zach Randolph and Mike Conley) for this year’s NBA Cares Community Assist Award.

What the team does, and does exceptionally well, is bring under one roof a racially diverse group of people with a shared interest for about three hours, 40-plus times a season.

Those hours can be electric.

Even yelling, “Whoop that trick!” — which I’d otherwise be far too bourgie to chant — is exhilarating. When we win and those blue-and-yellow streamers drop from the rafters, it does feel magical.

But if you look closely, the magic starts to fade.

At one of this season’s last home games, a group photo of the forum’s ushers appeared on the big screen. All but a few of the faces were black. Walk around the concourse and see who is selling barbecue nachos and overpriced beers. Virtually no white faces.

“If a city has a 30 percent Negro population, then it is logical to assume that Negroes should have at least 30 percent of the jobs in any particular company, and jobs in all categories rather than only in menial areas,” King said.

During timeouts at the last few games I’ve attended, I took an unscientific poll of sideline seats. The fans aren’t representative of Memphis or even the region.

Take the courtside seats for the April 22 playoff game vs. the Spurs. Of the 50 seats I could see from where I sat, about 16 percent were occupied by people of color. In the section next to me, 21 percent of the fans were black. In my section, 24 percent of the fans were black, including me and my dad.

If the Grizzlies games looked like the city of Memphis, two-thirds of the fans would be black. If you expand that to the nine-county metro area, you’d still have more black people than white people.

But the city’s racial diversity isn’t reflected in the high-dollar seats — or in any other space occupied by power brokers. Memphis isn’t unique; all urban areas are the same.

According to the National Urban League’s 2017 State of Black America report, black families in Memphis earn an average of $32,000 less per year than white families. The income gap — $34,562 to $66,225 — means that black families have less disposable income to spend on extras like sporting events.

“Integration without economic equality was not enough,” wrote Joan Turner Beifuss in At The River I Stand, the definitive biography of the sanitation strike. “Economic equality was what Memphis was all about.”

Yes, the crowds at Grizzlies games are more racially mixed than probably any other setting in town. But proximity is not proof of progress, no matter what civic boosters want to believe. In virtually all measures that matter — rates of homeownership, poverty, income, graduation and wealth — black Americans lag behind white Americans. And in some measures, like wealth, the black-white gap is growing.

Had the NBA been creating a racial nirvana, racial attitude polls would reflect that, but they don’t. It’s almost as if blacks and whites live in different worlds. A 2016 national poll showed that while nearly 40 percent of white respondents believe America has done enough to make blacks equal to whites, only 8 percent of blacks said the same.

Black and brown students fill the city’s public schools, and private schools, for the most part, are filled with white students. Memphis East High School, whose boys’ team won this year’s state basketball championship and is coached by NBA great Penny Hardaway, has no white faces. East beat another local team, which also has no white players.

Last summer, more than 1,000 young people, all but a few black, blocked the Interstate 40 bridge over the Mississippi River, stopping traffic for hours. In the crowd were “I Am A Man” signs like those carried by sanitation workers nearly 50 years ago. Others had signs with the 21st-century equivalent: “Black Lives Matter.”

Among the demands presented to the mayor days after the protest: an end to police brutality, restoring voting rights to ex-offenders and erasing black-white economic disparities.

Just this week, the Memphis City Council heard from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was with King when he was killed. If the city doesn’t give black businesses their fair share of city contracts, Jackson said, he’ll be back to march.

The issues that brought King to Memphis in 1968 and propelled young people onto the bridge in 2016 are problems that neither the Grizzlies nor yellow growl towels can solve. And we shouldn’t expect them to.

Wendi C. Thomas is a 2016 Harvard Nieman fellow, a senior writing fellow for the Center for Community Change and a freelance journalist. In April, she launched MLK50, an online storytelling project about economic inequality in Memphis. She hopes Dr. King would be proud. On Twitter: @wendi_c_thomas