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The NBA Strike and the Limits of the Left’s Class-Centric Politics

The millionaire players’ anti-racist protest shows how race and class are intertwined for Black Americans.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Reeling from the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last weekend and the violent unrest that followed, the Milwaukee Bucks opted not to take the court for their playoff game against the Orlando Magic on Wednesday. The decision set off a cascade of similar postponements throughout the NBA and across the sporting world. After a day and a half of tense negotiations that briefly jeopardized the NBA postseason, the league and its players association announced a deal to resume the playoffs on Saturday and establish a social justice coalition. The coalition, which will include players, governors, and coaches, will promote civic engagement, advance criminal justice reform, and improve voting access (namely, by converting some arenas into polling locations for the November election). 

It’s no secret that Black people are more readily granted a platform in the sports and entertainment industries than elsewhere in American life, which means our most culturally visible figures are those whose wealth and renown would seemingly insulate them from racism’s sharpest arrows. At best, though, success expedites their access to tools for redress. Black athletes occupy a liminal zone uniquely conducive to triangulating between the country’s ruling class and those in its yoke. They’re close enough to the struggle for the pain to penetrate them, and at the same time they’re even more proximal to the power to take action. 

Some of the debates about whether “identity politics” cloud the pursuit of economic justice seem to turn on the lack of a consensus about how class inflects race, and vice versa. But the current mobilization of NBA multimillionaires reflects how race and class are intertwined for Black people in a way that is difficult for non-Black people to understand or imagine—and this perplexity at times hamstrings the left’s ability to build multiracial class solidarity. 

For the Milwaukee Bucks specifically, the experiences of their players cast doubt on the notion that anti-Blackness is reducible to economic causes. In 2018, Bucks guard Sterling Brown was arrested, mocked with racist language, and tased over a parking violation. Three years earlier, former Bucks center John Henson was racially profiled at a Wisconsin jeweler; audio of the 911 call reveals that employees described calls placed by Henson and his friends as “suspicious” and said “that they didn’t sound like they were legitimate customers.” The concept of identity politics is often skewered as tribalist reductionism, and admittedly, the slack-jawed census-taking that sometimes passes for identity politics is a poor substitute for vigorous engagement with the quality of ideas. But it is just as often the case that the knee-jerk denial of substantive intragroup difference—which is often shaped by identity—undermines the potential for change.   

Through one lens, the Milwaukee Bucks and the other NBA teams that followed their lead are righteous class traitors; they wittingly risked massive earnings and destabilized their livelihood in the hope of improving the welfare of Black people as a whole, including those who are several tax brackets removed from them. The Bucks players in some respects have more in common with the people who own NBA teams than someone like Jacob Blake, but the players have spoken passionately and persuasively about their identification with Blake and others like him. NBA team owners probably don’t have a symmetrical identification with ordinary working white people. The solidarity that drove NBA players to strike is thus about caste rather than class. For the most part, when Black people mention their “community,” they don’t mean only those who physically reside within a given zip code. The Black community includes all those who share a social and political predicament that wealth and access can offset but never definitively solve. 

There’s a popular misconception that the NBA primarily consists of players who hail from challenging backgrounds. The current crop of stars largely skews suburban, and the league is also increasingly international. It’s telling, then, that anti-racist consciousness permeates the NBA, even as it relies less upon decapitalized neighborhoods as a pipeline. Black people of varying class levels mostly recognize that their destinies remain entangled with the fate of Black people as a group regardless of how much or how little money they make. Economic status may fluctuate, but the subordination and vulnerability to state violence that come with being Black is something most Black people expect to contend with from cradle to grave. That’s why, when it comes to incorporating Black people into leftist coalitions, any appeal to class identity that does not encompass this nuance is unlikely to resonate with a critical mass of us.  

It might seem intuitive that the most privileged representatives of a minority group would take it upon themselves to amplify the plight of their community’s less fortunate members. As some critics of the NBA strike see it, though, you can’t take exception to anti-Black racism if you’ve exceeded some imaginary economic threshold. “NBA players are very fortunate that they have the financial position where they’re able to take a night off work without having to have the consequences to themselves financially,” White House senior adviser Jared Kushner said on CNBC Thursday. 

This quote illustrates why class affinities aren’t easily transposed across the color line. A beneficiary of fortuitous birth, Kushner frames NBA players as pouting malcontents too pampered to recognize the triviality of their hardships. But just because Kushner and NBA players both gained entry to the power elite doesn’t mean they paid the same admission price. Nor does it mean that Kushner and Black athletes are equally likely to sustain that status. He miscasts the platform ballers enjoy as a function of luck rather than a grueling and improbable ascendance to the apex of their field, in a league that employs only the best 450 players alive. 

Kushner’s remark is an implicit, unintended admission that it’s rare for Black Americans to have the privilege to strike from work for a moral cause. And he seems to be suggesting that, in their rare wealth, NBA players are somehow less authentic representatives of the struggle against racial inequality. But the question of any given African American’s authenticity or “realness”—and by extension, their role in class struggle—ultimately comes down to their ties to the auction block. In Toni Morrison’s essay “The Site of Memory,” she traces her own literary lineage as a fiction writer back to some of the earliest published African American nonfiction, which largely consisted of the narratives of formerly enslaved people:

Whatever the style and circumstances of these narratives, they were written to say principally two things. One: “This is my historical life—my singular, special example that is personal, but also represents the race.” Two: “I write this text to persuade other people—you, the reader, who is probably not Black—that we are human beings worthy of God’s grace and the immediate abandonment of slavery.”

Black professional athletes today inherit essentially the same rhetorical position as the voices in these narratives. They may not share the precise condition of the majority of Black people, but they are intimately acquainted with it, and, unlike the Black masses, they are positioned to denounce the iniquity of that condition in surround sound. Likewise, slave-narrative authors like Olaudah Equiano and Harriet Jacobs had at their time of writing already escaped enslavement. They chronicled and channeled the moral authority of their experiences in bondage on behalf of those still enslaved. And they did so with the knowledge that their own hard-earned emancipation could be easily reversed.

It’s one of racism’s great travesties that just by virtue of being a Black person in public view, one becomes by default a p.r. agent for an entire race of people. But it is nonetheless a dynamic we have adapted to and leveraged to uplift one another for generations. Blackness is an inherently roomy tent, and that informs our schemas about class. 

NBA team owners, who are overwhelmingly white, are far wealthier than the players who power their business. Team owners boast even more abundant resources to elevate any social issue they see fit. Yet you don’t see them banding together, for instance, to bring awareness to the opioid crisis that has ravaged the white working class. They are far less likely to see themselves as beholden to or sharing common cause with white people who live paycheck to paycheck. The meaning and gravity of class identity varies profoundly according to your place in the racial pecking order. If you’re disadvantaged in terms of race, disparities in class can be less determinative of whom you feel affinity with. Race privilege, on the other hand, effectively frees one to cleave to those of similar means. When these distinctions go unnamed, class becomes something of a floating signifier in mainstream political discourse.