TIME Race

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Nothing Less Than an Assassination

It just adds another body to the body count

Another day, another black man murdered by police.

The problem is that we’re not all on the same page about what we’re outraged over and what changes we want to take place. Police critics will claim this is another example of systemic police racism. Police defenders will claim that this was just one bad apple. We will hear the same calls for more oversight, the same protests that civilians are interfering in matters they couldn’t possibly understand.

African Americans feel like ­Alex in A Clockwork Orange, forced to watch the same news story playing over and over on some hellish loop: “Unarmed Black Man Killed by Police.” We scream, we try to turn away, but we can’t. There’s always another prone body on the screen.

MORE Man Who Filmed South Carolina Police Shooting Speaks Out

Walter Scott’s killing should inspire less debate than other recent incidents because of the video. Watching the officer shoot an unarmed, nonthreatening man eight times makes it difficult to see this as anything less than an assassination. It sheds no new light. It just adds another body to the body count.

But Walter Scott does not have to be just another tragic name. It is up to us to not let his death be trivialized. If watching this video doesn’t convince holdouts that racism exists, nothing will. Does anyone ­really think the officer would have shot Scott if he were white? Racism deniers are like climate-change deniers, letting their hopes blind them to the harsh reality of facts and statistics and blood.

Scott’s death illustrates the need to push harder for the police reforms that are already in the works: more training, more intense oversight by civilians, body cameras and a zero-tolerance policy toward police officers who let their personal biases influence their actions. We need to be as relentless as the racism we’re fighting.

Read next: What to Know About the South Carolina Cop Accused of Murdering Walter Scott

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TIME Religion

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Indiana Is on the Wrong Side of History

Demonstrators gathered at the Indiana State Capital to protest the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indianapolis on March 28, 2015.
Nate Chute—Reuters Demonstrators gathered at the Indiana State Capital to protest the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indianapolis on March 28, 2015.

TIME columnist Abdul-Jabbar is a six-time NBA champion and league Most Valuable Player. He is also a celebrated author, filmmaker and education ambassador.

The state took a step toward establishing an American version of Sharia law

In the 1987 movie Moonstruck, Nicolas Cage plays a contentious man who, when confronted with his unreasonable and unjust behavior, shouts in defense, “I ain’t no freakin’ monument to justice!” That line echoes in my head when I think about Indiana’s hypocritical and anti-American Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). At its core, rather than being a monument to justice, RFRA is a step toward establishing an American version of Shari’a law.

I know that sounds hyperbolic, in the tradition of, “If Obama is re-elected, the terrorists have won” or “If the pipeline isn’t approved, you’re Nazis because Hitler once nixed a pipeline.” However, in this case, the comparison is not so crazy. Shari’a law, when imposed on a population by force, makes a single religion’s teachings (often a single sect of that religion’s teachings) the law of the land. The mission is to force everyone to follow the teachings lest they be punished. Although RFRA supporters aren’t physically assaulting people, they certainly are attempting to punish those who don’t follow their own very specific interpretation of God’s teachings.

MORE Indiana Governor Urges Clarification of Controversial Religious Freedom Law

The U.S. Constitution is one of the greatest documents ever written because it has a clearly articulated mission of creating a country in which all people are given equal opportunity and equal protection in order to seek those opportunities. Simple, but sublime. One major component to the spirit of the Constitution is that we don’t promote any single religion above any other. To favor any religious teaching just based on popularity contradicts the spirit of the mission of the Constitution and is as direct an attack on the principles of this country as was the firing on Fort Sumter.

Indiana’s RFRA is also unfairly tarnishing the image of Christians. Christians have been at the forefront of fighting for equality since this country was founded. They were on the front lines of abolition, the Civil Rights movement, and in expanding LGBT rights. They risked their careers, families, and lives. Refusing service isn’t an expression of Christian love, but an example of shaming. Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount is a revocation of some of the harsher judgments of the Old Testament (“an eye for an eye”) in order to embrace all people as fellow travelers on the path to salvation. While most Christians want to help people along that path, Indiana’s RFRA supporters want to set up road blocks.

Indiana is roughly 80% Christian, so whom exactly is this law protecting? What religion is being “restored”? Practitioners of Christianity in Indiana are not in jeopardy of losing their right to worship or practice their faith. That means the only reason to pass such a law is to allow people to extend the practice of their faith to include discriminating against those who don’t share their values. That’s the kind of thinking that drove Christians out of Europe to found this country.

Some question why all the attention is suddenly on Indiana when 19 other states and the federal government have passed similar laws. Here’s why: (1) RFRA is similar to the other laws but has two fundamental differences. Indiana’s law allows for-profit businesses the same right as an individual or church to use this law to discriminate. And it protects the for-profit business from a private lawsuit claiming discrimination. (2) Just because someone else gets away with committing a bad act doesn’t mean we don’t punish the next person we catch. (3) The law is clearly a pouty response to gay marriage in the state; it’s an attempt to tell government not to interfere in private moral choices by passing a law that interferes in private moral choices. (4) It’s also clearly a thumbed-nose toward the cultural awakening taking place across the country in support of LGBT equality.

Finally, the main reason the bill’s supporters deserve this wrath is because they passed RFRA as a cynical political ploy to appease Indiana conservatives. Scrambling Indiana politicians suddenly protest that the law’s intention is not to discriminate. In fact, that’s its only reason to exist. Even if no one actually uses the law, it’s still a loaded weapon with one intended victim: Anyone Who Isn’t Us.

The politicians thought it would cost them nothing and gain them voter appreciation. Fortunately, it is costing them much more than they imagined. Angie’s List, Salesforce, the state of Connecticut, the cities of San Francisco and Seattle, and others are threatening to cancel buildings, conventions, and other business enterprises in Indiana. Also, the NBA and NCAA are debating how to express their outrage. Charles Barkley rightly called for the NCAA Final Four tournament to be held elsewhere.

People of all religions and races and ethnic backgrounds should join together to condemn this law and boycott the state because whenever we allow any discrimination, we make it possible for the infection to spread.

Maybe as a result of this economic pressure, Indiana lawmakers, like Nic Cage’s character, will proclaim, “You ruined my life!” To which we respond with the same words as Cher’s character: “That’s impossible! It was ruined when I got here!”

Read next: Indianapolis Star Urges Governor to ‘Fix’ Religious Freedom Law

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Race

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Starbucks’ Flawed But Wonderful Plan to Tackle Race

The Starbucks Corp. logo sits on cardboard coffee cups inside a Starbucks Corp. shop in London on June 9, 2014.
Bloomberg/Getty Images The Starbucks Corp. logo sits on cardboard coffee cups inside a Starbucks Corp. shop in London on June 9, 2014.

TIME columnist Abdul-Jabbar is a six-time NBA champion and league Most Valuable Player. He is also a celebrated author, filmmaker and education ambassador.

I'm in shock and awe — in awe that the company is trying it, shocked they think it will work

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s bold decision to encourage his baristas to discuss race relations with willing customers has filled me with shock and awe. I’m in awe of his courageous and good-hearted attempt to do something to bring about better awareness of racism. I’m in awe that he’s willing to put morality above profits. I’m in awe that he’s willing to endure the snarky ridicule and lame coffee jokes from pundits as well as the inevitable death threats from clueless trolls. All with nothing personally or corporately to gain — and a lot to lose.

But while in awe of his chutzpah, I’m also in shock that he thinks this will actually work.

It’s abundantly clear that there’s a racial perception problem in America. Despite the killings of unarmed African Americans, despite the evisceration of the Voting Rights Act, despite Oklahoma frat boys singing about lynching blacks, the majority of white Americans don’t think racism is still a significant problem. A study by Harvard University professor Michael I. Norton found that only 16% of whites agree that there is “a lot” of discrimination in the U.S., compared with 56% of blacks.

This isn’t the fault of whites. If you’re not a racist or someone who experiences racism, the issue is not on your radar. The good news is that throughout history Americans have proved to be willing to change their minds when presented with enough evidence. On issues from abolishing slavery to extending the vote to women, public opinion is an evolving organism. In 1996, only 27% of Americans approved of gay marriage; in 2014, 55% approved. Eventually, gay marriage will be legal in every state, just as eventually racism will be nothing more than a quaint what-were-they-thinking historical curiosity, like witch trials or The Millionaire Matchmaker.

For that to happen, we do need to take action now. We need to bring awareness of systemic, institutional racism to those people who are unaware. We have to change minds because, as George Bernard Shaw said, “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” Changing minds is Starbucks’ noble goal.

The problem with Schultz’s Race Together program is that he’s picked the wrong venue with the wrong audience using the wrong spokespersons. Most of the customers at Starbucks probably don’t want to have their political awareness challenged by the person foaming their coffee. Minds are more likely to be changed by someone with some form of expertise in the subject, which baristas generally don’t have. Those who do wish to engage in a conversation about something as volatile as race are not open to change. They are either already in the choir of believers in equality or are racists looking for an audience. Either way, no change will result from the exchange. In fact, I worry that such conversations could quickly escalate to violence.

I admire Schultz’s courage and applaud his initiative in wanting to take action. It’s frustrating for all people of conscience — or just consciousness — to watch leaders in politics and the media deny the facts about racism in order to grovel for votes or ratings from the most profoundly and proudly prejudiced segment of society. For these “leaders,” money and power trump social responsibility. They wish to flatter their way to power through the cheerleading chant of American exceptionalism. Oklahoma, Colorado, Texas, Georgia, Nebraska, Tennessee and several other states are removing or trying to remove advanced placement exams because they teach actual historical events and not the sanitized-for-your-protection Hallmark version they want. My pride in America isn’t based on the arrogant presumption that we’re better than everyone else, but on the fact that we have a vision of a fair and just country, and we never give up trying to make that vision a reality. We may stumble or falter or lose our way on occasion, but we always get back up and push ahead. It’s no wonder that Schultz wants to bring the conversation about race to the coffee shop when certain politicians are trying to remove it from the classroom, where it belongs.

Schultz is right in understanding that we can’t depend on our leaders to eradicate racism. He sees ending racism as a grassroots campaign that starts with the people and swells until it forces politicians to act like leaders. To achieve this, we need to educate the target audience of those who are open-minded enough to be persuaded by facts. Then we need to keep presenting those facts over and over until awareness is finally achieved. That’s when there will be progress.

Even though Howard Schultz’s idea may be flawed, he’s acting out of the desire to help realize the vision of America — to save it from its own worst impulses. He’s like the highly moral character of Starbuck in Moby Dick, trying to stop the blasphemous actions of Ahab. As another character warns, “You’re in dangerous waters, Mr. Starbuck! Come on over; come about.”

Don’t stop trying, Mr. Starbuck.

Read next: Report: Black Americans Are 72% Equal to Whites

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Race

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Who Will Lead Black Americans?

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke in front of 25,000 civil rights marchers at the conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery march in front of Alabama state capital building on March 25, 1965 in Montgomery, Ala.
Stephen F. Somerstein—Getty Images Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke in front of 25,000 civil rights marchers at the conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery march in front of Alabama state capital building on March 25, 1965 in Montgomery, Ala.

TIME columnist Abdul-Jabbar is a six-time NBA champion and league Most Valuable Player. He is also a celebrated author, filmmaker and education ambassador.

Where is today's MLK? Black Americans don't need a single leader—we need many

It’s either a sad irony or a fitting tribute that the end of Black History Month dribbles right into March Madness. No sooner do we finish celebrating significant African-American contributions to American culture than we get to see some of our finest young black competitors perform amazing feats of athleticism. Seems like even more cause for celebration. Except that a 2012 University of Pennsylvania study concluded that 64% of basketball players in the six top teams in American college conferences are black, though only 3% of the entire student bodies are black.

Are colleges exploiting young, black athletes when they’re good for their sports franchises, and ignoring their educational needs otherwise? It certainly looks that way, by the numbers. But who’s manning the watch for African Americans? When it comes to education, when it comes to employment opportunities, when it comes to systemic civil rights violations by police departments like those uncovered this week by the Department of Justice report on Ferguson, Mo., who is willing to take on this intense and often contentious responsibility?

This weekend our nation will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery voting rights march known as “Bloody Sunday.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is on our minds, and for many people so is one burning question: Where is today’s Dr. King? I’d argue it’s the wrong question. In the act of canonizing Dr. King, we’re forgotten that no movement is ever advanced by one voice alone. This country wasn’t founded by a single person, but a group of visionaries who didn’t always share the same vision. Dr. King’s voice was lifted by many others — Malcolm X, Bobby Seale, Angela Davis — who may have marched to a different drummer but marched in the same direction.

Bringing about change requires, as Liam Neeson might say, “a very particular set of skills.” Leaders have to notice subtle shifts in the political landscape that threaten the rights and standing of blacks in society. They have to analyze complex information and question even more complex motivations. They have to be socially responsible in not attributing every societal stumble to racism. They have to have a clear and articulate voice in explaining when injustice occurs, and they must have the courage to tell the world — even when the world doesn’t want to hear it. Finally, they must be able to offer practical solutions to specific problems and have the drive and charisma to inspire people to participate in those solutions.

Who are the leaders in the African-American community willing to bring all aspects of injustice to the public’s attention, especially when the public doesn’t want to hear it? The black community has many brave and dedicated leaders, so no simple list will do them all justice. Some leaders operate on a very local level. Even though they help many in need, they will not be recognized as a national leader. The best I can do is mention those who have become a public face and voice for many African-Americans. At the same time, it’s important to understand that the 43 million members of the black community are not a single voice. Like every other ethnic group, they have a broad spectrum of political, religious, and social beliefs. However, they do have a nearly unanimous voice when it comes to believing that there are institutional injustices aimed at them as a group.

A 2013 poll commissioned by BET founder Robert L. Johnson asked a sample of the black community whom they considered to be their leaders. President Obama was the clear winner here with 91% approval. The question of leadership was trickier when asking who spoke for them most often. Surprisingly, when given a list of seven of the most prominent black leaders and asked, “Which of the following speaks for you most often?,” 40% said “none of the above.” Some may find this discouraging because it indicates a lack of unity, but I find it an encouraging sign that the African-American community is not quick to let others speak for them in a one-spokesperson-fits-all manner. Instead of blindly following a political figurehead, they look at each issue, weigh what individuals are saying, then choose sides.

In that Robert L. Johnson poll, the Reverend Al Sharpton received the most votes of any individual, with 24% saying he spoke for them most often. He was followed by the Reverend Jesse Jackson (11%), Congresswoman Maxine Waters (9%), NAACP president Benjamin Jealous (8%), Congressman James E. Clyburn (5%), and former Chairman of the Republican National Committee Michael Steele (2%).

Clearly, the men and women in the BET poll are all significant leaders in the black community. They have continually raised their voices, even when others would shout them down. They have sacrificed, endured, and persevered. But there are a few more whom I’d like to mention — some obvious, some not. This is a kind of All-Star roster of Old School warriors and up-and-coming rookies. In no particular order, here are some additional leaders who have, as the Bible says, “fought the good fight” and “kept the faith.”

  • Cory Booker. The first black U.S. Senator from New Jersey is a contender to be the next black president. He’s a straight-talker about the problems we face and an articulate and reasoned spokesperson against all forms of bias. One of his priorities is to find ways to encourage economic growth for a fairer distribution of wealth.
  • Eric Holder. The outgoing U.S. Attorney General has been an outspoken champion of equal justice for all Americans since he was a student activist in the 1970s. Not content to go gentle into that good night, Holder is leaving office still fighting against the discriminatory death penalty and other forms of injustice.
  • Kevin Johnson. The first black mayor of Sacramento is not yet a national name in politics, though he is as a former NBA All-Star. But his focus on educational matters makes him invaluable in improving economic opportunities for black children.
  • Keith Ellison. As the first Muslim elected to Congress, Ellison could have coasted as a symbol of diversity rather than as a fighter on behalf of tolerance for all people. He is an outspoken proponent of a woman’s right to choose, LGBT rights, and international human rights.
  • John Lewis. One of the original leaders of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, Lewis has spent the last 28 years in Congress trying to keep the U.S. out of wars while supporting legislation to fight poverty and promote national health insurance.
  • Oprah Winfrey. Some might dismiss her as a pop-culture phenomenon, but that would be wrong. Through the sheer force of her personality and intelligence, Oprah has done much to dispel stereotypes about African Americans, African-American women, and women in general. She has promoted literacy, gay rights, spiritual introspection, and social responsibility.
  • Phillip Agnew. As head of Dream Defenders, an organization dedicated to realizing Dr. King’s “dream” for America, he is one of the young activists fighting racial violence, advocating more educational opportunities, and ending inequities in the prison system.
  • Brittany Packnett. It would be enough to be a top official with Teach for America, the non-profit organization that is working to eliminate inequality in education. But Packnett was also a major organizer of the Ferguson protests and has since been selected as a member of the Ferguson Commission, which is charged with investigating racial and economic inequality in the St. Louis area.
  • bell hooks. Educators and social critics like hooks articulate the issues and see connections that are necessary to forge lasting solutions. Her writing on the interrelations of race, capitalism, and gender and how it is expressed in our cultural institutions helps us understand that fighting injustice requires seeing a bigger picture.
  • Cornel West. Like hooks, West is an educator whose work focuses on race, class, and gender and why we must address all of them together in order to affect meaningful change. More than an academic, he has often been on the front lines of protests across the country.
  • Harry Belafonte. As an internationally renowned singer, he has traveled all over the world to perform for enthusiastic audiences. As a humanitarian, he has traveled all over the world to help the downtrodden and to fight injustice. A couple years ago he gave the keynote speech at the NAACP Image Awards show and had us all battering our hands in applause for his rousing call to political action. At 88, he’s still an energetic and unapologetic voice for equality. He is a reminder that activism is a lifelong commitment.

This list is incomplete. It will always be incomplete, because new voices arise daily. As you’re reading this, please imagine me at home berating myself for the names I inadvertently left off the list and know that I am feverishly scribbling down additional names. At the same time, there’s something inspiring about knowing there are so many dedicated, selfless, and brave leaders that I can’t fit them all into a single article.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Race

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: The Exploitation of Beyonce for Political Agendas

Whether she’s being defended or criticized, she’s often treated as a symbol in service of a sinister agenda

Every year during awards season — which seems to last longer than the NBA season and have more flagrant fouls — outrage is expressed over those who are snubbed. In typical shoot-from-the-lip fashion, Kanye West on Sunday night denounced Beck winning the Album of the Year instead of Beyonce. “I just know that the Grammys, if they want real artists to keep coming back, they need to stop playing with us,” he threatened. “We ain’t gonna play with them no more. And Beck needs to respect artistry and he should’ve given his award to Beyonce.”

There are several obvious things wrong with that outburst, including that it’s an insult to Beyonce as an artist and as a woman. But, more important, it once again highlights the monumental significance of Beyonce as a cultural icon that goes beyond her music. When we look more closely, we can see that whether she’s being defended or criticized, she’s often treated as a symbol in service of a sinister agenda.

Let’s start with Kanye’s misguided comments.

Beyonce has won 20 Grammys and, with 52 nominations, is the third-most-nominated woman in history. Beck has 5 Grammys out of 16 nominations. In 2009, The Observer crowned her the Artist of the Decade, while Billboard named her the Top Female Artist and Top Radio Songs Artist of the Decade. Since then she’s won a mansion full of awards and has sold more than 118 million records worldwide. Her artistry has been acknowledged.

West also said, “And we as musicians have to inspire people who go to work every day, and they listen to that Beyonce album and they feel like it takes them to another place.” Given the length, critical acclaim, and success of his career, Beck has inspired people, too. So, West isn’t really talking about inspiration, he’s talking sales, equating popularity with artistry, which no one past 15 years old would do. Beyonce’s nominated album sold 1.3 million copies in the first 17 days of release. Beck’s winning album, Morning Phase, was the lowest selling Album of the Year nominee, with 301,000. If the Grammys weren’t rewarding artistry, what were they rewarding? Floppy hair?

But there is an underlying social issue at play here that West stumbled upon.

When West warns the Grammy people to “stop playing with us,” one can’t help but wonder if West’s use of the words “us” and “artistry” is code for “black artistry.” Especially considering his onstage rant at the 2009 MTV Music Awards when he grabbed the microphone from Taylor Swift, who’d just won for Best Female Video, and whined: “I’m sorry, but Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time.” Was his protest over Beyonce’s loss (FYI, Beyonce had 9 nominations and 3 wins that year) or the fact that an icon of white, virginal romance won over an icon of black, sexually charged dance?

It does a disservice to the very real struggle for racial equality to cry racism at every disappointment. Even if West didn’t set out to imply racism, his actions and language sent that message, which he should be savvy enough to realize. This is a distraction from the legitimate entrenched targets that need to be forcefully addressed. Some are obvious (as with the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner) and some are subtle (as with the movement to require voter IDs as a means to discourage minority voters). These are very real daily threats to our lives and futures and Americans need to be relentless is spotting and eradicating injustice based on any bias, whether it be race, gender, age, religion, or sexual orientation.

Although West was wrong about the Grammy bias, Beyonce has indeed been the target of finger-wagging and shame-naming recently — from both Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee and Fox pundit Bill O’Reilly, who have repeatedly criticized her as a poor role model because of the sexual content of her songs and performances. They’ve hauled out the statistic that 72% of black children are born out of wedlock (versus 29% for whites and 53% for Latinos). The problem with putting those two things together is that they’ve presented a basic logical fallacy: they offer no proof of any cause and effect. How does watching Beyonce, a married woman and mother — who sings to guys, “If you liked it then you should have put a ring on it” — inspire tweens and teens to rush out into unprotected pre-marital sex? Or are they just pandering to white Middle American stereotypes in order to win votes or ratings?

Jon Stewart pointed out the hypocrisy of this statement from Huckabee when he showed a tape on The Daily Show of Huckabee playing bass guitar for Ted Nugent while Nugent salaciously sang, “Well, I make the p—y purr with the stroke of my hand/They know they getting’ it from me.” Huckabee didn’t claim he was just being a PETA enthusiast, but acknowledged the sexual content, defending his participation by claiming his show was for adults. If we follow his “logic” about Beyonce, this song will make teen boys take to the streets in frenzied determination to impregnate any girl they find.

Like Kanye West, Huckabee and O’Reilly want to suggest connections that aren’t there. It’s even more insidious in Huckabee and O’Reilly’s case because their accusations blame the victims while ignoring the real cause: poverty. Poverty reduces the chance for a meaningful education that will elevate the poor out of poverty. Poverty reduces job opportunities for those not able to seek higher education. Poverty creates a fertile ground for drug use. Poverty makes black men more likely to be arrested for doing the same crime as a white member of the middle class. Poverty makes people desperate and makes them feel unworthy of love, which is more likely to cause an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. This poverty is part of the institutional racism that breaks apart families and communities. Not Beyonce dancing and singing. But poverty is a more complex issue, and it makes for better TV to show photos of scantily dressed Beyonce to keep their audience’s interest.

“The white imagination is sure something when it comes to blacks,” said Josephine Baker. Baker was an ex-pat performer whose sensual dances were both artistic and a parody of whites’ fantasy perceptions of black women’s overt “jungle” sexuality. In Paris, where she rose to fame, she was praised by Langston Hughes, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, and Christian Dior. When she returned to America to duplicate her success abroad, she was disappointed when the large audiences failed to appear and one critic dismissed her as a “Negro wench.”

Today, we have that same paternalistic attitude of old white men claiming they know what’s best for young black women. Ironically, Kanye West has a lot in common with Huckabee and O’Reilly. In defending Beyonce, he, too, acted in a paternalistic way, as if he were some noble knight riding in to protect a damsel in distress. Beyonce, who is a much more powerful force in the music business than West, has proven she is fully capable of speaking for herself. Women in general, and Beyonce in particular, don’t need any of them (or me, for that matter) to defend their honor.

Bottom line: West’s comments defending Beyonce were a little racist because he implied that a black artist was being ignored in favor of a white non-artist. Huckabee and O’Reilly’s criticism of Beyonce were also a little racist because they implied that sensual entertainment results in unwed pregnancies. So, while all three were a little racist and all three were very sexist, all three were attempting to censor free expression. That’s the trifecta of discrimination and repression.

Read next: This May Have Been the Best Year For Women Since the Dawn of Time

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TIME Sexual Assault

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Colleges Need to Stop Protecting Sexual Predators

Yes Means Yes Sexual Assault Rape
Getty Images

TIME columnist Abdul-Jabbar is a six-time NBA champion and league Most Valuable Player. He is also a celebrated author, filmmaker and education ambassador.

We need to reexamine the culture on campus—especially among student athletes

Imagine a neighborhood where dozens of women were violently assaulted on a continuing basis. And that the local police chose not to bother investigating 40 percent of assault victims’ complaints. Would you continue to live in that neighborhood? Probably not. Especially if you had children.

That dangerous neighborhood actually exists in the United States. It’s called college.

This year American parents will be sending about 12 million of their 18- to 24-year-old daughters to attend colleges and universities. Instead of the ivy-covered walls, Homecoming bonfires, administrative support, and lifelong friendships we’d hoped for them, we’ll be sending many of them toward groping hands, drug-laced drinks, administrative indifference, and lifelong trauma. Witness the conviction this week of two former football players at Vanderbilt University for perpetrating and videotaping the rape of a fellow student.

Go, team.

Fortunately, California has recently enacted legislation that may reduce the number of sexual assaults and make it easier to prosecute offenders. Popularly known as a Yes-Means-Yes law, it obliges those engaging in sexual activity to first give “affirmative consent.” That means they have to specifically say “yes” before any sexual contact. This is an improvement over the previous No-Means-No protocol, because sexual aggressors could claim a woman didn’t say no to their advances, even though the woman might have been incapacitated through drink, drugs (whether self-administered or given to her without her knowledge), or fear of violent behavior from the male. Apparently, some males believe that being passed out is a woman’s coy form of consent. New York’s governor is now pushing for a similar law in that state. Comparable laws are being considered by legislatures around the country.

Such legislation is especially necessary in light of the widespread negligence of our colleges and universities when it comes to thoroughly investigating claims of sexual assault and educating students about consent. When it comes to both those necessities, college administrators today receive an F-minus. And those administrators and campus security personnel who neglected their duties to launch sincere investigations of sexual assault claims should be, at the very least, fired from their jobs and at most sued for or charged with criminal negligence.

Maybe that sounds harsh, but they’ve been entrusted with not just our children, but the future success of our society. Their negligence is the result not of ignorance but of greed: protecting their brand so they can lure more unsuspecting students, grants, and alumni donations. How is this any different than some primitive tribe sacrificing their children to the gods in hope of a better harvest? Worse, how is this any different from the behavior of sexual predators?

The danger is magnified by the widespread college policy of allowing students accused of sexual assault to simply withdraw from college before their disciplinary hearings and transfer to another school, with no specific record on their transcripts that they might be a threat. Though there are many such cases known, the most egregious involves Jesse Matthew, Jr., who has been charged with the murder of University of Virginia student Hannah Graham. He has now also been charged with the abduction and murder of a Virginia Tech student. He had been accused two times previously of sexual assault at colleges; he was able to leave one school to enroll in another. It’s a severe case of Not My Problem, which has already killed more people in this country than Ebola.

What makes this situation even worse is that these colleges aren’t just ignoring the problem, but by doing so they are encouraging the problem to grow. As institutions of learning, our colleges and universities aren’t charged with just teaching the nuances of mathematical equations and the uses of metaphor in poetry, they are supposed to be teaching social values, if not directly then by their own behavior. Any tolerance of sexual assault teaches those students that women are somehow less deserving of protection than men in society, that sexual aggression by men is perfectly okay, and that even if we huff and puff about how it isn’t okay (wink, wink), nothing much will be done about it. It’s not enough to provide panic buttons around campus or train female students how to be alert to predators, we must attack the bros-before-hos mentality as not cool or high-five worthy.

As a former college athlete, I’m especially aware of the culture of entitlement that some athletes feel as they strut around campus with the belief that they can do no wrong. This ridiculous notion certainly has contributed to the alarming statistics concerning athletes and rape. A 1995 review of reported sexual assault cases at schools with Division I sports programs found that although male student-athletes made up only 3.3% of the campus population at these schools, they accounted for 19% of sexual assault perpetrators and 35% of domestic violence perpetrators. Related research has also found that athletes are far less likely to be convicted of sexual assault than members of the general public. These statistics should be shocking, but sadly they probably aren’t to most people.

A major contributing factor to athletes becoming sexual predators is our culture’s need to elevate them to heroic status. Yes, they deserve praise for their accomplishments, but throwing a football or dunking a basketball shouldn’t make anyone a hero. Being a hero comes from commitment to community, sacrificing selfish gain for the betterment of others, fighting for a just cause. Athletes can become heroes for doing these things, but not just for putting points on a scoreboard. We can honor their accomplishments without making them privileged.

Schools can and should play a part in changing male behavior, but this process must start in other areas such as the home and in the media, because these are where our children learn about gender identities. Where do guys get the idea that it’s okay to pursue sex even when the woman isn’t interested? They get the idea from testosterone thrumming through their brains, but they get the entitlement from subtle social cues. Having a biological impulse is not a license. Every time we tolerate the unironic use of the word “bitch,” we’re encouraging this view of women as inferior. Every time we tolerate phrases like “don’t be such a girl” as a putdown, we’re promoting the woman as prey. Every time we see a movie or TV show in which a woman tells the man she hates him and then he forces a kiss on her, which she at first resists then melts into, we’re advocating sexual assault as being “romantic.”

Legislating romance is a tricky business. And California’s bill is not without some word-definition problems. But it’s a giant leap for humankind in doing what our colleges have failed in doing, protecting students. Some opponents complain that stopping to say “Yes, I want to have sex with you” will somehow kill the mood. Do they really think that two college students who are about to have sex will be deterred by having to articulate their desire? Will they suddenly stop undressing and say, “You know, now that I’ve said it aloud, I’m no longer in the mood”? But even if that did happen, so what? If giving verbal consent is the dealbreaker here, then maybe there shouldn’t be a “deal” in the first place.

With roughly 57% of college students being female, it’s time that other states enacted legislation similar to California’s, not just to protect women, but also to promote the ideals of equality that these schools teach in the classrooms but don’t enforce on the campuses.

A few years ago, I saw a 60 Minutes interview with singer Mary J. Blige in which she described her own sexual molestation at age five as well as the brutal violence men in her neighborhood committed against women. “Men just seemed like they didn’t have any mercy,” she said. Of course, she didn’t mean all men; she was commenting on a child’s view of the world through observing ceaseless assaults. That phrase has resonated with me. I don’t want one more child to see the world that way. Legislation won’t solve the problem, but it’s step. A step toward mercy.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Race

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Why I Have Mixed Feelings About MLK Day

Martin Luther King Jr.
Julian Wasser—The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking.

TIME columnist Abdul-Jabbar is a six-time NBA champion and league Most Valuable Player. He is also a celebrated author, filmmaker and education ambassador.

His legacy may be most in danger from those who admire him

I have mixed emotions about Martin Luther King Jr. Day. For me, it’s a time of hopeful celebration — but also of cautionary vigilance. I celebrate an extraordinary man of courage and conviction and his remarkable achievements and hope that I can behave in a manner that honors his sacrifices. And while Dr. King still has his delusional detractors who have a dream of dismissing his impact on history, it’s not them I worry about.

His legacy may be in more danger from those who admire him.

Why? Because it’s tempting to use this day as a cultural canonization of the man through well-meaning speeches rather than as a call to practice his teachings through direct action.

For some, the fact that we have Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a confirmation that the war has been won, that racism has been eliminated. That we have overcome. But we have to look at the civil rights movement the way we look at antibiotics: just because some of the symptoms of racism are clearing up, you don’t stop taking the medicine or else the malady returns even stronger than before. Recent events make clear that the disease of racism is still infecting our culture and that Martin Luther King Jr. Day needs to be a rallying cry to continue fighting the disease rather than just a pat on the back for what’s been accomplished.

History has a tendency to commemorate the very thing it wishes to obfuscate. When you convince people that they’ve won, they lose some of their fire over injustice, their passion to challenge the status quo. In Alan Bennett’s brilliant play, The History Boys, one of the teachers explains to his students why a World War I monument to the dead soldiers isn’t really honoring them but rather keeping people from demanding answers as to how Britain unnecessarily contributed to the cause of the war and is therefore responsible for their deaths. By appealing to our emotional sense of loss, the government’s monument distracts people from holding the hidden villains responsible. The teacher says, “And all the mourning has veiled the truth. It’s not lest we forget, but lest we remember. That’s what this [war memorial] is about … Because there’s no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.”

Kareem Abdul Jabbar Martin Luther King Jr Memorial
Courtesy Iconomy, LLCKareem Abdul-Jabbar at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington.

One of the major debates this year has been whether or not racism exists anymore in America. Not surprisingly, polls indicate that most African Americans say, Yes, it does exist, while most white Americans say it doesn’t. Blacks point to disproportionate prosecution and persecution of blacks by authorities, and whites point to President Obama and dozens of laws protecting and promoting minorities.

They are both right. There are plenty of laws and government agencies dedicated to eradicating racism. The U.S. has made it a priority. Affirmative-action programs have created more opportunities for minorities, sometimes at the expense of whites seeking those same opportunities. That should be acknowledged and appreciated.

But suppressing racism is like pressing on a balloon: you flatten one end and it bulges somewhere else. Racism has gone covert. For example, the Republican effort to pass laws demanding IDs to combat voter fraud is itself fraudulent and racist. It is a form of poll tax, which was outlawed by the 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The poll tax was designed to keep blacks from voting, as is the voter ID. It costs money and time away from work, which is too great a burden for the poor, many of whom are minorites. The justification given is to stop voter fraud. However, a recent study concluded that out of 1 billion votes cast, there have been only 31 incidents of voter fraud.

Courtesy Iconomy, LLCKareem Abdul-Jabbar at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington.

The reason whites don’t agree that racism is rampant is because most of them aren’t personally racist and they resent the blanket accusation. In fact, they see themselves as victims of reverse racism. They, too, are right. Dr. King would have acknowledged their pain and fought to alleviate it by reminding us not to confuse institutional racism with the good hearts of our neighbors. The civil rights movement would not have achieved as much as it has without the support and sacrifice of white America.

Dr. King would have been proud to see so many people across America — white and black — joining together to demand accountability in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. He would have praised the millions who marched in France in support of freedom of speech. As he once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

He would have also been disturbed by the violence and rioting that has occurred during these protests. We must remember that Dr. King’s cause was not just equality for all people but achieving that equality through nonviolence. The ends do not justify the means; the means and the ends are the same. Violence insults his legacy. To him, anything won through force is not won at all — it is loss. He wanted equality achieved through love because he wanted to win over his enemies, not defeat them. As he said, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.” His goal was to cleanse the community, not to cleave it.

Martin Luther King Jr. was only 39 years old at the time of his assassination nearly 47 years ago. When he died, those whom he had inspired were there to pick up the banner of the cause and continue marching. “I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land!” he told us. “I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.”

Forty-seven years later, we must continue stepping lively, not in his name but for his cause.

Read next: The Return of the Protest Song

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Religion

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: These Terrorist Attacks Are Not About Religion

A tribute of flowers and candles in the shape of a heart is set up at Place de la Republique in Paris in memory of the victims of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack, on Jan. 7, 2015 in Paris.
David Chour—Demotix/Corbis A tribute of flowers and candles in the shape of a heart is set up at Place de la Republique in Paris in memory of the victims of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack, on Jan. 7, 2015 in Paris.

TIME columnist Abdul-Jabbar is a six-time NBA champion and league Most Valuable Player. He is also a celebrated author, filmmaker and education ambassador.

When the Ku Klux Klan burns a cross in a black family’s yard, Christians aren’t required to explain how these aren’t really Christian acts

Another horrendous act of terrorism has taken place and people like myself who are on media speed-dial under “Celebrity Muslims” are thrust in the spotlight to angrily condemn, disavow, and explain—again—how these barbaric acts are in no way related to Islam.

For me, religion—no matter which one—is ultimately about people wanting to live humble, moral lives that create a harmonious community and promote tolerance and friendship with those outside the religious community. Any religious rules should be in service of this goal. The Islam I learned and practice does just that.

Violence committed in the name of religion is never about religion—it’s ultimately about money. The 1976 movie, All the President’s Men, got it right when it reduced the Daedalus maze of the Watergate scandal to the simple phrase, “Follow the money.” Forget the goons who actually carry out these deadly acts, they are nothing more than automated drones remote-controlled by others. Instead of radio signals, their pilots use selective dogma to manipulate their actions. They pervert the Qur’an through omission and false interpretation.

How is it about money? When one looks at the goal of these terrorist attacks, it’s clearly not about scaring us into changing our behavior. The Twin Tower attacks of 9/11 didn’t frighten America into embracing Islam. The fatwa against Salman Rushdie didn’t prevent the publication of The Satanic Verses. Like all terrorist attacks on the West, they just strengthen our defiant resolve. So the attack in Paris, as with most others, isn’t about changing Western behavior, it’s about swaggering into a room, flexing a muscle, and hoping to elicit some admiring sighs. In this case, the sighs are more recruits and more donations to keep their organization alive. They have to keep proving they are more relevant than their competing terrorist groups. It’s just business.

Nor should we blame America’s foreign policy as the spark that lights the fuse. Poverty, political oppression, systemic corruption, lack of education, lack of critical thinking, and general hopelessness in these countries is the spark. Yes, we’ve made mistakes that will be used to justify recruiting new drones. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves that the recent report detailing our extensive and apparently ineffective use of torture caused any kind of mass terrorist volunteers. The world knew we tortured. The only thing the report revealed was how bad we were at it. More important, if recruits were swayed by logical idealism, they would realize that the fact that we conducted, released, and debated such a report is what makes America admirable. We don’t always do the right thing, but we strive to. We admit our faults and make adjustments. It may be glacial, but it’s movement forward.

Knowing that these terrorist attacks are not about religion, we have to reach a point where we stop bringing Islam into these discussions. I know we aren’t there yet because much of the Western population doesn’t understand the Islamic religion. All they see are brutal beheadings, kidnappings of young girls, bloody massacres of children at schools, and these random shootings. Naturally, they are frightened when they hear the word Muslim or see someone in traditional Muslim clothing. Despite any charitable impulses, they also have to be thinking, “Better safe than sorry”—as they hurry in the opposite direction.

When the Ku Klux Klan burn a cross in a black family’s yard, prominent Christians aren’t required to explain how these aren’t really Christian acts. Most people already realize that the KKK doesn’t represent Christian teachings. That’s what I and other Muslims long for—the day when these terrorists praising the Prophet Muhammad or Allah’s name as they debase their actual teachings are instantly recognized as thugs disguising themselves as Muslims. It’s like bank robbers wearing masks of presidents; we don’t really think Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush hit the Bank of America during their down time.

We can’t end terrorism any more than we can end crime in general. Ironically, terrorism is actually an act against the very religion they claim to believe in. It’s an acknowledgement that the religion and its teachings aren’t enough to convince people to follow it. Any religion that requires coercion is not about the community, but about the leaders wanting power.

I look forward to the day when an act of terrorism by self-proclaimed Muslims will be universally dismissed as nothing more than a criminal attack of a thuggish political organization wearing an ill-fitting Muslim mask. To get to that point, we will need to teach our communities what the real beliefs of Islam are. In the meantime, keep my name on speed-dial so we can get through this together.

Read next: Watch Parisians Vow To Stand Strong Against Terror Threat

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Race

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: The Police Aren’t Under Attack. Institutionalized Racism Is.

Two Cops Shot And Killed Execution Style In Brooklyn
Spencer Platt—Getty Images Women place flowers at a memorial to the two New York Police Department (NYPD) officers that were shot and killed nearby Dec. 21, 2014 in the Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood of the Brooklyn borough of New York City.

TIME columnist Abdul-Jabbar is a six-time NBA champion and league Most Valuable Player. He is also a celebrated author, filmmaker and education ambassador.

The way to honor those who defend our liberties with their lives — as did my father and grandfather — is not to curtail liberty, but to exercise it fully in pursuit of a just and peaceful society

According to Ecclesiastes, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose.” For me, today, that means a time to seek justice and a time to mourn the dead.

And a time to shut the hell up.

The recent brutal murder of two Brooklyn police officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, is a national tragedy that should inspire nationwide mourning. Both my grandfather and father were police officers, so I appreciate what a difficult and dangerous profession law enforcement is. We need to value and celebrate the many officers dedicated to protecting the public and nourishing our justice system. It’s a job most of us don’t have the courage to do.

READ MORE Bernie Kerik: War Is Being Waged on Our Homeland

At the same time, however, we need to understand that their deaths are in no way related to the massive protests against systemic abuses of the justice system as symbolized by the recent deaths—also national tragedies—of Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, and Michael Brown. Ismaaiyl Brinsley, the suicidal killer, wasn’t an impassioned activist expressing political frustration, he was a troubled man who had shot his girlfriend earlier that same day. He even Instagrammed warnings of his violent intentions. None of this is the behavior of a sane man or rational activist. The protests are no more to blame for his actions than The Catcher in the Rye was for the murder of John Lennon or the movie Taxi Driver for the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan. Crazy has its own twisted logic and it is in no way related to the rational cause-and-effect world the rest of us attempt to create.

Those who are trying to connect the murders of the officers with the thousands of articulate and peaceful protestors across America are being deliberately misleading in a cynical and selfish effort to turn public sentiment against the protestors. This is the same strategy used when trying to lump in the violence and looting with the legitimate protestors, who have disavowed that behavior. They hope to misdirect public attention and emotion in order to stop the protests and the progressive changes that have already resulted. Shaming and blaming is a lot easier than addressing legitimate claims.

Some police unions are especially heinous perpetrators. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s previous public support of protestors has created friction with these unions. The Patrolman’s Benevolent Association responded with a petition asking that the mayor not attend the funerals of officers killed in the line of duty. Following the murders of Ramos and Liu, an account appearing to represent the Sergeants Benevolent Association tweeted: “The blood of 2 executed police officers is on the hands of Mayor de Blasio.” Former New York governor George Pataki tweeted: “Sickened by these barbaric acts, which sadly are a predictable outcome of divisive anti-cop rhetoric of #ericholder and #mayordeblasio. #NYPD.”

This phony and logically baffling indignation is similar to that expressed by the St. Louis County Police Association when it demanded an apology from the NFL when several Rams players entered the field with their hands held high in the iconic Michael Brown gesture of surrender. Or when LeBron James and W.R. Allen wore his “I Can’t Breathe” shirts echoing Eric Garner’s final plea before dying. Such outrage by police unions and politicians implies that there is no problem, which is the erroneous perception that the protestors are trying to change.

This shrill cry of “policism” (a form of reverse racism) by Pataki and the police unions is a hollow and false whine born of financial self-interest (unions) or party politics (Republican Pataki besmirching Democrat de Blasio) rather than social justice. These tragic murders now become a bargaining chip in whatever contract negotiations or political aspirations they have.

READ MORE Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz Sounds Off on Racism in America

What prompted a mentally unstable man to shoot two officers? Protestors? The mayor? Or the unjust killings of unarmed black men? Probably none of them. He was a ticking bomb that anything might have set off. What’s most likely to prevent future incidents like this? Stopping the protests which had sparked real and positive changes through a national dialogue? Changes that can only increase faith in and respect for the police? No, because the killer was mentally unfit. Most likely protecting the police from future incidents will come from better mental health care to identify, treat, and monitor violent persons. Where are those impassioned tweets demanding that?

In a Dec. 21, 2014 article about the shooting, the Los Angeles Times referred to the New York City protests as “anti-police marches,” which is grossly inaccurate and illustrates the problem of perception the protestors are battling. The marches are meant to raise awareness of double standards, lack of adequate police candidate screening, and insufficient training that have resulted in unnecessary killings. Police are not under attack, institutionalized racism is. Trying to remove sexually abusive priests is not an attack on Catholicism, nor is removing ineffective teachers an attack on education. Bad apples, bad training, and bad officials who blindly protect them, are the enemy. And any institution worth saving should want to eliminate them, too.

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose.” This is the season and time when we should be resolved to continue seeking justice together and not let those with blind biases distract, diminish, or divide us. The way to honor those who defend our liberties with their lives—as did my father and grandfather—is not to curtail liberty, but to exercise it fully in pursuit of a just and peaceful society.

READ MORE Ferguson Should Be More Than a Moment

Abdul-Jabbar is a six-time NBA champion and league Most Valuable Player. He is also a celebrated author, filmmaker and education ambassador.

READ NEXT 7 Arrested in New York Charged With Threatening Police

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TIME Race

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: White People Feel Targeted by the Ferguson Protests—Welcome to Our World

A female protester raises her hands while blocking police cars in Ferguson
Adrees Latif—Reuters A female protester raises her hands while blocking police cars in Ferguson, Mo. on Nov. 25, 2014.

TIME columnist Abdul-Jabbar is a six-time NBA champion and league Most Valuable Player. He is also a celebrated author, filmmaker and education ambassador.

White Americans feel like they are being singled out because of the color of their skin rather than any actions they’ve taken. That's how black people feel. Every. Single. Day.

In 1971, a riot broke out at the Attica Correctional Facility in New York during which prisoners demanded more political rights and better living conditions. About 1,000 inmates out of 2,200 took control of the prison, holding 42 staff members hostage. Negotiations went on for days before state police stormed the prison, resulting in 43 deaths. Attica has since become a pop-culture reference in movies, songs and TV shows. Even children’s shows like SpongeBob Squarepants, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Sabrina: The Teenage Witch have referenced it. The word Attica is no longer about what happened in that prison 43 years ago but is now simply a synonym for political oppression.

VOTE: Should the Ferguson Protestors Be TIME’s Person of the Year?

I hope the chanting of “Ferguson! Ferguson!” and the symbolic upraised arms of surrender will become a new cry of outrage over social injustice that will embed itself in our popular culture as deeply as Attica did.

As always, there will be blacklash.

Many white people think that these cries of outrage over racism by African Americans are directed at them, which makes them frightened, defensive and equally outraged. They feel like they are being blamed for a problem that’s been going on for many decades, even centuries. They feel they are being singled out because of the color of their skin rather than any actions they’ve taken. They are angry at the injustice. And rightfully so. Why should they be attacked and blamed for something they didn’t do?

Which is exactly how black people feel.

The difference is that when the media frenzy dies down, and columnists, pundits and newscasters take a break from examining the causes of social evils, white people get to go back to their lives of relative freedom and security. But blacks still have to worry about being harassed or shot by police. About having their right to vote curtailed by hidden poll taxes. Of facing a biased judicial system.

Every. Single. Day.

That’s the reason Attica makes such a poignant symbol 43 years later. The word isn’t about a specific prison and the terrible violence there; it’s about feeling unjustly imprisoned. Many African-Americans feel imprisoned by walls that are no less restrictive for being built by lack of educational and employment opportunity than by concrete and razor wire. That’s not to say things aren’t a lot better than they were back in the ’60s and ’70s, but there still isn’t an equal playing field.

The Ferguson grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson is troubling, not just for the sake of Michael Brown, but for our faith in legal institutions. Ben Casselman’s recent article in FiveThirtyEight.com concluded that it was extremely rare for a grand jury not to indict. He cited statistics that showed U.S. attorneys prosecuted 162,000 federal cases in 2010, with grand juries refusing to indict in only 11 of those cases. Given those odds, why wasn’t Officer Wilson indicted? Not because he’s white, but because he’s a cop. Casselman reviewed various studies involving officer-related shootings and concluded that grand juries rarely indict police officers in on-duty killings.

In addition to that disturbing information is the fact that the federal government keeps no national database on officer-involved shootings. One can find out how many unprovoked shark attacks occurred in 2013 (53), but you can’t find out how many cops shot or even killed citizens. Right now, it’s left up to individual police departments to self-report (wink, wink). Even the Department of Justice has stopped releasing figures, because they were thought to be so unreliable.

So, with a tendency for grand juries to give officers a pass and with no reliable information on just how many shootings and killings are police-originated, how can people feel confident that there’s effective oversight on those officers who might be more prone to shoot unarmed black people? The police and the judicial system are the infrastructure of our society, and right now that infrastructure is as cracked and potholed as many of our highways are.

The people of Ferguson, and across the country, are not protesting against white people or police officers; they are protesting against the kind of racism that is so embedded in various social institutions that it’s invisible to all except those it affects. They are protesting a blind faith in any institution when the facts don’t warrant that faith.

Perhaps this quote has some resonance today:

Some who accuse others of inciting riots have by their own conduct invited them … This much is clear; violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleaning of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul. For there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly, destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is a slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter. This is the breaking of a man’s spirit by denying him the chance to stand as a father and as a man among other men. And this too afflicts us all.

Those words are from a speech by Robert F. Kennedy—in 1968, the year he was assassinated. He wanted things to change, and he recognized that meaningful social and political change always originates among the people, not the politicians; it originates among individuals, not institutions. When enough people are frustrated about an injustice, they will raise their voices until they are heard in the courthouse, the statehouse and the White House.

That’s why I think people should peacefully protest whenever they believe there’s an injustice to be addressed. But we have to remember that the goal of protesting is to raise awareness in those that don’t agree. This is not done instantly, through one gathering. Nor is it done through the persistent occupation of one space. It has to be a national movement, and it has to keep its energy high. When enough people across the country gather to say something, more and more people will listen.

Second, the violence and looting is counterproductive because it redirects the message away from the reasoned arguments to just the emotion. The roar of the fires and the sound of shattering glass drowns out the voices demanding change. The level of frustration that leads to violence is understandable: When you’re treated as if you’re not a valued member of society, why should you uphold society’s values? But violence turns away potential allies and only provides more targets to start the cycle over again. Yes, we must be passionate about the situation, but only because our passion will fuel the open discourse.

Should the Ferguson Protesters Be TIME’s Person of the Year? Vote Below for #TIMEPOY

Third, we must focus our protests, not on the individuals that disagree with us but on the institutions that are corrupted and therefore need to change. Change is brought on by political power, and political power requires numbers. Pointing out the hypocrisy of this politician or this media pundit has no effect. But lobbying politicians with a huge voting block behind us will be effective.

While the word Attica has become synonymous with “oppression,” perhaps one day the word Ferguson will be inducted into American pop culture as meaning “justice.”

Abdul-Jabbar is a six-time NBA champion and league Most Valuable Player. Follow him on Twitter (@KAJ33) and Facebook (facebook.com/KAJ).

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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