TIME Race

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

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

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

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.

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

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.
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

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 Race

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

Two Cops Shot And Killed Execution Style In Brooklyn
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. Spencer Platt—Getty Images

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

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.

TIME 2014 midterms

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: American Politicians Are A Greater Threat to Democracy Than ISIS

A man text messaging, American flags in the background
Antenna/fStop/Getty Images

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

The lying campaign ads, shady voter ID laws and sanctioned dishonesty should be illegal—and those complicit should be arrested

The upcoming mid-term elections should inspire a swell of patriotic pride in our hearts as we Americans dutifully cast our precious votes to reshape our national priorities and values. This is the American democratic ideal in action that we’ve been promoting around the world as a model for all oppressed nations to emulate. “Abandon your monarchies, overthrow your plutarchies, eliminate your dictatorships and join hands with us as we give power to the people,” we encourage. And we believe in that credo so much that we sometimes give guns and bombs to the people to help them take that power. After all, that’s how we did it back in 1775.

That’s why our election days should be an international advertisement for the glorious success of democracy. The aromatic sizzle that sells the hearty steak. The action-packed trailer that lures you to the blockbuster movie. But in reality it’s more like the aggressive perfume sprayers in department stores that deaden your senses with a cloud of acrid stench leaving you blinded and dazed.

The election season highlights not our dedicated patriots vying to improve the country, but the greedy villains who are subtly but devastatingly destroying the democratic process like a creeping and relentless rust. In addition to hunting those home-grown terrorists sneaking over to Syria to join ISIS, we should also be rooting out the saboteurs amongst us who are doing greater damage. While the culprits are pointing and shouting, “Hey, look over there! We’re under attack by Ebola and ISIS,” they are brutally clubbing the baby seal of the democratic principle.

This is the democratic ideal we so love: an informed population weighs the positions of those running for political office, then selects, through majority, the person they think will best represent them in government. It’s so beautiful in its simplicity and sincerity that it’s no wonder those hungry for freedom worldwide would want to embrace it. But here in America that ideal is facing the same fate as an extra in The Walking Dead who says, “I’m going to go on night patrol alone. Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.”

We can’t keep touting our political system as a model for the world while tolerating the worst kind of bad actors whose actions slowly grind away our system. We shouldn’t just shrug it off with cynical acceptance, “That’s politics.” It reminds me of that line from a Brenda Shaughnessy poem, “It’s like having a bad boyfriend in a good band.” The good band is the democratic system; the bad boyfriend is the abusive politician willing to compromise that system to satisfy his own lust for power.

The two most egregious examples of this betrayal are in misleading political ads and in partisan lawmaking that is meant to obstruct fair voting practices. The first attempts to misinform the public, inhibiting its ability to make an informed choice. The second attempts to obstruct eligible voters from casting their ballot because they might not vote the way those in power want them to vote.

There’s no shortage of examples of political ads that lie, but one of the most memorable came from the Mitt Romney presidential campaign in 2011 in which they showed a clip of Barack Obama in his 2008 campaign against McCain saying, “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” The lie is that Romney’s people edited the original film which was Obama saying, “Senator McCain’s campaign actually said, and I quote, ‘If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.’” The second lie came when Romney defended the ad, saying that there was “no hidden effort” to mislead voters. What other purpose was there?

That spirit of lying to the public to undermine democracy continues in these midterm elections. The Democrats and Republicans have spent about $50 million dollars, with Democrats spending nearly twice that of Republicans, over the last nine months in ads that mention the dreaded “m” word—Medicare. The focus of the ads is to scare senior citizens by portraying Republicans as anxious to snatch away their Medicare benefits. Some Democratic ads accused Republicans of wanting to “end the Medicare guarantee,” or of causing prescription drugs for seniors to rise as much as $1,700. These claims are reactions to Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan to significantly change Medicare. And, while I may not agree with his plan, the Democrats have deliberately misrepresented it in order to scare seniors into voting Democrat.

A conservative advocacy group, Crossroads GPS, spent $3.5 million on ads falsely depicting Colorado Sen. Mark Udall as soft of ISIS (or ISIL). Their TV ads depict Udall as saying, “ISIL does not present an imminent threat to this nation.” Then they show a woman who is the mother of five and a Marine who says she’s worried about her children’s future and safety in light of this statement. No need to worry, because Udall’s complete quote included, “But if we don’t respond to the threat it represents, they will be a threat to this country.” So, if that’s what worried this Marine mother, no need. Udall actually agrees with you. We’ll await your correction.

A candidate’s stance on abortion is the easy litmus test for many voters. So, distorting an opponent’s position is a simple way to sway the vote. Some Democrats have been doing just that. Republican House candidate Barbara Comstock from Virginia has been accused in an ad by Democratic nominee John Foust of wanting to make abortion illegal, “even in cases of rape and incest.” But Comstock previously and publically announced her position: “I do support a life of the mother and rape and incest exception for abortion.” At least four other Democratic ads across the country also lie about opponents’ positions on abortion.

The recent push by the GOP in many states to force a form of voter ID as well as reduce voting hours has rightfully been described by many as a modern version of the poll tax, which was declared unconstitutional in 1966. The requirements for photo IDs are meant to create a hardship for the poor and minorities (of those eligible voters without IDs, 25 percent are black, 16 percent are Hispanic, and only 9 percent are white), who are mostly Democrats, because they would have to obtain documentation such as birth certificates that can cost as much as $75 for travel and paperwork. Student IDs are not accepted, so students would also have to pay to vote. Poll analyst Nate Silver determined that ID laws could reduce voter turnout by 2.4 percent, a margin that might sway close races toward Republicans. U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Posner, who was appointed by Ronald Reagan, said that such ID laws exist only to “discourage voting by persons likely to vote against the party responsible for imposing the burdens.”

The same problem exists when the voting hours are reduced because wage-workers and single parents have less time to vote. And that’s the point, however un-American and anti-democracy: to keep voters away who may vote against you. This deliberate act to sabotage the democratic election process is worse than anything ISIS could do and yet we not only permit it, we vote people who support it into positions of power.

Proponents of the voter ID law often admit that the studies prove voter fraud is extremely rare. So, they counter by saying, as did Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia Pat Mullins, and Secretary of State of New Mexico Dianna Duran, “One is too many.” Would they agree that “one is too many” when discussing innocents who might have been executed by the death penalty? Would they agree that “one is too many” when advocates of gun control site statistics of children accidentally killed by guns at home? Does “one is too many” only apply when restricting the votes of the poor and minorities?

Ironically, much of the battle over the Second Amendment right to bear arms is the fear that someone will take over the country, remove our freedoms, and we will not be able to fight back. But that’s what’s happening now. And we are already armed with the vote, which many don’t use. It’s more cinematic (and a lot easier) to wave a gun rather than read the speeches and voting records of candidates. But standing around with a gun won’t keep our freedoms as much as voting for someone who isn’t manipulating our passions with lies. I would like to blame us, the voting public, for not being more diligent, but it’s unreasonable for us to have to research every thing that every candidate says. And clearly, we can’t count on the candidates’ personal integrity.

We need to do two things to stabilize the listing ship of democracy. First, scrape off the barnacles. In this case, the barnacles are those who would pass laws deliberately restricting voters from voting. We have to join together on principle and vote out such sinister people, even if these voting restrictions benefit your party. Because this isn’t about giving your party more power, it’s about having a party that supports the democratic ideals of the Constitution. It reminds me of Joe and Theresa Giudice, cast members of The Real Housewives of New Jersey, who are both going to prison for fraud. They often proclaim “family is everything” and “we do everything for the family.” But their crimes hurt others, and others’ families, all so they could live in a mansion and buy expensive furs and jewelry. The family in politics should be the country, not the political party. Win because you’re right, not because you’re the better liar.

Sixteen states criminalize making false political statements. Only sixteen. Worse, a federal judge struck down Ohio’s law as an unconstitutional infringement on free speech. The judge felt having the government decide what was true or false might create a situation in which the government could harass critics. That decision very likely will cause a domino effect of removing those laws from other states, leaving Americans with no legal safeguards against, to echo Al Franken, “lies and the lying liars who tell them.”

What should be do to protect democracy against these saboteurs from within? We certainly shouldn’t be doing away with these laws against false political ads; we should be enacting more such laws and enforcing them more diligently. These laws should include punishments that range from assessing huge fines capable of crippling a campaign to prison. Do those punishments really seem too steep for someone destroying the democratic process?

Some may say my outrage shows political naiveté or hyperbole. But I don’t think it’s possible for a black man who has lived in America for 67 years to be politically naïve. Instead, of spouting grimly sophisticated cynicism of pundits, I still believe that the inherent goodness of the process can defeat the greed of the politically ambitious and ethically vacuous.

Maybe I’m just saying that even one lying political ad is “one too many.”

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 Parenting

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Not Everyone in the Village Is Worthy of Raising a Child

Minnesota Viking v Tennessee Titans
Running back Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings looks on during a preseason game against the Tennessee Titans at LP Field on Aug. 28, 2014 in Nashville. Ronald C. Modra—Sports Imagery/Getty Images

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

The five most destructive words to our village are 'That’s how I was raised'

We’re constantly told that it takes a village to raise a child. But when I look at the recent epidemic of domestic-violence charges against NFL players, I’m convinced we need to take another look at those in our village whom we allow to help raise our children. Not just at those who commit these terrible acts but also those apologists in the media and sports industry who, through fuzzy logic or a desperate need to pander to their demographics, perpetuate a permissive attitude toward domestic violence.

First, we need to look at Ray Rice, Jonathan Dwyer, Adrian Peterson and other professional athletes who have recently been caught engaging in illegal and unacceptable acts of violence and re-evaluate how we treat them in our village. Like it or not, professional athletes, movie stars and recording artists are role models for our youth. And being a role model translates into big bucks because kids are willing to spend money to see them perform and buy products they endorse. That’s one of the reasons they get paid so much money.

The NFL, NBA and other professional sports organizations encourage this ideal of role model by touting their players’ charitable and community activities, which often seems like part of a branding campaign rather than a sincere drive to contribute. I don’t think entertainers (which is what professional athletes are) should be promoted as role models for our children because many of them don’t have the maturity, self-control, desire or training to accept that responsibility. Athletes should be models of how to play their sport and nothing more. The exceptions would be those few who distinguish themselves by taking an active and admirable role in bettering their communities, as Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali did.

Unfortunately, as long as there’s more money to be made off a role model than just an athlete, the hype will continue. And we will continue to be shocked and outraged every time an athlete is caught punching, slapping and spanking.

Maybe we should direct our outrage elsewhere:

Outrage No. 1: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and other apologists claim that this whole cluster-flub at least brought awareness to the problem of domestic abuse. This is disingenuous on a couple levels. In the Ray Rice case, the NFL and the Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti did their best to (at the very least) ignore evidence of domestic abuse. And at worst, they may have covered it up so there would be no awareness. That’s like getting caught flashing people while wearing nothing but a trench coat — and then wanting credit for bringing trench coats back in fashion.

Outrage No. 2: Why does it take TMZ to bring awareness of domestic violence? The awareness should have been there all along. For years we’ve seen the statistics, the photos of bruised and battered women and children, heard their testimony of relentless abuse. We’ve had books and songs and Lifetime movies. Didn’t we learn about that from the O.J. Simpson, Mike Tyson and Hope Solo cases? Donald Sterling displayed racist behavior before TMZ released those tapes. Racism, class struggle and police profiling have been constant and humiliating realities long before Ferguson. Once the media furor dies down, do we just revert to our default setting of closing our eyes until the next media-ready event occurs?

Can’t we fight injustice without TMZ? By that I mean that we have to keep the pressure on even when there are no cameras rolling. The NFL has instituted changes, it tells us, with panels and experts and transparency. Before, it relied on public lethargy. A player smacked a spouse, it was reported in the news, a minor punishment followed, the public forgot. Now that the league is promising more transparency, I worry that it has more incentive to bury any incidents, hiding them completely rather than risking another protracted public inspection. While the NFL will undoubtedly assure us that this will not be the case, its past performance does not inspire confidence.

Outrage No. 3: Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson hit his 4-year-old son with a thin part of a branch and was indicted for reckless or negligent injury. This has sparked a national debate on the effectiveness and ethics of spanking. Worse, thanks to commentators like Charles Barkley, the debate has degenerated into a race issue. “I’m from the South,” Barkley explained on TV. “Whipping—we do that all the time. Every black parent in the South is going to be in jail under those circumstances.”

The five most destructive words to our village are “That’s how I was raised.”

These words are the triumph of routine over reason, of self-delusion over self-interest, of excuses over evidence. In short, the phrase embodies the kind of muddled thinking that our culture “officially” stands against since doing something just because “that’s how I was raised” is the definition of hive mentality. It’s celebrating the joys of brainwashing over rational decisionmaking.

Most people embrace these words with great pride when it reflects their core values of being hardworking, compassionate, patriotic, religious or family-oriented. But they condemn anyone else who uses them when it goes against accepted American tradition. When a man straps on a bomb, climbs on a school bus and detonates, some would justify his behavior by saying his actions were an outgrowth of how he was raised. When a teenager drags a black man to his death behind his truck, some make the same claim. When a group of teens tie a gay boy to a fence and beat him to death, their actions reflect how they were raised.

Barkley may be accurate in his description of the South, and not just among African Americans. According to an ABC poll, 73% of Southerners approve of spanking children, as opposed to 60% in the rest of the country. Where he’s wrong is in justifying spanking (“We all spanked our kids”) in light of what we know today about the harmful effects of spanking:

  • Spanking may stop certain behavior, but it makes long-term behavior worse.
  • Children who are hit are more likely to use violence to resolve problems with siblings and peers.
  • The Canadian Medical Association Journal analyzed 20 years of data and concluded that spanking yields no positive outcome.
  • The journal Pediatrics said “harsh physical punishment was associated with increased odds of mood disorders, anxiety disorders, alcohol and drug abuse/dependence, and several personality disorders.”
  • One study concluded that frequent spanking (once a month for more than three years) resulted in children having less gray matter in certain areas of the brain “linked to depression, addiction and other mental health disorders.” Another found that spanking affected the brain by decreasing cognitive ability.

This is not a condemnation of those who have sparingly used light spanking in the past, before such research was available. But it’s been out there for at least a decade now, and any responsible parent wanting to use corporal punishment should at least do the research. Watching Sean Hannity beat his desk with his belt while proclaiming that being whipped with a belt by his father had not left him mentally abused should be all the proof necessary of its detrimental effects.

Additionally, watching the NFL play Twister with the truth, contorting its statements and explanations into some tortured Gordian knot of misinformation is to witness one of the standard bearers of influence on our children undermine everything it is supposed to represent: fair play, work ethic, compassion in the face of competition. That’s part of what the league sells to the American public, and therefore it is obliged to actually do something when that promise is threatened.

Yes, it takes a village to raise a child. But not everyone in the village is worthy of the task.

Abdul-Jabbar is a six-time NBA champion and league Most Valuable Player. Follow him on Twitter (@KAJ33) and Facebook (facebook.com/KAJ). He also writes a weekly column for the L.A. Register.

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: Bruce Levenson Isn’t a Racist; He’s a Businessman

Bruce Levenson
Atlanta Hawks co-owner Bruce Levenson Dave Tulis—AP

Sure, there are assumptions he makes that are cringeworthy—but the questions about how to attract more white fans were entirely reasonable.

Well, the pitchforks are already sharpened and the torches lit anyway, so rather than let them go to waste, why not drag another so-called racist before the court of public opinion and see how much ratings-grabbing, head-shaking and race-shaming we can squeeze out of it? After all, the media got so much gleeful, hand-wringing mileage out of Don Sterling and Michael Brown.

The only problem is that Atlanta Hawks controlling owner Bruce Levenson is no Donald Sterling. Nor is his email racist. In fact, his worst crime is misguided white guilt.

I read Levenson’s email. Here’s what I concluded: Levenson is a businessman asking reasonable questions about how to put customers in seats. In the email, addressed to Hawks president Danny Ferry, Levenson wonders whether (according to his observations) the emphasis on hip-hop and gospel music and the fact that the cheerleaders are black, the bars are filled with 90% blacks, kiss cams focus on black fans and time-out contestants are always black has an effect on keeping away white fans.

From left: Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Dominique Wilkins Courtesy of Iconomy, LLC

Seems reasonable to ask those questions. If his arena was filled mostly with whites and he wanted to attract blacks, wouldn’t he be asking how they could de-emphasize white culture and bias toward white contestants and cheerleaders? Don’t you think every corporation in America that is trying to attract a more diverse customer base is discussing how to feature more blacks or Asians or Latinos in their TV ads?

Back when the original Law & Order first launched, there was a cast shake-up that added more women, reportedly in an effort to attract more female viewers. MTV shows like Finding Carter and Teen Wolf can’t get through an emotional scene without a pop song coming in to sing to the viewer what they should be feeling, because that’s what their demographic wants. Car companies hire specialized advertising agencies to create ads to appeal specifically to women, blacks and Latinos. That’s business.

Sure, there are a few assumptions he makes that make me cringe a little. For example: “My theory is that the black crowd scared away the whites and there are simply not enough affluent black fans to build a significant season ticket base.” On the other hand, I have no evidence that he’s wrong on either count. Even if he is, the question still needed to be raised, because racism is a realistic possibility as to why whites in Atlanta may not be coming.

To Levenson’s credit, in that same paragraph, he dismisses fans who complained about the arena’s site as code for racist fear that “there are too many blacks at the games.” He further decries the white perception that even though the percentage of blacks in attendance had lessened, they still feel it’s higher and therefore somehow threatening. His outrage seems authentic.

Businesspeople should have the right to wonder how to appeal to diverse groups in order to increase business. They should even be able to make minor insensitive gaffes if there is no obvious animosity or racist intent. This is a business email that is pretty harmless in terms of insulting anyone — and pretty fascinating in terms of seeing how the business of running a team really works.

The thing that makes me mad is that Levenson was too quick to rend his clothing and shout mea culpa. In his apology, he wrote, “By focusing on race, I also sent the unintentional and hurtful message that our white fans are more valuable than our black fans.” But that’s not the message in the email at all. If the seats had been filled, even if by all blacks, the email wouldn’t have been written. He wasn’t valuing white fans over blacks; he was trying to figure out a way to change what he thought was the white perception in Atlanta so he could sell more tickets. That’s his job.

Abdul-Jabbar is a six-time NBA champion and league Most Valuable Player. Follow him on Twitter (@KAJ33) and Facebook (facebook.com/KAJ). He also writes a weekly column for the L.A. Register.

TIME Media

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: America’s Dark Obsession With Vigilante Justice

DEXTER
Showtime's Dexter Christian Weber—Showtime

Our belief that the government wants to help us achieve fairness is lower than ever—leading to fantasies of lawless revenge

The events in Ferguson and elsewhere across the U.S. have launched a heated national dialogue that questions our faith in the benevolence of government institutions — especially police, judiciary, and politicians. Dead black bodies always makes us wonder whether they really have the best interests of the American people at heart, or just the best interests of some American people. Sometimes in the dense fog of passion and tear gas it is hard to see what values a country as diverse as America really shares. One way to check the heart of American attitudes is to lay our fingers on the pulse of pop culture, which often subtly reveals the truth long before the news pundits compulsively check their Twitter to see what’s trending and chase after it.

One pop culture truth that has clearly emerged over the last few years is that the sharp rise of vigilante heroes in our books, TV, and movies is supplanting the traditional cultural heroes of the precinct, ER, and courtroom. I’m not talking about Spider-Man, Iron Man, the Avengers, or any other super-powered beings fighting other super-powered beings. That’s adventure-fantasy that has little to do with the political or social landscape. I’m talking about our grim-faced, non-powered heroes who, realizing that government is either too impotent or too corrupt to deliver justice, take up arms against the sea of troubles — and by opposing, end them.

A quick look at movies and TV will confirm the rise of these DIY knights: Batman, the Punisher, the Arrow, Black Canary, Sherlock Holmes, Jack Reacher, Kick-Ass, Ray Donovan, Dexter, Luther, House, and the rogues of Persons of Interest and Sons of Anarchy, to name a only a few. Of course, there will always be cop, doctor, and firefighter shows because these dramatic, heroic professions lend themselves to exciting plot conflicts. But to ignore the seismic shift in who we’re elevating as heroes is like ignoring the backpack of meth you found in your teen’s closet.

What these vigilantes have in common is that they take the law into their own hands, sometimes coldly executing those people they decide are too evil to live. At the end of the BBC season of Sherlock, a smug media mogul who has destroyed the lives of many and manipulated governments through blackmail and printing lies thinks he has trapped Sherlock into being arrested. To which Sherlock responds, “Oh, do your research. I’m not a hero, I’m a high-functioning sociopath.” He then shoots the villain in the head. Problem solved. Justice delivered, hot and tasty.

Tempting, isn’t it?

In a world where we witness the most horrific, violent, sick bastards not only getting away with and profiting from crime, but also giving the finger to law enforcement behind a phalanx of high-priced, morally ambiguous lawyers, we can’t help but fantasize about a man like the Punisher who executes mobsters and terrorists and the morally ambiguous on sight.

But is that a healthy fantasy for our nation? And how did America go from admiring lovable police detective Columbo to admiring lovable serial killer Dexter?

Historically, the popularity of the vigilante hero increases during times of social chaos when the people lose confidence in the integrity of government. The golden age of the American private eye story is the 1920s and 1930s, during the Great Depression and Prohibition. In the massive upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s, the outsider vigilante hero again took center stage. For whites it was Clint Eastwood as rogue cop Dirty Harry and white-collar architect Charles Bronson blowing away street punks in several Death Wish movies. For blacks it was blaxploitation movies like Shaft, Trouble Man, Super Fly, and Foxy Brown delivering neighborhood justice while standing up to the condescending Man.

Today, our belief that the government wants to help us achieve justice is lower than ever. Politicians make predictable flag-waving speeches about the bravery and sacrifice of our troops in order to get themselves elected, but allow the Veterans Administration to let vets die through deliberate paper shuffling inaction. Isn’t that the definition of murder? Yet, no one was charged. Justice? No wonder the Punisher and the Executioner are veterans who come home from war, find the country in a bigger mess than the war zone they left, and use their military skills to bring justice.

As of June 2014, a Gallup Poll showed only 7% of Americans had confidence in Congress, the lowest of 17 institutions measured and down from 42% in 1973. Gallup concluded, “The dearth of public confidence in their elected leaders on Capitol Hill is…a challenge to the broad underpinnings of the nation’s representative democratic system.” The criminal justice system only got the support of 23%. If these two powerful symbols of democracy and justice have no public confidence, then when it comes to fixing the system who we gonna call?

Dexter?

The problem is that the highly entertaining and emotionally satisfying legend of the Just Vigilante is only a fantasy — and one with possible harmful real-life effects.

First, it perpetuates the idea among our young that having corruption in government or big business justifies breaking the law. If you cheat on your taxes, shoplift from a department store, or don’t vote, aren’t you just sticking it to Corrupt Society? Getting a little street justice, instant karma, or political payback? No, you’re just emulating their despicable behavior. If you become just like your enemy, who’s really won?

Second, the vigilante fantasy encourages thinking of violence as the default method of solving problems. That’s the opposite of what this country stands for, which is reasoned, thoughtful debate in an effort to resolve differences peacefully. It is not meant to be an excuse to grab your guns and line up on the border threatening children. Or open carrying guns into Denny’s frightening patrons.

Third, it undermines the concept of American justice by celebrating emotion over logic. Our judicial ethos proclaims that the only way to ensure justice is to deliberate rationally, without passion. Our vigilante heroes are often triggered by a rage for revenge due to the murder of a loved one. That’s the worst person to be in charge of seeking justice. Police blotters are filled with real revenge shootings in which the perpetrators killed the wrong people or innocent bystanders. We’ve seen how often an entire system of well-meaning professionals gets it wrong and convicts innocent people. Certainly the odds go up when one person without all the evidence judges guilt or innocence.

Fourth, many fictional vigilante heroes rationalize their actions because the villains “got out on a technicality” or “beat it through a legal loophole.” Nothing infuriates us more and we angrily blame our judicial system for these “technicalities” and “loopholes.” And yet, often the technicality or loophole that we so hate is actually something important, like searching without a warrant, racially profiling, or not reading Miranda rights. These aren’t minor “technicalities,” they are the foundation of the American ideal of protecting our people against the abuses of power. They are defending our Constitution as legitimately as soldiers on a front line. Yes, there will be miscarriages of justice because of these technicalities, but that doesn’t mean we dismantle the judicial system anymore than abandoning soldiers in a just cause just because we lose some to the miscarriage of friendly fire. We can’t parade around in stars-and-stripes sweaters getting teary-eyed when talking about patriotism, then turn around and complain about safeguards of the Constitution, the symbol of what we are being patriotic about.

Of course, our growing need for these stories is a symptom, not the disease. We need to accept that our stories are a sign of the times and try to fix the problems that give rise to our fantasies of taking the law in our own hands. The disenfranchised in society — the poor, women, minorities, LGBT — are even hungrier for justice than the mainstream because they experience less of it. It’s deliciously appropriate to our times that the new version of The Equalizer features Denzel Washington as the ex-Black Op agent now working at a Home Depot helping average people rather than the wealthy British original (brilliantly portrayed by Edward Woodward).

There are times when the individual should stand up to the communal notions of right and wrong, as did Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, and Gloria Steinem. But they did it with words, with courage, with intellect — not with violence. My hope is that we use the abundance of vigilante literature to fuel our outrage at injustice and to inspire us to, rather than cynically pull a trigger, fix what’s broken in our system through peaceful protest and the ballot box.

TIME

The Coming Race War Won’t Be About Race

A demonstrator puts his hands in the air amid protests in Ferguson, Mo. on Nov. 24, 2014
A demonstrator puts his hands in the air amid protests in Ferguson, Mo. on Nov. 24, 2014 Barrett Emke for TIME

Ferguson is not just about systemic racism — it's about class warfare and how America's poor are held back, says Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Will the recent rioting in Ferguson, Missouri, be a tipping point in the struggle against racial injustice, or will it be a minor footnote in some future grad student’s thesis on Civil Unrest in the Early Twenty-First Century?

The answer can be found in May of 1970.

You probably have heard of the Kent State shootings: on May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard opened fire on student protesters at Kent State University. During those 13 seconds of gunfire, four students were killed and nine were wounded, one of whom was permanently paralyzed. The shock and outcry resulted in a nationwide strike of 4 million students that closed more than 450 campuses. Five days after the shooting, 100,000 protestors gathered in Washington, D.C. And the nation’s youth was energetically mobilized to end the Vietnam War, racism, sexism, and mindless faith in the political establishment.

You probably haven’t heard of the Jackson State shootings.

On May 14th, 10 days after Kent State ignited the nation, at the predominantly black Jackson State University in Mississippi, police killed two black students (one a high school senior, the other the father of an 18-month-old baby) with shotguns and wounded twelve others.

There was no national outcry. The nation was not mobilized to do anything. That heartless leviathan we call History swallowed that event whole, erasing it from the national memory.

And, unless we want the Ferguson atrocity to also be swallowed and become nothing more than an intestinal irritant to history, we have to address the situation not just as another act of systemic racism, but as what else it is: class warfare.

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

By focusing on just the racial aspect, the discussion becomes about whether Michael Brown’s death—or that of the other three unarmed black men who were killed by police in the U.S. within that month—is about discrimination or about police justification. Then we’ll argue about whether there isn’t just as much black-against-white racism in the U.S. as there is white-against-black. (Yes, there is. But, in general, white-against-black economically impacts the future of the black community. Black-against-white has almost no measurable social impact.)

Then we’ll start debating whether or not the police in America are themselves an endangered minority who are also discriminated against based on their color—blue. (Yes, they are. There are many factors to consider before condemning police, including political pressures, inadequate training, and arcane policies.) Then we’ll question whether blacks are more often shot because they more often commit crimes. (In fact, studies show that blacks are targeted more often in some cities, like New York City. It’s difficult to get a bigger national picture because studies are woefully inadequate. The Department of Justice study shows that in the U.S. between 2003 and 2009, among arrest-related deaths there’s very little difference among blacks, whites, or Latinos. However, the study doesn’t tell us how many were unarmed.)

This fist-shaking of everyone’s racial agenda distracts America from the larger issue that the targets of police overreaction are based less on skin color and more on an even worse Ebola-level affliction: being poor. Of course, to many in America, being a person of color is synonymous with being poor, and being poor is synonymous with being a criminal. Ironically, this misperception is true even among the poor.

And that’s how the status quo wants it.

The U.S. Census Report finds that 50 million Americans are poor. Fifty million voters is a powerful block if they ever organized in an effort to pursue their common economic goals. So, it’s crucial that those in the wealthiest One Percent keep the poor fractured by distracting them with emotional issues like immigration, abortion and gun control so they never stop to wonder how they got so screwed over for so long.

One way to keep these 50 million fractured is through disinformation. PunditFact’s recent scorecard on network news concluded that at Fox and Fox News Channel, 60 percent of claims are false. At NBC and MSNBC, 46 percent of claims were deemed false. That’s the “news,” folks! During the Ferguson riots, Fox News ran a black and white photo of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with the bold caption: “Forgetting MLK’s Message/Protestors in Missouri Turn to Violence.” Did they run such a caption when either Presidents Bush invaded Iraq: “Forgetting Jesus Christ’s Message/U.S. Forgets to Turn Cheek and Kills Thousands”?

VOTE: Should the Ferguson protestors be TIME’s Person of the Year?

How can viewers make reasonable choices in a democracy if their sources of information are corrupted? They can’t, which is exactly how the One Percent controls the fate of the Ninety-Nine Percent.

Worse, certain politicians and entrepreneurs conspire to keep the poor just as they are. On his HBO comedic news show Last Week Tonight, John Oliver ran an expose of the payday loan business and those who so callously exploit the desperation of the poor. How does an industry that extorts up to 1,900 percent interest on loans get away with it? In Texas, State Rep. Gary Elkins blocked a regulatory bill, despite the fact that he owns a chain of payday loan stores. And the politician who kept badgering Elkins about his conflict of interest, Rep. Vicki Truitt, became a lobbyist for ACE Cash Express just 17 days after leaving office. In essence, Oliver showed how the poor are lured into such a loan, only to be unable to pay it back and having to secure yet another loan. The cycle shall be unbroken.

Dystopian books and movies like Snowpiercer, The Giver, Divergent, Hunger Games, and Elysium have been the rage for the past few years. Not just because they express teen frustration at authority figures. That would explain some of the popularity among younger audiences, but not among twentysomethings and even older adults. The real reason we flock to see Donald Sutherland’s porcelain portrayal in Hunger Games of a cold, ruthless president of the U.S. dedicated to preserving the rich while grinding his heel into the necks of the poor is that it rings true in a society in which the One Percent gets richer while our middle class is collapsing.

That’s not hyperbole; statistics prove this to be true. According to a 2012 Pew Research Center report, just half of U.S. households are middle-income, a drop of 11 percent since the 1970s; median middle-class income has dropped by 5 percent in the last ten years, total wealth is down 28 percent. Fewer people (just 23 percent) think they will have enough money to retire. Most damning of all: fewer Americans than ever believe in the American Dream mantra that hard work will get them ahead.

Rather than uniting to face the real foe—do-nothing politicians, legislators, and others in power—we fall into the trap of turning against each other, expending our energy battling our allies instead of our enemies. This isn’t just inclusive of race and political parties, it’s also about gender. In her book Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution, Laurie Penny suggests that the decreased career opportunities for young men in society makes them feel less valuable to females; as a result they deflect their rage from those who caused the problem to those who also suffer the consequences: females.

Yes, I’m aware that it is unfair to paint the wealthiest with such broad strokes. There are a number of super-rich people who are also super-supportive of their community. Humbled by their own success, they reach out to help others. But that’s not the case with the multitude of millionaires and billionaires who lobby to reduce Food Stamps, give no relief to the burden of student debt on our young, and kill extensions of unemployment benefits.

With each of these shootings/chokehold deaths/stand-your-ground atrocities, police and the judicial system are seen as enforcers of an unjust status quo. Our anger rises, and riots demanding justice ensue. The news channels interview everyone and pundits assign blame.

Then what?

I’m not saying the protests in Ferguson aren’t justified—they are. In fact, we need more protests across the country. Where’s our Kent State? What will it take to mobilize 4 million students in peaceful protest? Because that’s what it will take to evoke actual change. The middle class has to join the poor and whites have to join African-Americans in mass demonstrations, in ousting corrupt politicians, in boycotting exploitative businesses, in passing legislation that promotes economic equality and opportunity, and in punishing those who gamble with our financial future.

Otherwise, all we’re going to get is what we got out of Ferguson: a bunch of politicians and celebrities expressing sympathy and outrage. If we don’t have a specific agenda—a list of exactly what we want to change and how—we will be gathering over and over again beside the dead bodies of our murdered children, parents, and neighbors.

I hope John Steinbeck is proven right when he wrote in Grapes of Wrath, “Repression works only to strengthen and knit the oppressed.” But I’m more inclined to echo Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues,” written the year after the Kent State/Jackson State shootings:

Inflation no chance

To increase finance

Bills pile up sky high

Send that boy off to die

Make me wanna holler

The way they do my life

Make me wanna holler

The way they do my life

Read next: Ferguson: In Defense of Rioting

TIME

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Stop Keeping College Athletes Poor and Trapped

Ed O''Bannon
Ed O'Bannon playing for the UCLA Bruins in 1995. O’Bannon, along with a few other players, is suing for players to have control over the use of their likenesses, which earn millions of dollars for the NCAA. J.D. Cuban—Getty Images

Without unions, college athletics will remain a subtle but insidious form of child abuse.

A new survey finds that 60% of incoming college football players support unions for college athletes. The horror! Were such unions allowed, our glorious cities would crumble to nothing more than shoddy tents stitched together from tattered remnants of Old Glory; our government officials would be loincloth-clad elders gathered in the rubble of an old McDonald’s passing a talking stick; our naked children would roam the urban wilderness like howling wolves, their minds as blank as their lost Internet connection. We would be without hope, dreams or a future.

Or at least that’s what you might believe based on the nuclear reaction a few months ago when a dapper man named Ramogi Huma attempted to destroy everything that America holds sacred with just such a proposal to unionize college athletes. His argument was simple: that college athletes should be classified as employees of their colleges and therefore receive certain basic benefits. He did not advocate player salaries but only programs to minimize brain-trauma risks among athletes, a raise in scholarship amounts, more financial assistance for sports-related injuries, an increase in graduation rates and several other similar goals.

You would have thought he’d proposed dressing the Statue of Liberty in a star-spangled thong.

But Huma is not alone in his assault on the NCAA’s ironfisted control of all things related to college athletics that might generate income (as befits its new motto: “If it earns, it’s ours”). Other current and former college athletes are questioning the NCAA-brand Kool-Aid. Former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon, along with a few other players, is suing for players to have control over the use of their likenesses, which earn millions of dollars for the NCAA — but not a cent for the players. Another class-action antitrust suit has been filed to remove the cap on players’ compensation — currently limited to the value of the scholarship they receive plus room and board — as an illegal restraint of trade.

Predictably, the NCAA is against any scheme to get college players paid, claiming that unionizing will “completely throw away a system that has helped literally millions of students over the past decade alone to attend college.” Attend but not necessarily complete, especially if you suffer any long-term injury. Because if you don’t compete, you don’t complete.

And the NCAA has the backing from some powerful Washington politicians who, according to Senator Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.), worry about strikes that will “destroy intercollegiate athletics as we know it.” Speaker of the House John Boehner (R., Ohio) also chimed in: “I haven’t looked at the specifics of this and what would be required, but having formally chaired the House Education and Workforce Committee and worked with the National Labor Relations Act for the last 30 years, I find it a bit bizarre.”

Nothing more reassuring than someone who acknowledges he hasn’t really “looked at the specifics” but has an opinion anyway.

Well, Congressman, here are some specifics:

  • Last year, NCAA March Madness made $1 billion for CBS and Turner Broadcasting.
  • The NCAA takes in more than $6 billion a year.
  • The NCAA president made $1.7 million last year.
  • The NCAA’s top 10 basketball coaches earn salaries that range from $2,200,000 to $9,682,032.

While these coaches and executives may deserve these amounts, they shouldn’t earn them while the 18-to-21-year-old kid who plays every game and risks a permanent career-ending injury gets only scholarship money — money that can be taken away if the player is injured and can’t contribute to the team anymore.

The irony is that the NCAA and other supporters claim paying athletes would sully the purity of college sports — desecrating our image of a youthful clash of school rivalries that always ends at the malt shop with school songs being sung and innocent flirting between boys in letterman jackets and girls with pert ponytails and chastity rings. In reality, what makes college sports such a powerful symbol in our culture is that it represents our attempt to impose fairness on an otherwise unfair world. Fair play, sportsmanship and good-natured rivalry are lofty goals to live by. By treating the athletes like indentured servants, we’re tarnishing that symbol and reducing college sports to just another exploitation of workers, no better than a sweatshop.

Everyone’s hope was that once these inequities were exposed, the NCAA would do the right thing. That hasn’t happened on a meaningful scale. Instead, it battles in court, issues press releases and appeals to Norman Rockwell nostalgia.

The athletes are left with the choice of crossing their fingers and hoping their fairy godmothers will persuade the NCAA to give up money that it doesn’t have to, or forming a collective bargaining group to negotiate from a place of unified strength.

Most Americans agree that the athletes are being shortchanged. A recent HuffPost/YouGov poll concluded that 51% of Americans believe that universities should be required to cover medical expenses for former players if those expenses were the result of playing for the school. A whopping 73% believe that athletic scholarships should not be withdrawn from students who are injured and are no longer able to play.

But when it comes to these same student-athletes’ forming a union, an HBO Real Sports and Marist College Center for Sports Communication poll showed 75% of Americans opposed to the formation of a college-athlete union, with only 22% for it.

Why such a difference between wanting equity and supporting the best means to achieve it? Despite 14.5 million Americans’ belonging to labor unions, we’ve always had a love-hate relationship with them.

The love: Unions can be like protective parents arguing with an arrogant teacher over their child’s unfair grade. The hate: Unions can be like bossy spouses who complain about all the work they do for you while shoveling corn chips into their maw on the La-Z-Boy.

Our relationship with college athletes is much clearer. We adore and revere them. They represent the fantasy of our children achieving success and being popular. Watching them play with such enthusiasm and energy for nothing more than school pride is the distillation of Hope for the Future.

But strip away the rose-colored glasses and we’re left with a subtle but insidious form of child abuse.

Which raises the question: How will things change?

When I was a young, handsome player at UCLA, with a full head of hair and a pocket full of nothing, I sometimes had a friend scalp my game tickets so I could have a little spending money. I couldn’t afford a car, which scholarship students in other disciplines could because they were permitted to have jobs, so I couldn’t go anywhere. I got bored just sitting around my dorm room and frustrated wandering around Westwood, passing shops in which I couldn’t afford to buy anything.

How will things change? It’s possible the NCAA will eventually capitulate to these commonsense requests, but since it hasn’t so far, the only reason it would change its mind now would be the threat of a union. Either way, the union will have caused positive change for these young athletes. But without a union, these student-athletes will be without any advocates and will always be at the whim of the NCAA and the colleges and universities that profit from them.

Abdul-Jabbar is a six-time NBA champion and league Most Valuable Player. Follow him on Twitter (@KAJ33) and Facebook (facebook.com/KAJ). He also writes a weekly column for the L.A. Register.

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