Cornrows and Cultural Appropriation: The Truth About Racial Identity Theft

Lena Dunham Visits "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" in New York City on Jan. 8, 2015.
Douglas Gorenstein/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images Lena Dunham Visits "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" in New York City on Jan. 8, 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.

Whether it’s a hairstyle or jazz music, there’s a difference between honoring a culture and stealing from it

Is the current cornrow controversy much hairdo about nothing? Or a gateway crime against black culture that includes stealing everything from music to art to clothes to language? Cornrows are just the tip of the follicle, but because so many white celebrities have adopted this hairstyle, it has become the public platform to discuss the broader topic of cultural appropriation. Celebrities who have exhibited cornrows include Fergie, Gwen Stefani, Heidi Klum, Paris Hilton, Justin Timberlake, Jared Leto, David Beckman, and, more recently, Lena Dunham, Kendall Jenner, Kylie Jenner, and Kim Kardashian. Several of them have taken heat for popping the cornrow, and prompted some African-Americans to accuse the dominant white American culture of stealing cherished icons of identity from the subjugated black culture. Kind of like wearing the teeth of your pillaged enemy as a necklace.

Most white Americans would agree that the influence of black culture on America is significant. Without the black swing, blues, and jazz musicians, there is no Elvis or Jerry Lee Lewis or rock ‘n’ roll. And the influence is evident in all aspects of American culture, from fashion to food, from language to literature. What most white Americans won’t agree with is that there is anything wrong with that. In fact, they would argue that such assimilation of ethnic influences has occurred with every immigrant group in America, whether Latino or Irish or Vietnamese. They would argue that it is a symbol of American inclusion that we so readily embrace these foreign influences into our culture. The melting pot and so forth. American culture is not appropriating anything—that would be stealing!—it’s honoring black culture through homage. America acknowledges the influence and gives the influencers full credit. And, after all, isn’t weaving black culture into mainstream American culture the best way to end racism? Are cornrows the ambassador to racial equality or just another version of Al Jolson mammying in blackface?

One very legitimate point is economic. In general, when blacks create something that is later adopted by white culture, white people tend to make a lot more money from it. Certainly, one can see why that’s both annoying and disheartening. Through everything from access to loans to education, systemic racism has created a smoother path to economic success for whites who exploit what blacks have created. It feels an awful lot like slavery to have others profit from your efforts.

Loving burritos doesn’t make someone less racist against Latinos. Lusting after Bo Derek in 10 doesn’t make anyone appreciate black culture more. So, the argument that appropriation is the same as assimilation doesn’t hold up. Appreciating an individual item from a culture doesn’t translate into accepting the whole people. While high-priced cornrows on a white celebrity on the red carper at the Oscars is chic, those same cornrows on the little black girl in Watts, Los Angeles, are a symbol of her ghetto lifestyle. A white person looking black gets a fashion spread in a glossy magazine; a black person wearing the same thing gets pulled over by the police. One can understand the frustration.

Another aspect that infuriates many African-Americans: what white culture deems worthy to borrow is often so narrow that it perpetuates negative stereotypes rather than increases racial appreciation. Underwear sticking out of pants? Hip-hop language? Twerking? An unintended byproduct is that white people, feeling aglow in One-Worldness brought on by taking a hip-hop exercise class, forget the serious state of racial inequality that still exists and needs to be constantly addressed. In the face of being shamed and persecuted, African-Americans have cultivated art and fashion to maintain pride in who they are, so to see other cultures take this and profit from it while still allowing the shame and persecution to persist makes us want to holler.

Having said all that, here’s the harsh reality. Whether we call it cultural appropriation, assimilation, exploitation, homage, plundering or honoring, it will continue to happen unabated or affected by complaints and protests. Sure, some products, like ones featuring the Confederate flag, can’t seriously claim to be an homage, so public outcry is more effective in eliminating them. But for the most part, Culture is a ravenous beast that consists of many commercial outlets that need to sell consumer goods. Music, movies, clothes, books, art, etc., are the products that keep the beast alive, but they have to evolve in order to do so. Because of that, all non-mainstream cultures are subject to being looted for inspiration to create new goods to sell.

It is some consolation that, on a smaller scale, African-Americans have been able to do some cultural appropriation of their own. Once upon a time, professional sports were all white. Today, more than 77% of NBA players and 67.3% in the NFL are black. From 1950 to 2009, 81 percent of Billboard’s Top 10 bestselling albums were from non-white or mixed-race groups of artists. This shift will continue over the coming decades. The Census Bureau estimates that by 2060, 56% of the population will belong to racial and ethnic minorities—a minority majority. With each subsequent generation, cultural icons truly will be based on assimilation, not appropriation.

“Almost cut my hair,” Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young sang in 1970 about a long-haired boy suffering from an identity crisis. Cutting his hair would be to turn his back on the cultural revolution happening at the time in order to seek comfort in rejoining the social norms he doesn’t believe in. In the end, he doesn’t cut his hair because, “I feel like I owe it to someone.” It’s just hair, it grows. But, like cornrows, it is symbolic of a cultural identity that does not want to be homogenized—like Pat Boone’s 1956 sleepy version of Little Richard’s dynamic “Tutti Frutti.” Wop bop a loo bop a lop ba ba, indeed!

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.


Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Don’t Let Trump and Co. Distract From Black Lives Matter

Black lives should matter more than votes

Dear presidential candidates:

With the first anniversary of the killing of Michael Brown this weekend, America needs to know how the tumultuous events of the last year have affected your stance regarding the needs of the black community. In order for African Americans to determine this, please select one of the following that best defines your current philosophy: a) Black Lives Matter, b) Black Votes Matter, c) Black Entertainers and Athletes Matter, d) All of the Above, e) None of the Above.

If you chose anything other than “a,” you probably don’t deserve any votes—black, brown, or white. You might get votes by default of being less bad than the alternatives, but getting votes that way isn’t much of an endorsement of your leadership abilities. And making things better for African Americans in a substantial and meaningful way in this country is going to require an outstanding leader.

In ancient Greece, a touchstone was a dark stone, such as slate, used to determine the purity of gold ore. Today, the phrase “Black Lives Matter” has become a political touchstone in determining the basic qualities of a leader: courage, vision, and intelligence.

Courage is required in order to speak out in support of “Black Lives Matter.” So many Americans misunderstand the meaning of the phrase that there’s an outraged backlash against it. The popular misinterpretation, encouraged by some politicians seems to be that by saying “Black Lives Matter,” African Americans are seeking special attention. In fact, it’s the opposite. They are seeking their fair share of opportunities without receiving the “special attention” of being profiled, arrested, imprisoned, or killed.

Many of you candidates—including the only black candidate, Ben Carson—have used the more mundane phrase, “All Lives Matters,” which appeases racism deniers. This is cowardly because it completely ignores the problem and panders to the least politically informed constituency. Americans are used to candidates competing to see who can best ingratiate themselves to the demands of reclusive billionaire backers and fringe groups, but this goes too far.

Most Americans are already in agreement that all life matters—it’s just that blacks want to make sure that they are included in that category of “all,” which so many studies prove is not the case. In the future, think of “Black Lives Matter” as a simplified version of “We Would Like to Create a Country in Which Black Lives Matter as Much as White Lives in Terms of Physical Safety, Education, Job Opportunities, Criminal Prosecution, and Political Power.”

Studies prove that the education system is biased in favor of white students: A 2014 U.S. Education Department survey concluded that students of color in public schools are punished more and receive less access to experienced teachers than white students. This leads to lower academic performance for minorities, putting them at greater risk of dropping out of school. Minorities are also on the short end of the job market: Unemployment among blacks is about double that among whites. One study found that job applicants with black-sounding names received 50% fewer callbacks than those with white-sounding names.

More important is the legitimate fear black people have for their lives. The killing of unarmed black men, women, and children at the hands of police this past year has been well documented in the press. We continue to see more names added to the list. A recently revealed video shows police shooting to death Jonathan Ferrell, who knocked at a nearby house for help after a car accident in 2013. The phrase “Black Lives Matter” isn’t just a metaphor; it’s a call for awareness of the literal danger to one’s physical body merely by being black in America. A danger that whites don’t share.

Presidential candidates must also have vision and intelligence. You have to envision an ideal America of equal opportunity and treatment for all and have an intelligent plan to actually move the country in that direction. Both qualities require an awareness of current political and social movements. Thousands recently attended a “Black Lives Matter” conference in Cleveland. A lot of the news coverage ignored the substance of the meeting, instead focusing on the more dramatic images of a transit cop pepper-spraying some people who protested the arrest of a 14-year-old black kid accused of being intoxicated. The following week, candidates including Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush spoke at the National Urban League’s conference, an African-American political activist group that is larger and older than the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Why were there no candidates at the “Black Lives Matter” conference?

Part of the reason is that the discussion of race in America as a major talking point for this election has been derailed by the funhouse candidacy of Donald Trump. His unexpected popularity has sent many of you candidates into hiding so as not to offend his conservative supporters. You tried denouncing his rude, inaccurate, and bullying comments, but that only seemed to increase Trump’s popularity. Trump is succeeding at taking the Grumpy Old Grandpa approach: complain without offering practical solutions. It’s likely that his supporters are mostly the disenfranchised older, white, middle-class conservatives who already feel marginalized and invisible. Like Howard Beale in Network, they’re mad as hell and won’t take it anymore. They have this narrow window to be heard, and by supporting such an outrageously improbable candidate, their voices are coming through loud and clear.

What they fail to realize is that Trump’s outspoken opinions, which his followers consider refreshing, are mostly meaningless. As president he wouldn’t have the power to do much of what he claims he would do. That’s why he appeals to those who have little knowledge of how government actually works. Never mind that Trump’s statements reveal no specific policy or plan, or that he has no experience, and that his comments show him to be detached from the street-level problems of America. Or, most important, that the very people who support him will likely be the most hurt by his election. His popularity is similar to the Schwarzenegger Syndrome: Californians elected Arnold simply because he was refreshingly outspoken, despite the fact that he had no qualifications or job experience appropriate to running a state. In the end, despite Schwarzenegger’s bold talk and good intentions, some argue California was worse off when he left office. That is pretty much what we could expect under the Trumpinator.

With the nation focused on the Trump Distraction, the “Black Lives Matter” issue has been moved to the back of the bus. But don’t expect the issue to wait patiently for its turn in the spotlight. Take a look at this week’s Pew Research Center poll, which concludes that 58% of Hispanics and 73% of African Americans believe racism is a big problem. That’s two voting blocks. Perhaps even more relevant is that 44% of whites agree that it’s a significant problem, which is an increase of 17 points since 2010. Finally, the most important finding: 59% of all those polled agree that the country “needs to continue making changes to give blacks equal rights with whites.” That’s up from 46% about a year ago.

In his novel Animal Farm, George Orwell satirizes totalitarian governments that revise history by changing their original commandment: “All animals are equal” becomes “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” By ignoring the “Black Lives Matter” issue, you’re proclaiming your political position that, “All life matters, but some lives matter more than others.” Let’s see how that works out for you next November.


Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: White People Gets It Right About Being White

When it comes to discussing racism, every word can be explosive

The most shocking revelation to come out of Jose Antonio Vargas’s MTV documentary White People is that according to the film, 4 out of 5 young white people feel uncomfortable discussing race issues. I want to know who that one person is who doesn’t feel uncomfortable, because he or she is lying. In my completely unscientific survey that I’ve just pulled out of my nether regions, 5 out of 5 people—white or black—feel uncomfortable discussing race in mixed-race company, which is where most of these discussions need to take place. The reason for this discomfort is that one always has to be on guard about inadvertently saying something offensive and being labeled a racist, a radical, or a “thug.” This fear chokes off the open discourse necessary to actually change minds and make serious inroads against racism.

Fortunately, Vargas is excellent at creating a non-threatening atmosphere that encourages these young people, mostly teenagers, to openly express their thoughts—even when not politically correct—about race. As he travels around the country, from small towns to a Lakota reservation to Bensonhurst in New York, he gently prods these kids from various ethnic backgrounds to open up about their fears and frustrations with the issue of race in America. As one might expect from young adults, race is often expressed in very personal terms rather than in the bigger social and historical context of American culture, politics, sociology, and blah, blah, blah. Instead, the most effective and moving moments are the small revelations that surprise and touch both the participants and the audience.

One white young man from the South, who deliberately chose to attend a predominantly black college, brings his two black female friends home for dinner. During the lively discussion of race, the word “ghetto” is used, and one of his friends begins to cry because the word is so derogatory to her. The white friend is clearly surprised and embarrassed that he unintentionally hurt her. The other black friend doesn’t respond negatively to the word at all.

That’s part of the complicated aspect of these discussions: Everyone feels like they’re being forced to dismantle a ticking bomb by deciding whether to cut the red or green wire, knowing the wrong snip will result in the bomb blowing up in their face. When it comes to discussing racism, every word could be explosive.

In another surprising moment, a young man confesses to his conservative stepfather that he often chooses not to disagree with him about race because he fears the man’s impassioned reaction. The look of shock and shame on the man’s face is truly moving. The stepfather’s opinions about race likely don’t suddenly change, but it’s clear that he would be much more open to listening to his stepson in the future.

Considering that the film is less than an hour long, it does a pretty thorough job of touching on variations of teenage angst amplified through race. The standout segment is about white perception of reverse discrimination. According to the film, nearly 50% of young white Americans believe discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against blacks. Clearly influenced by parental opinions based on fear rather than facts, several white students complain about their inability to get scholarships because they are white. “White folks aren’t getting the same opportunities,” one student says.

Vargas then presents statistics that contradict this myth: Whites are 40% more likely than blacks to receive scholarships; 62% of college undergraduates are white, yet they receive a disproportionate 69% of those scholarships. One white student, responding to a classroom exercise in which students are asked to list the disadvantages of being white, expresses the reality of reverse discrimination perfectly: “It’s like asking a rich person, tell me how hard it is being rich.”

To their credit, these young men and women respond with openness and graciousness that would elude many more defensive adults. They are willing to acknowledge that they may have been wrong in their assessment. The film doesn’t really explore why that perception is so prevalent in the first place, but it’s implication that reverse discrimination is a default excuse for some whites when they don’t get what they want is clear.

Hopefully, a sequel will follow exploring how politicians profit from creating this perception to avoid taking responsibility for inaction. In one of my favorite scenes, the Lakota Indians refer to white people as wasichu, meaning, “he who takes the best meat.” It’s the cynical adults who exploit the children for their own gain—taking the best meat—that are the real enemies, though they never are mentioned in the film.

In the end, this film is not about prompting guilt, self-loathing, or blame. These white kids don’t deserve to feel any of those emotions because they aren’t responsible for the current situation in race relations nor for the past atrocities that have created it. But it’s good that they do experience some of these reactions because that will create empathy for the millions of black kids who feel guilt, self-loathing or blame without the pay-off of better education, jobs, housing, and other opportunities. That empathy is what brings the races together to make things better.

The film is about kids struggling to overcome preconceived and inaccurate notions about races handed down from their parents and the infrastructure of racism around them. Philip Larkin forcefully describes the generator of the problem in his infamous poem, “This Be the Verse,” in which he states that parents routinely screw up their kids: “They may not mean to, but they do. / They fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra, just for you.”

This documentary burns brightly with heat and illumination. But does it burn bright enough among the MTV viewers to illuminate in their hearts the fears, concerns, and hopes about race to take us a step closer to racial harmony? Or is this a case of no matter how brightly it shines, racial harmony just another distant star in a never-to-be-reached galaxy? I’m betting it’s the former, and that its compassionate and intelligent approach will encourage those young people who are at a crossroads, wondering whether to follow their parents’ status quo or strike out on their own, to have the courage to move on down their own road.


Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Body Shaming Black Female Athletes Is Not Just About Race

Serena Williams celebrates after winning the Final of the Ladies Singles against Garbine Muguruza of Spain during the day 12 of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in London, England on July 11, 2015.
Julian Finney—Getty Images Serena Williams celebrates after winning the Final of the Ladies Singles against Garbine Muguruza of Spain during the day 12 of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in London, England on July 11, 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.

We need to rethink our ideals of female beauty

Serena Williams won her 21st Grand Slam title at Wimbledon this month. This marks the 17th time in a row that she has defeated Maria Sharapova. Yet Williams, who has earned more prize money than any female player in tennis history, is continually overshadowed by the woman whom she consistently beats. In 2013, Sharapova earned $29 million, $23 million of that from endorsements. That same year, Williams earned $20.5 million, only $12 million of that from endorsements. How’s that possible? Because endorsements don’t always reward the best athlete. They often reward the most presentable according to the Western cultural ideal of beauty.

I know, you think this article is about racism. It’s not.

Misty Copeland just became the first African-American woman to be named principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre. But when she was 13, she was rejected from a ballet academy for having the wrong body type. As an ad featuring Ms. Copeland put it, summarizing the responses she received early in her career: “Dear candidate, Thank you for your application to our ballet academy. Unfortunately, you have not been accepted. You lack the right feet, Achilles tendons, turnout, torso length, and bust.” At 13? That criticism of her body being too muscular and “mature” has followed her throughout her career. “There are people who say that I don’t have the body to be a dancer, that my legs are too muscular, that I shouldn’t be wearing a tutu, that I don’t fit in,” Copeland said in response.

What do these two highly successful athletic women have in common? They seem to endure more body shaming than their white, less successful counterparts.

(Still not about racism.)

In her novel, The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison writes, “Along with the idea of romantic love, she was introduced to another—physical beauty. Probably the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought.” Morrison’s assessment of social ideals for physical beauty as destructive is harshly accurate. We have established a definition of beauty so narrow that almost no one can live up to it. Women struggle to fit within the constrictions of social expectations of thin, youthful, sexuality as constricting as a Victorian corset. We display these paragons of beauty from billboards and magazine covers and Victoria Secret ads with the full knowledge that because of the use of photo-enhancing, lighting, makeup, and other morphing techniques, the women shown are as real as the CGI-created Hulk in the Avengers movies.

There’s plenty of evidence showing how harmful this beauty standard is to society. The typical American woman spends about $15,000 on makeup over a lifetime (if that same money were invested into a retirement plan, it would give her about $100,000 at age 70). Even though Americans spend the most on cosmetics in the world, we are ranked only 23rd in one list of “satisfaction with life.” In a futile effort to fit this mythical ideal of beauty, millions of American women torture their feet with high heels, undergo unnecessary cosmetic surgeries, starve themselves, and make themselves physically and mentally miserable—all over an imaginary ideal they didn’t even create.

OK, I lied: Some of the body shaming of athletic black women is definitely a racist rejection of black women’s bodies that don’t conform to the traditional body shapes of white athletes and dancers. No one questions the beauty of black actresses such as Kerry Washington (Scandal) or Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) because they fit the lithe image perpetuated by women’s fashion magazines. The body shaming of Williams and Copeland is partly because they don’t fit the Western ideal of femininity. But another cause is our disrespectful ideal of the feminine body in general.

The bigger issue here is the public pressure regarding femininity, especially among our athletes. It’s a misogynist idea that is detrimental to professional women athletes and to all the young girls who look up to these women as role models because it can stifle their drive to excellence, not only on the playing field, but in other aspects of life.

The problem became even more evident in 2014 when the Russian Tennis Federation President Shamil Tarpischev called Venus and Serena Williams “the Williams Brothers,” a statement for which he was fined $25,000. As a result of this widespread attitude, whenever Serena Williams wants to go out incognito, she says she wears long sleeves to cover up her signature muscular arms. Outside the fanboy world of Xena: Princess Warrior and Wonder Woman, a muscular woman is generally not the ideal.

Why not?

I suspect because our ideal woman continues to be the vulnerable woman unable to defend herself against a man. On one hand, this conforms to the social norms of the man as the strong protector and the woman as the childlike, weak dependent. (Hence, all the “romantic” portrayals of men swooping up women in their arms and carrying them to safety or bed.)

On the other hand, it discourages those men and women who don’t want to follow that traditional but narrow definition. I’m reminded of that powerful scene in the second season of True Detective when detective Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) explains why she carries so many weapons: “Could you do this job if everyone you encountered could overpower you? I mean, forget police work. No man could walk around like that without going nuts. The fundamental difference between the sexes is that one of them can kill the other with their bare hands.” Perhaps the muscular, athletic woman symbolizes physical and mental self-sufficiency, which threatens the cozy ideal of beauty as soft, fragile, and weak.

This beauty standard translates in sports to women being more concerned with a marketable image than athletic ability. Tennis pro Agnieszka Radwanska is 5 feet 8 but only 123 pounds. This is a conscious decision by her coach “to keep her as the smallest player in the top 10,” he told the New York Times. “Because, first of all she’s a woman, and she wants to be a woman.” Tennis pro Andrea Petkovic, ranked 14th, said she hated seeing photos of her bulging arms whenever she hit a two-handed backhands. “I just feel unfeminine,” she said. “I don’t know — it’s probably that I’m self-conscious about what people might say. It’s stupid, but it’s insecurities that every woman has, I think … I would love to be a confident player that is proud of her body. Women, when we grow up we’ve been judged more, our physicality is judged more, and it makes us self-conscious.”

This reluctance to push themselves physically because they reduce their marketability as women results in some women athletes never striving to be the fully realized athletes they could be. This same mentality of holding back to fit the social mold of a “lady” makes women less competitive in the job marketplace, too.

Sharapova, at 6 feet 2 and 130 pounds (Williams is 5 feet 9 and weighs 150 pounds), admits that that she wishes she could be even thinner: “I always want to be skinnier with less cellulite; I think that’s every girl’s wish.” (Is it? Should it be?) She says she does no weight training. “I can’t handle lifting more than five pounds. It’s just annoying, and it’s just too much hard work. And for my sport, I just feel like it’s unnecessary.” Yet she’s been beaten 17 times in a row by someone who has added that muscle necessary to excel. Does she want to be the highest-paid female athlete or the best one?

“I sing the body electric,” Walt Whitman wrote in a poem from Leaves of Grass. In it, he expresses Renaissance delight over the physical body as a source of pleasure, spirituality, and achievement. If Americans are to similarly celebrate the body, we must questions our ideals of physical beauty and overcome the brainwashing to make sure they are healthy, not just convenient marketing tools to create insecurity to sell products. The fact that these ideals of what constitutes beauty have changed throughout history tells us that they aren’t all hardwired into our brains. By broadening our ideals of beauty, we can encourage females of all ages to confidently strive to reach their full potential. We can, and shall, overcome.

Read next: Jennifer Lawrence on Why Hollywood Has Finally Shut Up About Her Body

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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 politics

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: America’s Not Ready To Dump Trump

Donald Trump Chicago
Michael Tercha—Chicago Tribune/Getty Images Donald Trump speaks with the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board on June 29, 2015 in Chicago.

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.

At least he's good for entertainment value

Donald Trump has united American voters, though perhaps not in the way he’d envisioned. More than 200,000 petitioners demanded that NBC cancel any association with Trump, while 700,000 petitioners requested that Macy’s remove Trump merchandise. Both petitions succeeded, and NBC and Macy’s joined Univision in the nationwide Dump Trump movement. Fox News, Bill O’Reilly, and The Wall Street Journal editorial page have all declared recently that racism is gone from American society. But Donald Trump has proven them all wrong — as has his bump in the polls immediately following his racist comments.

Trump would portray his comments — that Mexicans coming to America are drug-runners and rapists — not as racism but as an example of (to borrow a phrase from defrocked Real Housewife and Celebrity Apprentice contestant, Brandi Glanville) his straight-shooting “truth canon.” However, it’s really more of a truthiness pea-shooter. In the Real World, a seldom-visited land in politics, his comments were the definition of racism: to negatively characterize an entire ethnic group based on the actions of a few. Following Trump’s logic, America is a nation of home-grown murderers, drug-users, and pornographers.

The most damning statement Trump made during that speech wasn’t the racist characterization of Latinos, it was his follow-up comment that “some, I assume, are good people.” I assume? As if there was no way for him to assess the character of Latino immigrants except by watching Scarface and American Me.

And that is the essence of Trump’s classic, tragic fall: hubris. The tragic hero falls from grace because his pride makes him think that all his success is due to his own efforts and therefore he can reject the teachings of the gods. Basically, that’s what happens to Oedipus, Othello, and Adam and Eve. Their success blinds them to the reality that they are just another person under a divine authority. From high up in the cloud-enshrouded, gold-plated penthouse in Trump Towers, it must be difficult to see the reality of people’s lives way, way down below. And to believe that all glory belongs to Trump, amen.

We could give in to cynicism and interpret Trump’s rise in the polls following his public endorsement of racism (he’s now second, behind front-runner Jeb Bush) as proof that Americans support racism. But I prefer to believe it’s just America’s way of keeping him in the race for entertainment value. “Who knows what craziness he’ll say next,” people might be thinking. “Let’s keep him around to find out. It’s better than the stale, packaged drivel we get from the rest of the interchangeable Lego-like candidates.” Down on the street level of the real world, Trump has no chance to win or to even come close. At best, he hopes the nothing-but-hype candidacy will improve the value of his name for branding on products. He may be right. People have short memories. A year or two down the road they might be willing to buy products just because they carry the Trump name, which makes his candidacy a wise business investment, however destructive it is to America socially.

Rather than using this opportunity for thoughtful reflection on his comments and how to be a more inclusive candidate, Trump has responded to the defection of businesses and barrage of criticism with lawsuits, insults, and — justifying voters’ faith in keeping him in the race for entertainment value — even more outrageous statements. In an interview with CNN’s Don Lemon, Trump supported his assertion that Mexicans were rapists by citing a 2014 Fusion article that claims that 80% of Central American migrants traveling through Mexico were raped. When Lemon pointed out that the article was about rape in Mexico, not rapist Mexican immigrants, Trump explained, “Somebody’s doing the raping, Don.” Say what now?

When CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Trump about his supposed support of traditional marriage, despite having been married three times, Trump responded, “I don’t really say anything. I am just, Jake, I’m for traditional marriage.” Huh? Is he doing the moonwalk here? Further evidence of his keen analytical mind came with his comment that he blamed himself for the failure of his marriages “because my business was so powerful for me. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.” He doesn’t know whether his obsession with making money, which destroyed two marriages and affected his children, was good or bad. Perhaps that tells us everything we need to know about the man’s values regarding business success versus human cost. Will the bottom line always outweigh what is just and right for those people who stand in the way of his personal success? In other words, the people on the street level.

The mistake Trump made is as understandable as it is devastating. He would never have said African-Americans are a bunch of drug-peddling rapists (even if he thought they were) because he’s savvy enough to know that’s not true — and to know that he’d be hit by a perfect storm of blacklash. But when it comes to the Latino community, there’s less vocalized opposition in the media, despite the fact that Latinos are the largest ethnic minority in the U.S. at 17% (54 million) versus 13.2% (41.7 million) identified as African-American.

There’s an old saying from the ’60s that summarized racial attitudes of the time: “If you’re white, you’re all right; if you’re brown, hang around; if you’re black, get back.” This illustrates the current passive “wallpaper racism” (in the background so it’s not as noticeable) against Latinos that made Trump think it was socially acceptable to be derogatory toward the community without anticipating consequences.

We must give Trump credit for aggressively affirming that our democratic process works. Pundits often ridicule our lengthy vetting system of presidential candidates, which can last for two years before the actual election. But this gives a candidate plenty of time to reveal the true self hiding behind a polished political facade. But while most candidates fade out over months, the hyper-efficient Trump did it in the speech announcing his candidacy. Now that’s a fiscal conservative, saving so much time and money on the way to self destruction!

In the meantime, he will continue to respond to any thoughtful criticism by quoting his political guru, Taylor Swift: “The haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate. Baby, I’m gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake. I shake it off, I shake it off.”

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.


Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: How Bravo TV Is Helping End Racism in America

The Real Housewives of Atlanta - Season 7
Laura Magruder—Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images From left to right; Kandi Burruss, Demetria McKinney, Phaedra Parks, Cynthia Bailey, Kenya Moore on The Real Housewives of Atlanta, Season 7.

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.

It's fighting against cultural racism like that shown by defenders of the Confederate flag

A lot of people look at Bravo TV’s lineup of table-flipping, backstabbing, wig-wearing, felon-making reality shows as a clear sign of the cultural apocalypse. If people are actually watching these shows, they warn, End Times are clearly upon us. I think it’s the opposite. The unrelenting pettiness of most cast members stewed with raw chunks of desperation for fame at the cost of personal dignity may seem unappetizing at first. But the harsh truths about our society that simmer beneath the frothy surface provide a tasty and hearty diet of insight and inspiration. That’s why Bravo may be one of America’s best hopes for the elimination of racism.

Go ahead, take a breath. You’ll probably want to reread that last sentence just to make sure you saw it correctly. Did Kareem just say that We Shall Overcome by watching NeNe Leakes’s ranting in Louis Vuittons and a weave? Here’s what I mean: America has two kinds of racism—institutional and cultural. Institutional racism has been welded to the infrastructure of our society in our basic institutions of law enforcement, the judiciary, education, and politics. The rules of the game and the people who interpret and enforce those rules have perpetuated an uneven playing field regarding opportunities for people of color. That’s a fact supported by pretty much every recent study as well as daily news stories. The only way to get rid of institutional racism is through legislation. Each rule, law, provision, and hallowed tradition that undermines the constitutional mandate for equality must be legislated out of existence. That’s the political arena, and we have many dedicated patriots of all colors fighting every single day to make sure that happens.

Cultural racism is trickier to fight. We can’t legislate biased attitudes, corrupt upbringing, unsound reasoning, or self-destructive behavior. These personal flaws are guaranteed by the Constitution, as long as one doesn’t act on these flaws to the detriment of others. This kind of racism is insidious in that it subliminally suggests the inferiority of one group while not stating it overtly. We get enough of these subliminal messages, and it aligns our prejudices accordingly. It’s how magicians manipulate audience members to do or say what they want them to, as demonstrated in the movies Now You See Me and Will Smith’s Focus.

The current battle over the Confederate flag in various Southern states is an example. Many of those supporting keeping the flag flying to honor their history probably aren’t overt racists. They would help a black family whose car has broken down, never use the N word, even encourage equal opportunity. What they don’t see is that the history they wish to honor—brave Southern soldiers who fought for their families and neighbors rather than an ideology—is not the same history that African Americans see. Blacks see the oppression, subjugation, humiliation, rape, and murder. The flag represents the genocide of their history. The Confederate flag issue is part of institutional racism, and legislatures are gearing up now to vote in several states. (This week Alabama Governor Robert Bentley ordered the removal of a Confederate flag from state capitol grounds.)

Cultural racism is the thinking that one group’s historical perspective should be maintained despite the damage it does to others, because those “others” are not as important. This perspective is justified by stereotyping blacks through images, words, and selective news reporting. The use of the word “thugs” to describe black protestors during the Baltimore protests a few months ago underscores cultural racism as perpetuated by some of the news media. If it had been a campus protest at UC Berkley of mostly white students causing the same damage, the word thug would never had appeared. The popular image of the absentee black father may also be a convenient myth: A 2013 study by the CDC concluded that African American fathers were more likely to bathe, dress, play and dine with their children than white or Latino fathers. But facts rarely have any impact on these prejudices because the practitioners receive their news from sources that enforce their irrational beliefs rather than challenge them.

These biases are based on fear, and fear is generally based on ignorance. We are afraid of what we don’t know. And if the information we receive about those we fear is deliberately biased, there’s no chance to defeat the bias. The way Americans overcome these cultural prejudices is to be exposed to real people of different cultures so that they can see what they all have in common. Not just the good stuff, like kindness and compassion, but the flaws and self-doubts and mistakes that all humans share.

That’s where Bravo comes in. Its lineup of reality shows seems to feature more black people than any other channel except BET. I once called Andy Cohen, Bravo’s former head of development and the current producer of the Real Housewives franchise, the “Andy Warhol” of the new millennium. But his willingness to feature more blacks and members of the LGTBQ community in numerous reality shows also makes him an influential civil rights proponent.

With the exception of shows created by Shonda Rhimes, mainstream television has few shows in which a person of color is the lead character. And her shows mostly feature attractive women as leads, not the more “threatening” males. They are generally sidekicks, like Dennis Haysbert in Backstrom, Jon Michael Hill in Elementary, and Malcolm Goodwin in iZombie. The subliminal message is that blacks, especially men, are the supporting cast to help whites complete their quest. Millennial Gunga Dins.

While it’s true that African Americans have always had their icons embraced by white culture, there’s only one doe-eyed, silky-voiced Morgan Freeman to go around. That icon used to be Sidney “They Call Me Mister Tibbs” Poitier, the classiest man alive. But these are fantasy black men that those engaging in racism see as the best of the race, the kind of blacks they could say are credits to their race, not the average black person in their imagination sneaking through their neighborhoods at night in a black hoodie.

Bravo has changed that perception. There are no Sidney Poitiers or Morgan Freemans in their black-centric reality shows, just mostly middle-class and upper-middle-class African Americans struggling to make a living, raise respectful and successful children, form meaningful friendships, and occasionally falter along the way in all three of those things. Just like most of white America.

The Heisenberg Principle of Reality Show Uncertainty does apply. Knowing that they are being observed does affect those being observed. But that’s also part of understanding how people juggle trying to manage how the world perceives them, with how they really are. Everyone on these shows thinks they can handle it but almost all fail, revealing an even more familiar struggle that we all go through.

Married to Medicine follows a group of black women friends who are either doctors or married to doctors. What a relief it is to know that education and income don’t help them manage their personal conflicts any better than the rest of us. Thicker Than Water follows the Tankard family, whose wealthy patriarch, Ben Tankard, tries to impose strict religious behavior on his children that he didn’t follow in his own youth. Blood, Sweat & Heels reveals the petty feuds and deep friendships of a group of black professional women in New York City as they deal with ambition, cancer, death, and dating. The Real Housewives of Atlanta is a whirlwind of betrayal, from friends, relatives, and spouses. Add to that the aspiring musicians in The Kandi Factory and fashion snarkiness in Fashion Queens, and a large spectrum of non-inner city black culture is represented.

Through these shows, the country sees black Americans as neither icons nor victims. Neither paragons nor charity cases. They’re just a bunch of warts-and-all people chasing the American Dream as hard and fast, and often as clueless, as most everyone else. So far-reaching and influential is media, that the next generation of white children raised with the cultural wallpaper of racism lining their homes will grow up seeing a broad spectrum of black lives. And those lives will now matter more.

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.


Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: It’s Media Terrorism to Deny Charleston Was About Race

Charleston Shooting Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church
David Goldman—AP The steeple of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church stands as a pedestrian passes early June 21, 2015, in Charleston, S.C.

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 real threat is that we allow this incident to be used as political football

Correction appended, June 20th.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: A man walks into a crowded room… and shoots a bunch of people. Yeah, you’ve heard it before. Get used to it, because statistics suggest you’ll be hearing it a lot more. According to a study by Harvard and Northeastern University researchers, from 1982 to 2011, a mass shooting occurred an average of every 200 days; since 2011, mass shootings happened an average of every 64 days. Each time it happens, politicians and commentators immediately rush into to announce the social significance of the tragedy. And sometimes, these commentaries can be more harmful than the actual shootings because of their long-term effect, to the point of creating even more widespread damage to the community.

There’s a lot of debate about whether or not this was a terrorist act. Terrorism is a political tool that has a specific goal. Terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan want to drive Americans out of their countries. Terrorists in other countries do it for the same reason: to gain political power. After an hour at the prayer meeting, Dylann Roof stood up and proclaimed that he was there “to shoot black people.” His rambling manifesto during the shootings was: “You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” In his mind he was a terrorist, but in reality this was nothing more than hate crime using terrorist tactics to enact his racist fantasy. Roof had no hope of driving African Americans out of the country, starting a race war or engendering any political or social change at all. We shouldn’t use it as an excuse to discuss terrorism because that diverts us from the actual problem.

The real threat here isn’t that this is an indicator of an surge in right-wing racist attacks, it’s that we allow this incident to be used as a political football by those who hope to leverage it to their gain, which is a more subtle form of terrorism: media terrorism.

First, those politicians and pundits who call this an attack not against blacks, but against Christianity or faith, demonstrate the shoddiest excuse for journalism and the most corrupt exercise of politics. GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum called the shootings an “assault on religious liberty.” Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani opined, “Maybe he hates Christian churches.” Fox News referred to it as an “attack on faith.” Presidential hopeful Rick Perry used the shooting to attack President Obama’s call for more gun control. Presidential candidate Rand Paul commented, “You can be a minority because of the color of your skin — or the shade of your ideology.” Presidential candidate Lindsey Graham, and senator of the state where the shootings took place, commented: “It’s 2015, there are people out there looking for Christians to kill them.”

Those who refute the clear racial element in these attacks are like Holocaust deniers who say there were no gas chambers, no mass genocide, that the world is just conspiring against the poor misunderstood Nazis. Slavery was America’s Black Holocaust. There were over 10 million slaves in the U.S. between 1525 and 1866, and they were systematically stripped of their identities, dignity, human rights, and far too often, their lives. Yes, that’s ancient history and Americans today should in no way be blamed for the misdeeds of their ancestors. But the hard truth that deniers wish to avoid is that the residual effects of that slavery, abolished 150 years ago, still permeates society. Statistics prove that, despite enormous gains and sincere efforts by many in the white and black communities, African Americans are still struggling to gain economic, educational, and judicial parity. As long as we admit the problem, we have a chance of eventually fixing it.

So why this persistent denying of a lingering racist undercurrent in America? Political gain. By convincing Americans that racism doesn’t exist, politicians are able to divert funds from programs that combat racism and create equal opportunities for everyone to other projects that would most benefit their political power base. We’ve seen this Ministry of Misinformation in action before. In China, the government has removed all mention of the 1989 protest at Tiananmen Square that resulted in the massacre of thousands of people. On Thursday, The Wall Street Journal announced, “Today the system and philosophy of institutionalized racism identified by Dr. King no longer exists.” Donald Rumsfeld is taking another That Never Happened tour, telling us he never thought we could bring democracy to Iraq, despite the endless film of him telling the American people the opposite. They are rewriting history to suit their needs. However, the racism deniers following the Charleston shootings are trying to rewrite history as it’s happening, which is even more insidious.

The result of all this denying is to give tacit approval to continue victimizing certain groups. When those in power argue against fighting for rights for blacks, gays, women, or any other group seeking equal treatment under the law, they are announcing with a wink that these groups somehow don’t deserve those rights. If they don’t deserve equal treatment, then they aren’t equal as people and can be victimized. When presidential candidate Donald Trump refers to Mexican immigrants as mostly drug dealers and rapists, he’s encouraging Americans to victimize them. Nothing says we don’t give a crap about black history more emphatically than flying a Confederate flag, as it does in South Carolina’s capitol, enforced by state law. To claim it’s there to honor the state’s past is like Germany hoisting the swastika above a synagogue to honor its past of making Volkswagens. Whatever Roof’s motivations—be they drug-induced or ideological—he chose to attack a group that to his twisted mind seemed reasonable because they are already a victimized group.

Public perception, not reality, drives political change. In 2014, crime statistics were at a 20-year low, yet most Americans (63%) thought crime was on the rise. Clearly, the increased reporting of violent crimes on TV and the scare-rhetoric of some politicians and news commentators helped mold that perception. Whether intentional or not, that perception drove gun sales up and lowered public support for gun control laws. Profits and political power were made on the back of misperception, not truth. The same misperception occurs regarding Islamic terrorists in the U.S. Since 9/11, an average of nine Muslims have contributed to six terrorism plots a year. The result over those years has been 50 deaths. However, during that same time, according to a study conducted by Professor Arie Perliger at the U.S. Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center, right-wing extremists conducted 337 attacks each year and were responsible for 254 deaths. But if a government agency wants public support for privacy-invading laws or massive funding, the imminent threat of Muslim terrorists is bandied about because they are on the unofficial Go Ahead and Victimize list. And so it continues with the rush to Jedi mind-trick us into not seeing what is clearly in fronts of us: “This is not the racist you’re looking for.”

Poet Charles Baudelaire once wrote that “The Devil’s best trick is to persuade you that he doesn’t exist.” In this case, the pundit’s and politician’s best trick is to persuade us that racism doesn’t exist so that it can continue to flourish among those who they don’t care about anyway. They dismiss the black community’s concerns, mock them with a symbol of their former oppression, and reduce their hope for meaningful change. Not that far from slavery after all. Yes, Christianity and faith are indeed under attack, not by terrorists, but by these same politicians who fail to demonstrate the teachings of their faith. When young people see such hypocrisy in the name of faith, of course they turn away.

The greatest endorsement of faith came, not from the politicians scurrying for votes off the back of this tragedy, but from the families of the victims who faced the murderer with Christian charity and forgiveness. “You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never get to hold her again,” said the daughter of shooting victim Ethel Lee Lance. “But I forgive you.” Family member after family member faced Dylann Roof in court and forgave him. That is faith in action, not just the empty words of a vote-grubbing succubus.

Still, there must be accountability and consequences for one’s actions. Dylann Roof may be forgiven his trespasses, but he must still be punished. The same should be said of the pundits and politicians who have cynically, some would say immorally, exploited this tragedy for political gain. When it comes election time, let’s remember their attack on the truth.

Correction: The original version of this article misstated Lindsey Graham’s office. He is a senator from South Carolina.

Read next: White Supremacist Group Donated to GOP Candidates

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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.


Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Let Rachel Dolezal Be as Black as She Wants to Be

She's given me the courage to reveal my true identity.

I sympathize with the dilemma of Rachel Dolezal, the head of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP whose parents maintain that she is not any part black, as she has claimed (#whiteisthenewblack). See, I too have been living a lie. For the past 50 years I’ve been keeping up this public charade, pretending to be something I’m not. Finally, in the wake of so many recent personal revelations by prominent people, I’ve decided to come out with the truth.

I am not tall (#shortstuff).

Although I’ve been claiming to be 7’2” for many decades, the truth is that I’m 5’8”. And that’s when I first get out of bed in the morning. Just goes to show, you tell a lie often enough and people believe you. I expect there will be some who will demand I give back the championship rings and titles that I accumulated during my college and professional basketball career because I was only able to win them by convincing other players that they had no chance against my superior height. How could these achievements have any lasting meaning if I’m not really as tall as Wikipedia says I am?

The evidence against Dolezal does seem pretty damning. Her birth parents have decided to express their parental love by outing her in response to a legal dispute they have with her (#returnworld’sbestparentstrophy). They offered photos of a farm-fresh Rachel looking like she just stepped out of the General Store in Mayberry and a white-on-white birth certificate. Some siblings have also attested that she’s not black, though she was raised alongside four adopted black children. Dolezal herself has just stepped aside from her position at the NAACP.

Despite all this, you can’t deny that Dolezal has proven herself a fierce and unrelenting champion for African-Americans politically and culturally. Perhaps some of this sensitivity comes from her adoptive black siblings. Whatever the reason, she has been fighting the fight for several years and seemingly doing a first-rate job. Not only has she led her local chapter of the NAACP, she teaches classes related to African-American culture at Eastern Washington University and is chairwoman of a police oversight committee monitoring fairness in police activities. Bottom line: The black community is better off because of her efforts.

At no time in history has the challenge of personal identity seemed more relevant. Olympic champion Bruce Jenner struggled for years with her gender identity and only at the age of 65, as Caitlyn Jenner, seems to have come to some peace with it. The same with many in the gay community who have battled internal and external demons before embracing their true selves. The difference is that these people faced a biological imperative rather than a free will choice of orientation (#readthesciencebeforepostingoutrage). Dolezal chose to identify with a racial group she was not born into, like Sean Connery as the Japanese expert in Rising Sun.

The thing about race is that, scientifically, there is no such thing. As far back as 1950, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) released the conclusions of an international group of anthropologists, geneticists, sociologists, and psychologists that stated that the concept of race was not a scientific entity but a myth. Since then, one scientific group after another has issued similar conclusions. What we use to determine race is really nothing more than some haphazard physical characteristics, cultural histories, and social conventions that distinguish one group from another. But, for the sake of communication, we will continue to misuse the word, myself included, in order to discuss our social issues so everyone understands them. As far as Dolezal is concerned, technically, since there is no such thing as race, she’s merely selected a cultural preference of which cultural group she most identifies with. Who can blame her? Anyone who listens to the Isaac Hayes song, “Shaft,” wants to be black—for a little while anyway (#who’sthecatwhowon’tcopout).

Al Jolson, once considered the most popular entertainer in the world, rose to fame wearing blackface. He also used his considerable influence to help blacks. At one time, he was the only white man allowed into some of the nightclubs in Harlem. Ironically, Jolson admitted that when he performed the same songs without blackface he never felt he did as good a job. Some critics say it’s because while singing in blackface, he was singing for all downtrodden people, including his own Jewish people. And he found his strength and passion and power while identifying with another culture. Maybe like Quentin Tarantino in Jackie Brown and Django Unchained.

So, does it really matter whether Rachel Dolezal is black or white?

Dr. King said we should be judged by the content of character rather than color of skin, which is what makes this case so difficult. So, yes, it does matter. Apparently lying to employers and the public you’re representing when the lie benefits you personally and professionally is a deficit in character. However, the fight for equality is too important to all Americans to lose someone as passionate as she is and who has accomplished as much as she has. This seems more a case of her standing up and saying, “I am Spartacus!” rather than a conspiracy to defraud. Let’s give her a Bill Clinton Get Out of Jail Free card on this one (#Ididnothavesex) and let her get back to doing what she clearly does exceptionally well—making America more American.

It’s given me the courage to also say, “I am Spartacus. All 5’8” of me.”

Read next: Rachel Dolezal: I Didn’t Want to Be Limited to My Biological Identity

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TIME Religion

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Prosperity Gospel Is War on the Poor

A logo sits beneath the cockpit window of a Gulfstream G650 business jet, manufactured by General Dynamics Corp., on the first day of the Paris Air Show in Paris on June 17, 2013.
Bloomberg via Getty Images A logo sits beneath the cockpit window of a Gulfstream G650 business jet, manufactured by General Dynamics Corp., on the first day of the Paris Air Show in Paris on June 17, 2013.

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.

Many of the poor are more willing to place their faith in prosperity gospel than in the tarnished legend of the American Dream

I’ve always been annoyed by Hollywood sports movies that spend nearly two hours earnestly preaching about how it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose the Big Game because what’s really important is the spiritual growth achieved through the challenge of competition. But then the movie predictably ends with the protagonist winning the Big Game anyway and being carried away on the shoulders of admiring teammates. The twisted lesson seems to be: Once you acknowledge that winning isn’t important, you will win. The fiscal corollary is: Once you acknowledge that money isn’t important, you will become fabulously wealthy. And more important than the winning or wealth is that witnesses are there to admire your achievement, to hoist you up on metaphoric shoulders of envy.

It’s crazy logic that stomps spirituality into pulp like a mugger pummeling a victim in a back alley. Like something Cersei Lannister would propose on Game of Thrones. Yet, that is the line — that God wants believers to be wealthy and that giving donations could improve your wealth — that some proponents of the so-called prosperity gospel have been selling. And like the snake-oil salesmen from whom they are descended, their product has a greasy stench to it that cures nothing but the salesman’s own greed.

Which brings us to Pastor Creflo Dollar’s earthly reward last week. In March, his plea to his congregation for them each to donate $300 or more so he could purchase a $65 million Gulfstream G650, the jet of choice for discerning billionaires flying the heavens like self-anointed angels, seemed to have been abandoned after public outcry. But now that the outraged voices have died down, the board of World Changers Church International, which oversees Creflo Dollar Ministries, has said it will buy this “Holy Grail” of aviation. The campaign to purchase the jet, the board said, is “standard operating procedure for people of faith” in “our community.”

And that’s the problem. Who are these “people of faith”? According to a survey for TIME magazine, those who embrace the prosperity gospel tend to be African Americans, evangelicals and those less educated. Though the specific theology from church to church can differ, the general claim is that the more money you give to the church, the more God will financially reward you. But this column isn’t about Creflo Dollar and the other multimillionaires who have cynically perverted Christ’s teachings to fill their silk-lined pockets. It’s about how the country shifted from the war on poverty in the 1960s to the war on the poor today.

The prosperity gospel is just another battlefront in that war. We could just shrug at the hundreds of thousands who willfully give up their money so their pastors can live in the kind of opulence that rivals that of the Roman Caesars. We could dismiss these worshipful congregants as victims of their own greed. But that would be misreading the situation. While greed may motivate the mansion-dwelling pastors, the congregants are motivated by hope of a better life. This is the same desperate, though misguided, hope that droves Americans to throw away $70.15 billion on lottery tickets in 2014, more than what was spent on sports tickets, books, video games, movie tickets and music combined. Who buys those tickets? According to a 2011 study, “Gambling on the Lottery: Sociodemographic Correlates Across the Lifespan,” the highest rate of lottery gambling (61%) came from those in the lowest fifth of socioeconomic status, concluding that “males, blacks, Native Americans, and those who live in disadvantaged neighborhoods” were more likely to play.

In essence, many of the “people of faith” are the poor who are more willing to place their faith in the lottery and prosperity gospel than in the tarnished legend of the American Dream. The recent economic recession has delivered a gut punch to that American Dream of working hard and pulling oneself up by the bootstraps until the inevitable riches follow. Sure, it still can happen, just not as often as it used to. Now burdened with enormous college debt, fewer prospects for well-paying jobs, rising housing costs and increased cost of living, more of the what used to be middle class are slipping over the edges of the financial cliff and falling on hard times. According to the CBS News article “America’s Incredible Shrinking Middle Class,” the size of the middle class has decreased in all 50 states. Where have they gone? To the poor side of town. More than 45 million (14.5%) Americans lived in poverty in 2013, up from 12.3% in 2006.

Without faith in the government to help lift the poor out of poverty or prevent the middle class from slipping away, desperate and frightened people seek help in the supernatural of religion or in the supernatural odds of the lottery (odds of winning on a single ticket are 1 in 175 million). It’s hard not to be sympathetic.

Americans have always had difficulty reconciling the lofty pursuit of spiritual enlightenment with the worldly hunger for material prosperity, especially if the former rejects the latter. We want to win, even if winning means we lose something even more valuable not tangible because our fame-mongering, social-media-driven culture tells us we haven’t won unless everyone else acknowledges it. (If someone does a good deed in the forest and no one’s around, is it still a good deed? Not anymore.) But how does one keep score in the spirituality game? According to the purveyors of prosperity gospel, your friends and neighbors will know how righteous you are by the size of your bank account and the make of your car.

In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, he says, “And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also” (Matthew 5:40). The coat was considered to be a shirt while the cloak was a crucial garment to protect against the elements. Combined with Jesus’ admonishment to turn the other cheek when struck, we see a teaching that is establishing the basis for Christianity: Tend to what is permanent (the soul) over what is temporary (material goods). To expect an earthly reward other than purity of mind would go against these teachings. Yet those pimping the prosperity gospel are preaching the opposite.

I’m in awe of most religious leaders because they dedicate their lives to helping others achieve spiritual fulfillment. I’m also in awe of most practitioners of religions because their goal is to do the right thing for their god and their community. And there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be successful and wealthy. But there is something wrong when some people exploit the poor, the fearful and the desperate to enrich themselves through donations and tax-exemptions by pretending to be spiritual leaders. Like the professional pardoners of the Middle Ages who pedaled indulgences to the highest bidders, they pervert teachings for profit. These are the people that the word shame was invented to describe.

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 Crime

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Abolish the Death Penalty

Demonstrators against the death penalty stand outside the Moakley Federal Court during first day of the penalty phase for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on April 21, 2015 in Boston.
John Tlumacki—The Boston Globe/AP Demonstrators against the death penalty stand outside the Moakley Federal Court during first day of the penalty phase for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on April 21, 2015 in Boston.

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 can’t let our passion for revenge override our communities’ best interest

The death penalty is suddenly trending again. On Wednesday, Nebraska lawmakers voted to repeal the state’s death penalty. Last week, the jury in the Boston Marathon bombing case decided that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should be executed. The U.S. Supreme Court is currently reviewing the constitutionality of lethal injection in the death-penalty case Glossip v. Gross. Last month, the Federal Bureau of Investigations and the Justice Department admitted that almost every examiner in the FBI microscopic hair forensic unit overstated matches in favor of the prosecution in 95% of the cases in which they testified over the past 20 years. (This included 32 defendants sentenced to death, 14 of which have been executed or died in prison.) Norman Fletcher, the former chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court who during his tenure upheld numerous death sentences, announced last week that the death penalty is “morally indefensible,” makes no business sense, and is inconsistent and applied unfairly.

Recent polls indicate that the death penalty’s popularity is sinking with Titanic-like inevitability. A recent Pew Research Center poll shows that public support for the death penalty is at a near-historic low, with only 56% supporting it. A poll by ABC News and the Washington Post found that 52% of Americans preferred life without parole as the main punishment, and 42% preferred the death penalty, down from 80% in 1994.

Traditional reasons to support the death penalty are going the same way as conventional wisdom for denying same-sex marriage and gender equality. Some will talk about how justice demands the death penalty, and some will say that the only way to enforce the sanctity of human life is by executing those who recklessly and arrogantly take it away. Some will argue that it protects innocent lives, others that it brings closure to victims’ families. Some will offer personal tales of loss. These are all heartfelt points, but ultimately they are simply wrong in terms of doing what is best for society.

The primary purpose of the death penalty is to protect the innocent. Theoretically, if someone deliberately murders someone else, executing that person protects the rest of us by removing him from society, never again to be a threat. But, as always, there’s a big difference between theory and practice. While it’s true that the death penalty may protect us from the few individuals it does execute, it does not come without a significant financial and social price tag that may put us all at an even greater risk.

First, there’s the financial cost. Every society is on a limited budget, and the recent economic recession has forced government on every level to tighten its belts like an 18th century corset. Studies show that the death penalty is more expensive than the alternative, life without parole. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the average cost of a death penalty case is $1.26 million, compared to $740,000 for a life-without-parole case. In addition, keeping a prisoner on death row costs $90,000 more a year than keeping a prisoner in the general prison population. California alone has spent $4 billion on maintaining the death penalty since its reinstatement in 1978.

In the states that have abolished the death penalty in the last decade, politicians from both parties have cited cost as the main reason. This isn’t a matter of morality versus dollars. It’s about the morality of saving the most lives with what we have to spend. Money instead could be going to trauma centers, hospital personnel, police, and firefighters, and education.

Some will ask, “How can you put a price on justice?” and “What if it were your mother or son who’d been murdered?” Fair enough. But given the current cost of the death penalty, my family is much more at risk from not having enough police on the street, firefighters in their stations, and staff in hospitals. The question every concerned taxpayer needs to ask is whether or not we should be spending hundreds of millions of dollars on executing prisoners when life without parole keeps the public just as safe but at a fraction of the cost. The money saved won’t solve all our financial woes, but it will solve some—and could save lives doing so.

Some will argue that this cost dilemma can be resolved by shortening trials and appeals and just getting on with the putting the condemned to death. Unfortunately, in a system that already convicts hundreds of innocent people, removing legal safeguards only ensures more mistakes. Plus, these legal safeguards are guaranteed by the Constitution. We can’t wave the flag and brag about American exceptionalism through individual rights, then turn around and want to strip away those rights in the name of expediency.

The second major problem with the death penalty is that there’s a high probability that we execute innocent people. The traditional test of a person’s philosophy about justice is a simple question: If you had 10 people sentenced to death but you knew one was innocent, would you keep them all in prison for life with the hopes that the innocent person will be discovered and released? Or would you execute all of them with the idea that the occasional innocent person is an acceptable loss for a greater good? If you answer that you’d keep them in prison, you’re against the death penalty.

Recent studies suggest that this theoretical test is more of a reality than most of us realized. A study, “Rate of False Conviction of Criminal Defendants Who Are Sentenced to Death,” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that about 1 in every 25 of people sentenced to death are innocent. Since 1973, 143 death row inmates have been exonerated—fewer than half the number who actually may have been innocent, according to this calculation.

The third problem with the death penalty is that the system is biased based on race and economic standing. Minorities have Favorite Son status when it comes to being executed. According to a study by law professor David Baldus and statistician George Woodworth, a black defendant is four times more likely to receive a death sentence than a white defendant for a similar crime. Part of the reason for this may be that those most responsible for determining which cases to pursue are white. Nearly 98% of chief district attorneys in counties using the death penalty are white; about 1% are African American. This bias was also apparent in the case of disgraced Chicago police commander Jon Burge, who, along with a group of other officers known as the “midnight crew,” allegedly tortured more than 100 young black men with beatings, suffocation, electrocution, and more in order to extract confessions.

The other key factor is the race of the victim. A black defendant is often more likely to get the death sentence if the victim is white. Between 1976 and 2014, Florida executed 84 people, but none of the condemned were white people who had killed an African American. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, no white person has ever been executed in Florida for killing a black person. In Alabama, only 6% of murders are blacks killing whites, yet 60% of blacks on death row involved a white victim. In Louisiana, if the murder victim is white, the state is 97% more likely to seek the death penalty. Since 1976, 269 African Americans have been executed when the victim was white, while only 20 whites have been executed when the victim was black. This lack of fair application is why some opponents of the death penalty consider it unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.

Another unfair application is the lack of adequate representation received by poor defendants. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg addressed this issue: “People who are well represented at trial do not get the death penalty.” Although poor defendants are guaranteed representation, they aren’t guaranteed the best representation. This is evident when we examine the records of some these court-appointed attorneys: Nearly 1 in 4 death row inmates were represented by court-appointed attorneys who were disciplined for professional misconduct during their careers. A report by the Texas Defender Service concluded that death row inmates have a 1 in 3 chance of being executed “without having the case properly investigated by a competent attorney and without having any claims of innocence or unfairness presented or heard.” The attorneys for one-fifth of the death row inmates in Washington state over the last 20 years were disbarred, suspended, or arrested. This list of incompetent representation goes on.

Glenn Ford is an example of all these faults of the death penalty system converging in a perfect storm of injustice. In March of this year, Ford was declared innocent and released after serving 30 years on Louisiana’s death row. Had he been executed at any time during those 30 years, his innocence would never have been revealed. At the time of his arrest for the murder of a white woman, Ford was black, poor, and innocent. His lead attorney was a specialist in law relating to gas and oil exploration and had never tried a case before a jury. The all-white jury who convicted him did so based on eyewitness and expert testimony. Unfortunately, the eyewitness was the girlfriend of another man accused of the crime who later admitted she lied to the court. The three “experts” were later proven to have given evidence that was either inconclusive or just plain wrong. The former prosecutor of the case, A.M. Stroud III, in a letter of apology, said, “This case is another example of the arbitrariness of the death penalty. I now realize, all too painfully, that as a young 33-year-old prosecutor, I was not capable of making a decision that could have led to the killing of another human being.”

Supporters of the death penalty may say it deters other would-be murderers, but 2009 study in the Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology states that “the consensus among criminologists is that the death penalty does not add any significant deterrent effect above that of long-term imprisonment.” Some argue that it brings closure for families of victims. In some cases it does; in others it doesn’t. That’s why there are various organizations—California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights—made up of family members of murder victims who oppose the death penalty.

Our laws are not based on what will or will not bring closure, but on what is just. Those who claim that the death penalty is necessary to promote the sanctity of life are caught in a spiral of circular logic. Certainly, there’s no proof that the sanctity of life is less in Great Britain, France, Spain, or any of the 140 countries who banned the death penalty.

Some people deserve to die. They commit acts so brutal that they cannot ever be a part of society. But we can’t let our passion for revenge override our communities’ best interest. The death penalty is an elaborate Rube Goldberg device with a thousand moving parts, each one expensive and in serious disrepair, to achieve a dubious end. With something as irrevocable as death, we can’t have one system of justice for the privileged few and another for the rest of the country. That, more than anything, diminishes the sanctity of human life.

Yes, there are many ways the death penalty system might someday be improved so that it will cost less, not risk innocent lives, and be fairly applied to all. Until that day, life without parole will bring us justice and allow us the opportunity to correct our mistakes before it’s too late.

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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