TIME Race

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.

TIME Race

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.

TIME Race

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.

TIME Culture

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Don’t Ban Fraternities. Address the Bigger Problems.

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.

Is their behavior a sobering reflection of America’s unconscious values?

It’s been a bad year for Fraternity Row. Hazing violence, rape accusations, and racist rants have a lot of people wondering whether fraternities still serve a useful purpose or instead create an atmosphere of fear, elitism, and danger that is the antithesis of what higher education should be about. Several schools — including Rutgers University, Johns Hopkins University, and Emory University — have announced limitations of fraternity parties, while some frats have been temporarily closed. Just this week, New York City’s Baruch College was hit with a $25 million lawsuit over a hazing death. Commentator Bill Maher recently called for banning fraternities, comparing their hazing techniques to that of ISIS. Even frat icon and Old School star Will Ferrell, a former fraternity brother, said in March that colleges should consider “getting rid of the system altogether.”

Once admired as the ultimate college experience of fellowship, lifelong business connections, and good-natured fun, to many people today, fraternities are the social equivalent of the greasy guy on the subway taking photos with a hidden shoe phone.

The debate over banning fraternities can best be answered by watching the opening scene in the pilot episode of HBO’s series, The Wire. Detective Jimmy McNulty is sitting on a stoop with a pal of a man known as Snot Boogie who’s been shot dead in the street. As the cops work the nearby crime scene, the dead man’s pal explains that every Friday they would play craps in the alley, and every Friday, when the pot got big, Snot Boogie would grab the cash and run. They’d run after him, catch him, and beat him. McNulty asks the obvious question: “If every time Snot Boogie would grab the money and run away, why’d you even let him in the game?” To which the friend replies, “Got to. It’s America, man.”

Yeah, it’s America, man. The land of freedom of speech, the freedom to gather, the freedom to make a fool of yourself. Where we punish individuals for crimes, not whole groups.

Fraternities offer real, practical benefits: Many engage in charitable community service, lifelong friendships are forged, and they can be safe havens from academic stress. They also create networks that can improve business and political careers. Since 1877, 69% of U.S. presidents have been in fraternities. Since 1910, 85% of U.S. Supreme Court justices have been in fraternities. In addition, 76% of U.S. senators, 85% of Fortune 500 executives, and 71% of men in Who’s Who in America have also been in fraternities.

The main issue isn’t whether or not fraternities should be banned, but what the toilet-circling reputation of fraternities says about our culture in general. Is their behavior a sobering reflection of America’s unconscious values, or an abhorrent aberration birthed from self-entitlement and pampering?

Let’s start with hazing, the usually infantile, sometimes sadistic, often humiliating initiation ritual pledges are put through before they are deemed worthy of joining, and sometimes after. The philosophy behind hazing is the same used by every organization from the military to certain businesses to religious cults: Strip the initiate of individual identity until they place their loyalty to the group over themselves. Fraternities should immediately eliminate the practice. A Huffington Post/YouGov poll found that a hefty majority of Americans want to see fraternities caught hazing removed from campus.

Another behavior of some fraternities is blatant racism, as seen in the video of Oklahoma University fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon boys singing, “There will never be a n***** in SAE. You can hang him from a tree, but he can never sign with me.” That chapter has since been closed. It shouldn’t have been. The act was outrageous but still within the parameters of free speech. Instead, the fraternity should have made social amends through outreach programs within the black community. Hopefully, this incident will result in a decline of new students wanting to join fraternities where such behavior is tolerated.

The much more important behaviors involve sex and alcohol. These abuses are more widespread, affect many more people inside and outside the fraternities, and are indeed reflective of American attitudes. They are especially significant because booze and sexism are more aligned with the male manifesto of machismo that reverberates throughout society.

Let’s admit it, we are a booze-obsessed nation. Many Americans, especially the youth, are convinced us that we can’t have a good time without alcohol, often a lot of alcohol. The red plastic cup is as much the symbol of coming of age as getting a driver’s license. Non-drinkers are often relentlessly pressured to drink. Being drunk is glamorized on TV and in movies as proof of having had a good time. “Let’s get wasted!” is viewed as a rallying cry for fun rather than as a cry for help.

For some, this Romanticizing the Stoli is symbolized by frat parties, where booze and bad behavior flows like the river of urine on the back lawn. In fact, it’s these legendary parties that attract a lot of boys to fraternities because it’s clearly a place where they can live out their adolescent fantasies of bacchanalian excess.

Before we dismiss this as just college kids enjoying life while their young, let’s think of the consequences: About 88,000 people each year die of alcohol-related causes, making it the third leading preventable cause of death in the U.S.; the cost of misuse of alcohol problems is about $223.5 billion a year; nearly half of college students who drink also binge drink; about 1,825 college students between 18 and 24 die from unintentional alcohol-related injuries each year; 97,000 students in the same age range are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape.

That last statistic leads us to the even worse problem of sexual exploitation and abuse of women. Pennsylvania State had a recent scandal involving a fraternity’s Facebook page on which they posted nude photos of unconscious women. Brown University suspended two fraternities recently for “facilitated” sexual misconduct. According to John D. Foubert, a professor of higher education and student affairs at Oklahoma University who studies sexual assault, research has shown “that fraternity men are three times more likely to commit sexual assault than other college men.”

While it’s easy to blame fraternities and be done with it, the real underlying problem we need to face is this: Where do our young men first get the idea that sexual exploitation and boozy behavior are OK? That alcohol will make them “the world’s most interesting man”? That girls are attracted to boys who treat them like they’re in porn magazines?

Let’s not ban fraternities. Let’s regulate them much more strictly regarding alcohol use and sexual harassment. Let’s punish individuals rather than organizations. Then, let’s take a closer look at how much our ads, TV shows, movies, and music perpetuate the kind of dim thinking that encourages this abuse.

It’s America, man, and we’re better than this.

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: Baltimore Is Just the Beginning

Protesters march from City hall to the Sandtown neighborhood in Baltimore on May 2, 2015.
Andrew Burton—Getty Images Protesters march from City hall to the Sandtown neighborhood in Baltimore on May 2, 2015.

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

"The Baltimore uprising isn’t just about Freddie Gray"

The curfew has been lifted in Baltimore, and now all of God’s children are once again tucked back in the snug routine of their daily lives. The black temper tantrum is over, America. We can all go back to watching Castle boyishly charm his way through murder mysteries. Order is restored.

Except, as Sportin’ Life says in Porgy and Bess, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

What happened in Baltimore isn’t just a one-and-done situation. This wasn’t just a slight sprain in the ankle that we’ll be able to walk off by morning. This was a violently shattered bone that will have America limping forward on crutches for months to come, maybe even years.

One thing that history has taught us is that civil unrest is rarely just about what incites the incident. From what information the public has been given, Freddie Gray’s death seems like a malignant cocktail of negligence and abuse, and the charges brought against the six officers seem to confirm that. But we’ve seen this all before—many times.

So why now? Why Baltimore? Why Freddie Gray?

The Baltimore uprising isn’t just about Freddie Gray. The image of the cops carrying him, his legs dangling uselessly, his neck crooked awkwardly is a visual manifestation of the impotence many African Americans have felt over the past year as death after death of black people at the hands of police keep adding up. After each death there is the usual flurry of outrage, protests, political promises, celebrity tweeting, and condemnation of protestors. Then nothing happens until the next death, which is often tragically close behind. About 70 unarmed blacks have been killed by police between 1999 and 2014. The only thing that seems to change is that the list of the dead keeps getting longer.

Baltimore is the most recent in a long, frustrating line of protests that seem to vent anger, produce few substantial results, and reveal a larger pattern of systemic injustice. For African Americans, it feels as if we are all gathered together in the path of giant steamroller. We shout up at the driver to put on the brakes, but he keeps shouting for us to get out of the way. But there’s no place to go. We keep backing up and backing up. In Baltimore, it felt as though everyone’s back was against the wall, and there was no place to back up to anymore. If shouting doesn’t get the driver’s attention, maybe something more drastic will.

The protests in Baltimore were similar to the Boston Tea Party in 1773, the more than 200,000 people at the Washington, D.C. National Mall to hear Martin Luther King Jr. in 1964, and the anti-war march of more than 500,000 on Washington, D.C., in 1969. When people feel disenfranchised, helpless, and hopeless, they will take to the streets to air their grievances.

However, this is where things get tricky for the American public. Baltimore protestors weren’t just expressing their anger over the treatment of Freddie Gray; they were expressing their frustration over living in economic circumstances that makes them seem less than human to those in power. Worse, they have little hope that these circumstances will change.

During Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, his strategist, James Carville, had everyone working on the campaign focused on one phrase: “The economy, stupid!” That phrase is the key to understanding the anguish of the protestors in Baltimore. Though Baltimore is in the richest state in the country, Maryland blacks’ median income is about $40,000 a year less than the median income of the state. Baltimore is 63% black, and in 2013, the unemployment rate for black men between 20 and 24 was 37%, compared to 10% for whites of the same age.

In Freddie Gray’s neighborhood, more than half of those between 16 and 64 are unemployed. Life expectancy in the predominantly black neighborhoods of Upton/Druid Heights is 63 years, while in the predominantly white affluent Roland Park, about five miles away, it’s 83 years. And that’s just a small sample of the economic quicksand that many black residents of Baltimore live on. How long can you politely ask for someone to throw you a lifeline before the sand swallows you whole?

What’s even more frustrating for African Americans across America witnessing the events is the blatant attempt of some in the media to portray this as (1) the result of “thugs” who want to exploit Gray’s death to stock up on some free TVs and (2) an anomaly that doesn’t represent America. Both attitudes exhibit the kind of racial profiling that is at the heart of the problem in the first place.

A Bob Gorrell political cartoon shows a black man in a hoodie and with the stubble of the terminally unemployed, holding up a sign that says: “#BLACK LIVES MATTER (but police, private property and public safety DON’T!)” A Rick McKee cartoon features another black man in a hoodie wearing sunglasses and holding a box with a giant flat-screen TV. Behind him, the city is burning. He says to a little boy, “I burned your neighborhood and looted your stores so that you can live in a more just and fair society. … You’re welcome.”

Both of these cartoons exemplify the simple-minded—and racist—idea that looters and protestors are the same because they’re black and live in the same place. Protestors want to promote a political agenda, while looters want swag. Clearly, looters are criminals hurting the cause of the protesters and should be arrested and prosecuted. But when you lump them together and call them all “thugs,” you don’t have to listen to the real issues. It’s the adult equivalent of jamming your fingers in your ears, closing your eyes, and humming loudly.

The chorus of pundits proclaiming shock at the riots is another version of indignation not supported by history. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer said it was “hard to believe this was happening in a major American city.” He then added, “I don’t remember seeing anything like this in the United States of America in a long time.” How could a journalist not remember the recent riots in Ferguson, Los Angeles, and New York?

America was born out of protest. We felt economically suppressed and politically repressed, and we changed things. Slaves weren’t freed by benevolent leaders wanting to do the right thing. No one gave the American worker better and safer conditions out of gratitude for a job well done. Vietnam veterans didn’t get their benefits from an Agent-Orange-denying government by sitting at home waiting patiently. Each time, Americans took to the streets to be heard.

I suggest we all pay attention to what’s happening in Baltimore, because it’s very likely that unless the economic and injustice issues raised there are addressed in a meaningful way across the country, we will be seeing many more Baltimores throughout the election season.

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: Nothing Less Than an Assassination

It just adds another body to the body count

Another day, another black man murdered by police.

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

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

MORE Man Who Filmed South Carolina Police Shooting Speaks Out

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

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

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

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

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TIME Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

MORE Indiana Governor Urges Clarification of Controversial Religious Freedom Law

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TIME Race

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t stop trying, Mr. Starbuck.

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

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