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.


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.


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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t stop trying, Mr. Starbuck.

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

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


Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Who Will Lead Black Americans?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Let’s start with Kanye’s misguided comments.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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TIME Sexual Assault

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

Yes Means Yes Sexual Assault Rape
Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

Go, team.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read next: The Return of the Protest Song

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