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White Privilege and the Paradox of NBA Fandom

One white professional basketball player, Kyle Korver, offers the central insight into what white privilege consists of. The Daily Devil’s Dictionary reports. 

In an astonishingly honest article on race relations in the US, Kyle Korver, a sharpshooting basketball player for the Utah Jazz, has outed himself as a privileged white man. Reflecting on who he is within a society that he thinks should go much further in reflecting on its identity and the values it represents, he lays out in detail what he has learned about his own identity and how he has learned it. He describes the inequality spawned by endemic racism and tells us: “I believe it’s the responsibility of anyone on the privileged end of those inequalities to help make things right.”

There are those who vehemently deny that white privilege exists in the land of opportunity. Korver, a white millionaire, has seen it up close and offers a much-needed insight into what it is and how it works.

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Privileged:

Being in a position to make choices as a passively complicit member of a group that relies on other people being actively excluded from making those same choices

Contextual note

Korver sums up his key insight with the pair of words: “opt in” and “opt out.” After affirming his support of the struggle his teammates and colleagues of color endure in their daily lives, he provides the often neglected key to understanding how his own privilege plays out. Speaking of the politically correct rhetoric that broadcasts its awareness of the severely unequal conditions imposed on the black community by history and tradition, a discourse he and many conscientious white people endorse, he offers this analysis: “I’m still in this conversation from the privileged perspective of opting in to it. Which of course means that on the flip side, I could just as easily opt out of it. Every day, I’m given that choice — I’m granted that privilege — based on the color of my skin.”

In other words, opting in — expressing one’s concern — is easy to do when there’s no cost to opting out. White privilege can, therefore, be defined as the freedom to not feel concerned by deplorable conditions imposed on other races in a society in which your race dominates. Korver wrote this piece with the intention of provoking his white fans in Utah not to see him as someone who accepts to be complicit in their racism.

Though he makes no attempt to analyze the psychology of American basketball fans, Korver implies that a lot of white people who root for NBA teams are happy to see “their” black players perform well for the glory of their team and only refrain from insulting their own black players because they are performing on the white fan base’s behalf. In this sense, they are modern gladiator-slaves.

Though no statistics appear to be available, a glance at the crowds at an NBA game reveals that the public is overwhelmingly white, whereas the players are 75% black. That should hardly be surprising since tickets are expensive. That is another aspect of white privilege. On the other hand, 45% of the television viewing audience is black, the highest percentage of any US sport.

What this means is that a white member of the crowd is likely to feel “at home” with the crowd and, for the most part, unconsciously share its patronizing sentiment about the black players, which, at an extreme, regards them as circus animals trained to delight crowds with their abnormal physical prowess.

Historical note

Back in 2011, a writer for Business Insider observed: “I also make a habit of asking every white sports fan I know whether they watch the NBA. In virtually every instance, they say they once watched the game but no longer do. When I ask them if it has anything to do with the racial composition, they do their best to look indignant. But my guess is they felt very differently about the game when Larry Bird and John Stockton were playing.” What he is saying is that a lot of the white audience has, as its privilege authorizes it to do, “opted out.”

It is very instructive to look at the best arguments of those who claim white privilege is a myth. In 2016, when the issue had already become a point of national debate, Dennis Prager, writing for the conservative National Review, did his best to reassure white America in an appeal to logic, history, cherry-picked statistics and ersatz psychology to prove white privilege didn’t exist.

His central argument reveals more about the cultural basis on which white privilege is established than it does to undermine the concept. “No reasonable person,” he tells us, “can argue that white privilege applies to the great majority of whites, let alone to all whites. There are simply too many variables other than race that determine individual success in America.” Prager uses a cheap rhetorical device, an appeal to his audience’s prejudice, when he cites what “reasonable people” believe. Only “reasonable people” would even be reading his article, meaning they would have to agree with his reasoning.

Prager shows himself to be slightly more subtle when he shifts his focus to the question of the achievement of individual success and uses an appeal to statistical jargon (“too many variables”) to underline the point. The idea of “individual success” is a central tenet of the American credo. Denying it would make one a “collectivist,” clearly un-American. As a rhetorical strategy, you could call this focusing on the tree to hide the forest. Prager wants us to believe that if individuals can be successful and groups are composed of individuals, talking about difference in groups makes no sense. He might just as well have repeated the meme, “Stop complaining and get a job!”

In other words, white privilege thrives on the quintessential American myth of self-reliance and self-determination (no individual has an excuse for failure) coupled with the manifestly false and dishonestly promoted belief that the US is the “land of equal opportunity” since the law is the same for all.

Kyle Korver’s point is undeniable: Some people can opt in or opt out, according to their mood. Others simply cannot.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.