Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Milwaukee and Racism

It’s an unexpected joy to learn that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar “likes” Wisconsin.  At least, he says he does, based on the comedic – some would say embarrassingly corny – commercial promoting tourism in the state.  If you haven’t seen it, Kareem re-enacts the part he played in the hilariously funny movie, “Airplane,” as the plane flies over prominent vacation spots in the state.

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, A/K/A Lew Alcindor Milwaukee Bucks, 1969-1975

Back when he was drafted to play for the Milwaukee Bucks in 1969, he showed little affection for the city or the state and couldn’t wait until he flee to the LA Lakers, as he did in 1975.  In spite of the role he played – along with a marvelous supporting cast including Oscar Robertson, Jon McGlocklin and Bobby Dandridge – in bringing the Bucks their only NBA championship in 1971, he failed to win the hearts of Milwaukee fans the way Oscar (the “Big O”) did.

As a big fan in those days, a co-worker and myself shared two season tickets in the cheap seats at the Milwaukee Arena.  The seats, by the way, offered a better view of the game than any but the most expensive seats in the Bradley Center.  I know I marveled at this towering player’s sky hook and his ability to block shots.  He was a joy to watch; never was such a tall man so graceful.

Nonetheless, many fans were disappointed in how Kareem (then known as Lew Alcindor) rejected Milwaukee, its lack of sophistication and culture when he asked to be traded to either Los Angeles or New York.  Though he didn’t say it directly, it could be inferred that the racism of our city bothered him.  Even then – when the minority population was a fraction of what it is today – Milwaukee had the reputation of being the most segregated city in the U. S.

Despite his snub of our city, I liked Kareem for his intelligence and honesty.  Like his play on the court, he never held it back, and he didn’t in a recent comment in Time Magazine when the Don Sterling’s racist quote caused Sterling to be dropped as owner of the Los Angeles Clippers.

In true Kareem fashion, he minced no words in saying that just because the nation elected an African-American president Americans are still far from wiping out the stain of our historic racism.  The Don Sterling remark was an example and a symbol of how racism still haunts Americans, even when they don’t realize it.

For instance, Kareem reads off the words we often hear from whites that “I don’t care if you’re white, black, yellow or purple.”  Then he writes: “You might be a racist if you’ve used that phrase.”

He continues: “Maybe the worst racism of all is denying that racism exists, because that keeps us from repairing the damage.”

The Milwaukee of forty years ago when Kareem left the Bucks for the Lakers is now a much different place.  Then, it was an acknowledged “white” community with relatively few minorities.  Today, it is a majority minority city; yet, I doubt that if Kareem returned to spend more than a few hours in the community he’d find anything more to be please him.  While African-Americans, Hispanics and the growing numbers of Asian and Middle Eastern persons filter into many neighborhoods of the city, including a few of the suburbs, African-American and Hispanic ghettos are as concentrated and desperate as ever.  Our public school system is less than 20 per cent white.  Wisconsin continues to incarcerate black males to an extent that no other state does.  And our minority poverty rate is among the worst as well.

Meanwhile, the current reactionary state government in Madison has turned a blind eye to assisting in developing a climate in which all citizens may thrive.  Are the politicians making those terrible decisions all racist?  They would tell you that they “don’t see color;” yet, their very blindness to the issues in our minority community betrays their racism even when they don’t realize it.

The solution, Kareem tells us, should come from each of us.  Each and every time we see an example of racist behavior, we should say so.  He writes:  “That’s why the best way to combat racism . . . is to seek it out every minute of every day and expose every instance we find. And not just racism, but also sexism, homophobia and every other kind of injustice that lessens the principles of inclusion that define this country.”

During his five years playing for the Bucks, Kareem hurried back to either his New York roots or to LA as often as he could.  Now, in his recent tourism advertisement, he seems to show a certain fondness for the state.  Do you think he would find Milwaukee any less racist today as it was during his playing days here?   Ken Germanson, June 21,  2014

(NOTE:  If you feel you have an answer to the closing question, why not answer it with a comment below.)

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