Decades before football quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee in protest of police brutality, sports figures like retired NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar made stands against racial inequality.
The six-time NBA champion boycotted the 1968 Olympic Games by refusing to try out for the U.S. men’s basketball team in order to protest injustice against Black Americans.
Since then, Abdul-Jabbar has been vocal in highlighting racial injustices in the U.S., most recently in the Los Angeles Times where he wrote an op-ed piece called “Don’t understand the protests? What you’re seeing is people pushed to the edge.”
“What I want to see is not a rush to judgment, but a rush to justice,” he wrote in the early days of the protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police.
In response to the demands from widespread protests, federal and local governments across the country are in the midst of conversations regarding policing as we know it.
“Hopefully we have the political will to do something” about policing reform, Abdul-Jabbar says.
Abdul-Jabbar is no stranger to law enforcement: Growing up, his father was a police officer in New York, and before that, his grandfather was a police officer in Trinidad.
Many Black officers reckon with a dual consciousness — as police brutality and racial injustice put them at a crossroads with their identity and career. Abdul-Jabbar says he’s spent time reflecting on his dad’s profession as a Black police officer.
“My dad made a whole lot of the Black Americans in our neighborhood proud because he conducted himself in a very upright way,” he says. “And my dad was decorated twice and retired as a lieutenant. I always had a lot of respect for my dad.”
Abdul-Jabbar’s father was hired at a time when New York City began hiring non-white law enforcement officers, he explains. His dad’s experience speaks to the need to have people of color represent the communities that they serve as officers, he says.
Recent protests have put a spotlight back on Kaepernick and his civil rights activism. The NFL apologized for not listening to players about racism, although NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell did not mention Kaepernick by name.
Other high-profile sports celebrities, such as Lebron James, have come forward to support Black Lives Matter and the movement against police brutality.
Abdul-Jabbar and his peers, like Muhammad Ali and Bill Russell, took similar actions in the 1960s and ‘70s. He says the issues they were fighting against are “basically the same” as they were then.
“The way that society looks upon people of color has not been something that has made for a lot of justice,” he says.
Bruce Lee’s activism and pride as a Chinese man in the ‘60s also resonated with Abdul-Jabbar. Their common advocacy for racial justice in the ‘60s and ‘70s sparked cross-racial solidarity that can also be seen today.
“He faced the same type of racism as a Chinese American that I faced as a Black American,” he says. “So, you know, we were totally up to speed with each other on that issue.”
The once young, promising basketball star standing against racial injustices now finds himself in the same position decades later. But he hasn’t become apathetic or felt the urge to opt-out of the movement.
In the current moment, Abdul-Jabbar thinks people everywhere are “seeing how bad it can be” when it comes to racism.
“It's like what Dr. [Martin Luther King Jr.] told us, we have to have a real commitment,” he says. “We have to keep hitting the subject and reiterating what the truth is before we get to the point where the people that we're talking to will listen to us and help us effect change.”
Exposing the truth is understanding that “if one of us isn’t free, none of us are free,” he says.
As many cities and towns begin to rethink how law enforcement works within their communities, the coronavirus pandemic exposed how racism plays a major role in health disparities within the U.S.
Abdul-Jabbar is focusing on another disparity — education. His program, the Skyhook Foundation, encourages underserved fourth and fifth graders’ interest in STEM opportunities.
He says he believes it’s possible to make great strides toward racial justice during this moment because more people are willing to listen to marginalized voices.
“I've been telling people just to make friends with someone who doesn't look like you. If you can do that, we're going to get past this problem directly,” he says. “You know, that's all it takes. And I think that people are starting to understand that.”
This segment aired on June 12, 2020.