Below is a Q&A with former Lakers and UCLA center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar about his political and social activism, racial inequalities, athletes that take social and political stands, among other issues.
You have listed Jackie Robinson, Dr. Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X as some of your mentors. What did you learn from them/which messages resonate with you?
Abdul-Jabbar: “From all four, I learned the meaning of courage. For each of them, it wasn’t enough to talk about what was right, they took action, putting their own safety in peril in order to do the right thing. Their example of enduring so much public hatred yet still forging head to further the cause of equality made me realize I would be ashamed if I didn’t do my part.”
What racial issues did you experience as a child, college student and even a professional athlete?
Abdul-Jabbar: “Every person of color or of a religious minority or exploring gender identity in this country has stories of being discriminated against. My experiences were no worse than theirs. Yes, I was called all the popular racial slurs from the time I was in middle school until today. Every time I write an article I unleash the hounds of racism who bark and snarl in the anonymity of the internet.
There are two aspects of racism, and all discrimination. First, is the physical threat. When I was in high school, I was coming come by subway from playing basketball with some friends and got off in Harlem in the middle of a protest demonstration that turned violent. People were running everywhere to escape the violence. Even though I had nothing to do with the protest, I was suddenly running for my life, cursing the fact that I was so tall and therefore more of a target. This awoke me to how much being black was a constant physical threat to my life.
The second aspect is the intense feeling of betrayal by the society I was born into, raised in, and love. Yet, people feel entitled and justified in trying to make me feel less of an American and less of a human being than they are. Today, that betrayal comes in the form of institutional racism that results in unarmed black people being killed by police, by rampant poverty, and by politicians who do nothing because they don’t get donations from the poor.”