Commentary: What Kobe Bryant Doesn't Get About Black People

Keith Boykin analyzes the Lakers' star's recent comments about Trayvon Martin.

Posted: 03/27/2014 03:46 PM EDT

A few months ago on The Arsenio Hall Show, former NFL running back Jim Brown offered a surprising critique of NBA star Kobe Bryant. Brown argued Bryant is "somewhat confused" about his culture because he was brought up in another country.

Jim Brown hails from a generation of legendary athlete-activists, like Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Arthur Ashe, who stood up for social justice causes in their time. But his cultural critique of Kobe Bryant struck me as a bogus argument, reminiscent of the attacks on President Obama for attending school in Indonesia. Like Obama, Bryant spent several years of his youth overseas when his father played professional basketball in Italy. But this means nothing. There is no single Black experience and Kobe is just as much an African-American as a Black kid from the inner city.

Brown, however, didn't stop his critique with Kobe's international background. He also argued Bryant wouldn't be welcome to join a group of socially conscious athletes today. "In the days when we had a summit and we called the top black athletes together to talk to Muhammad Ali about his status with the armed forces, there were some athletes we didn't call," Brown told Arsenio. "If I had to call that summit all over, there would be some athletes I wouldn't call. Kobe would be one of them."

That's all useful information to understand Kobe Bryant's latest controversy, in which he reportedly told the New Yorker he wasn't impressed by the Miami Heat players' decision in 2012 to pose for a photograph in hoodies after the Trayvon Martin shooting. Here's what Bryant said in the interview.

"I won’t react to something just because I’m supposed to because I’m an African-American."  — Kobe Bryant

Sorry, Kobe, the Miami Heat weren't responding just because Trayvon was African-American. There were 5,538 African American men murdered in 2012, according to the FBI. The Miami Heat only responded to one. They responded because Trayvon was a 17-year-old basketball fan who lived in Miami and was shot on his way home to watch the NBA All-Star Game. Why shouldn't a Miami NBA team express its sympathy to one of its fans who was gunned down trying to watch a game?

"Don’t jump to somebody’s defense just because they’re African-American."  — Kobe Bryant

No, Kobe, the Heat weren't jumping to Trayvon's defense just because he was African-American. As sports columnist Dave Zirin notes, they didn't "jump" to Trayvon's defense until dozens of south Florida high schools staged walkouts. "They were responding to a public outcry, not starting one," Zirin said.

And when they did respond, they were defending Trayvon's legacy not just because he was Black but because he was an unarmed teenager with a bag of Skittles and a can of Arizona Iced Tea. Far too many Black kids are gunned down every year in Florida, but the Miami Heat chose to respond to this one because Trayvon's case was unusual. It was the only one in memory in which the killer's identity was publicly known and yet no charges were issued against him until weeks of public pressure.

"You sit and you listen to the facts just like you would in any other situation, right? So I won’t assert myself."  — Kobe Bryant

Yes, Kobe, you should sit and listen to the facts before you speak about controversial topics. But the facts in this case have been known for quite some time, and I can't find a single public statement you've made about it until now.

You did not speak up to express sympathy to Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin for the loss of their son. You did not speak up when the jury acquitted Zimmerman while everyone from Shaquille O'Neal to Dwyane Wade to Chris Paul spoke out on Twitter. And you certainly have not spoken up about "Stand Your Ground" laws that enable people like Zimmerman and Michael Dunn to shoot and kill unarmed teenagers with impunity. Instead, the first time we hear from you about this case is to criticize your fellow athletes who were simply trying to express their solidarity with the loss of another human being.

Yes, I get it. You don't think African-Americans should jump to someone's defense just because the person is African-American. But that doesn't mean you should go to the other extreme and purposefully avoid responding to a tragedy just because the person is African-American.

(UPDATE: Kobe Bryant has informed me that he responded to the George Zimmerman verdict on July 15, 2013 on his Instagram account. His post did not mention Trayvon Martin by name so it did not show up in my Google search.)

Kobe, of course, is not alone. I've written before about Dwight Howard's decision not to discuss Trayvon Martin's shooting, which took place just a few miles from Howard's home arena at the time. Howard's silence made more sense when I learned the Orlando Magic team owner, Richard DeVos, was a prominent supporter of the group that pushed to pass Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law. But I had hoped Howard was an exception.

Fortunately, there are athletes like Kain Colter, Brendon Ayanbadejo and the Miami Heat squad who are not afraid to speak up for social justice from time to time. I wish Kobe Bryant were one of them.

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for BET.com each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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