Missing their mark: Athlete activism for the poor and impoverished


In the past few weeks, a number of high-profile black athletes have added their voices to a growing spirit of activism across the country. From Carmelo Anthony’s powerful tweet following the shooting of police officers in Dallas, to the #blacklivesmatter T-shirts worn recently by all of the players in the WNBA, black athletes have become increasingly engaged in calling attention to issues of social inequality and violence.

Even the legendary Michael Jordan, famous for his lack of overt political activism during his heyday as the world’s best basketball player, recently documented his concerns with violence against black men and against police officers, and pledged $1 million each to the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund and the Institute for Community-Police Relations.

These actions are all noteworthy and deserve commendation. Through their popularity on social media, their public appearances, and their financial clout, these athletes have called on all Americans – black and white, old and young, rich and poor – to engage in thoughtful dialogue with one another, to grapple with racial and class barriers. They have been consistent in arguing for better conversations between communities and their local police.

As the Olympics are approaching, it remains to be seen whether that spirit of activism among athletes will continue. If it does, athletes would do well to remember the controversial “Black Power” salute given by U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the medal stand of the 200-meter dash at the 1968 games in Mexico City. Heads bowed, black-gloved fists thrust in the air as the U.S. national anthem played, the two acted in defiance of an IOC ban against acts of protest. However, while most know that the event occurred, fewer are aware of the numerous issues that the two sprinters sought to call attention to with their silent protest.

When the two athletes raised their two fists, they did more than affirm a nebulous idea of black pride, as many seem to think. They addressed specific issues relevant to the broader black community. The badges they wore on their tracksuits (worn by Australian silver medalist Peter Norman to show his support as well) promoted Harry Edwards’ work with the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which primarily targeted racism’s presence in organized sports. Tommie Smith’s black scarf was meant to indicate black pride. John Carlos left his jacket unzipped to express solidarity with all blue-collar workers, and he wore beads on his neck to call attention to the victims of lynching. And one final thing: both athletes took the podium in only their socks, a symbol, they said, of black poverty.

The wide-ranging symbolism of that protest is important, even now – especially its economic dimensions. For as much as black athletes have become involved in social activism, almost no one has been willing to engage with the pivotal issues that underlie much of the violence and heated rhetoric: the huge wealth gap that exists between minorities of color and white Americans, and the resultant socially and economically isolated ghettos that exist in countless cities across the nation. As of 2013, according to the Urban Institute, white families on average had approximately seven times the wealth of black families. Meanwhile, a number of urban analysts have noted that geographic concentrations of poverty, especially in urban areas, continue to be on the rise.

Where are the athletes demanding better housing for the poor? Or higher wages? Or more options for poorer children to attend mixed-race schools? Will athletes at the Olympics use their international spotlight to call attention to these systemic issues? Will they follow the lead of Carlos and Smith?

With so many mired in poverty and cut off from feasible avenues of uplift, the task of ending the violence in our communities will need more than better dialogue, improved community-police relations and more fairness in the criminal justice system. It will require a thorough engagement with the inequalities of our society. Only by leveling the playing field of American civic life, in the broadest terms, can significant change be effected.

The upcoming Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro mark another opportunity for athletes to use their prominence to take a stand. Let us hope that some courageous stars use this moment as a wake-up call for American politicians, business leaders and ordinary citizens to fix these broad systemic issues. The isolated and impoverished need all the help they can get.

Gregory Kaliss, a UNC graduate, is a visiting assistant professor of history at Dickinson College, where he teaches on sports, race and the American dream.