Barkley Busts Out

My buddy Brian just emailed me an interview that Charles Barkley did with the New Republic (TNR). For those of you who don’t know, TNR is a somewhat schizophrenic politically oriented periodical. Generally identified as left-of-center despite having a right-wing publisher, it has been critical of the Bush administration in recent years, but initially supported the invasion of Iraq. It has set itself up as a critic, among other things, of what it views as more extreme forms of liberalism, viewing itself as a more moderate, reasoned voice within our political discourse and seeming, at times, to be more offended by left-wing, populist rantings than by Republican misdeeds. Well, someone forgot to send the memo about moderation to Charles Barkley. I can’t access the whole on-line version (it’s for subscribers only), but let’s just say that those long-standing rumors about Chuck running for governor of Alabama as a Republican – I don’t think so.

Some excerpts:

So is that what interests you primarily–economic issues?

America is divided by economics strictly. You know, people always talk about race, and we have racial problems in this country. Of course we do. But the real issue is the rich against the poor. We’ve got to get poor white people and poor black people and Mexicans to realize they are all in the same boat. If you in one of those three groups and you are poor, you are going to be in a bad neighborhood, you are going to go to a bad school, and you are going to have strikes against you. You can’t commit crimes in good neighborhoods. They will get your ass. Their kids go to private school, or they go to school in a good economic area. But the poor people, they are all in the same boat but they divide you based on race or stuff like that. A lot of these politicians say things like “We’ve got to stop all these illegal immigrants.” I am like, “That is so easy to stop.” They are not working for other immigrants.

Has your perspective on these issues changed in the last few years?

Yes, when I realized that rich people will always be rich and the poor people are like crabs in a barrel. They are going to fight with each other, but they are really in the same boat. They want you to argue about gay marriage. They want you to argue about the war in Iraq. There is not a single person in this country in good conscience who can say the war in Iraq is going well. But then when you see someone criticize it … some other guy from the other party says he is badmouthing the troops. And I am like, “No he’s not.” We are able to disagree, and saying that the war in Iraq is not going well is not treason. Some of these guys want to try people for treason. The war in Iraq is not going well.

When did you stop considering yourself a Republican?

I never was a Republican. I said this when I was playing. I was doing some interview talking about politics, and my grandmother was there, and the reporter said, “Are we Republicans or are we Democrats?” My grandmother said that Republicans were only for rich people, and I said, “Well, I’m rich.”

Didn’t you say you wanted to run for governor of Alabama as a Republican?

No. If I run, I would run as an independent more than anything. But I am not sure you can win as an independent because there is so much money at stake in politics. My only goal in life is to help poor people. The problem I have is, in America, people just believe anything they read or see on television, and some of those things are slanted. If you watch Fox, it’s slanted–and I mean really slanted. Sometimes I think the people just don’t have any common sense. A lot of them don’t.

I confess that when Barkley criticized Tim Hardaway for his comments about gay people, wondered whether Barkley was just being diplomatic. The following comments (my emphasis added), convinces me that my hunch was wrong:

Are there any politicians now that you like? I have heard you have Barack Obama in your cell phone. Is that true?

Barack is a good friend of mine. John Edwards is a good friend of mine. I supported John last time because John got my attention last time. He said that we had to address the issues, the disparity between the rich and the poor. And I called him and talked to him and said, “You aren’t going to be talking no bullshit against gay people.” America has got to address the differences between rich and poor. That is the number-one problem we have in this country–economics. And John got my attention, and I am going to meet with him again; I like him. Barack is a friend. I’ve got to make sure where his head is and make sure he is not just trying to get elected. This is going to be a very interesting election because we are going to find out who is sexist and who is racist. Because I don’t think a woman can win, because I think America is sexist. I am not sure Barack can win, because I do think we have a racial divide in this country.

Barkley is critical of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton in the interview (accusing them of double standards when it comes to Black and White racism), and also angry at what he perceives as Black self-destructiveness:

In some quarters Barack (Obama) has been criticized for not being black enough.

Well, that’s because black people are fucked up. One of the reasons that black people are not going to be successful is because of other black people. We tell black kids that if they make good grades, they are acting white. If they speak well, we tell them that they are acting white. We have a lot of demons in our own closet–in our own family–that we have to address. But first of all, we want black men to be intelligent and articulate and things like that. That’s not acting white. That’s the way it should be. … We become our own worst enemy with random black-on-black crime, teen pregnancy, single-parent homes. You know we cannot blaming white America for our ills. Does racism exist? Of course it does. But, at some point, I have to make sure I am educated. I don’t have ten kids and no job. I am not killing other black people. At some point, you have to grow up.

I am not going to agree with everything Charles Barkley says and I’d put differently some of the arguments Barkley makes, even when I do agree with him. But, as Dave Zirin has long argued (and did so in his interview with Mizzo and Dwil yesterday), athletes have a unique platform from which to speak. Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan have been two notable targets of criticism for their reticence in speaking out about political issues (when, in fact, their endorsement of Nike (for example) is, of course, a political statement in itself). And, while plenty of athletes are willing to speak about their faith (and, often, the politics that frequently accompany fundamentalist Christianity in this country), it’s extremely rare to see a high profile athlete speak the language of class in the way Barkley has here. For my money, that’s far more courageous than decrying rap music, both in the context of sports discourse and in politics more generally in America, when talk of class often brings the reflexive charge of “class warfare.” In fact, near the end of the interview, a Barkley aide interjected a question about whether that’s exactly what Barkley was engaging in.

Barkley’s response:

That is what rich people want you to think. If you are rich, you are always going to be rich. It is the poor people I have to bring together. Look, I have nothing against rich people. I am rich–blessed, fortunate, lucky. I want to bring my fame and notoriety to bring attention to these problems.

I just became a Barkley fan.


11 Responses to “Barkley Busts Out”

  1. I love his focus on class: it’s exactly what we need in political discourse in this country. And he seems to recognize that issues of class and race are tied together.

    Whether you agree or disagree with what he says (I agree with him more than I disagree with him, whatever that means), I see Barkley’s virtual carte blanche to say just about anything he wants about anything he wants to be a sign of progress for our country.

  2. TheLastPoet Says:


    I, too, can appreciate the fact that, at age 40-something, Charles Barkley is finally starting to grow up.

    But I’m not sure he has “virtual carte blanche,” as you say. Nor do I think that his carte blanche, if indeed he has it, is a sign of progress. Sure, he says what he wants, but (before now, at least) he has been regarded as a buffoon. During the 60s and 70s, Black athletes like Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Arthur Ashe, Tommy Smith, John Carlos, and many more were already very busy saying “just about anything” – they set a precedent in this regard (although there were also those who came before them) but they were publicly reviled. So, if you think that turning revilement into buffonery is a sign of progress, well… ok.

    Meanwhile, Barkley admires Ali, as do many, and views himself in some sense as Ali’s successor on the social justice front (he has said so in inyterviews). He even speaks with the same easy country drawl. But I happen to think the fact that the beliefs of Ali and the others, though ridiculed, were taken seriously by a racist press and general public, is actual more valuable toward a discussion of race, class, gender, and social justice than anything Barkley has to say to a public that mostly regards him as a comic figure.

    Perhaps now he’s turning the corner and becoming a man we all must take seriously. If so, I’m glad for him, but this means that his popularity as a celebrity will very quickly take a nosedive. Indeed those very same people whom he criticised in the interview as lacking common sense will be the ones who do not understand why Barkley isn’t his same ol irreverent self busting jokes about midgets and the people of the Bay Area on TNT’s Inside the NBA. Why is he all of a sudden talking about rich v. poor, they will ask, isn’t he rich? And they will turn on him.

    Moreover, despite his newfound class consciousness (or because of it, perhaps), he remains under-informed about the nuances of race, gender, as well as a myriad of other social issues, and so I still don’t want him speaking for me. Us Blackfolk have better informed, better educated, street smart, and more articulate people out here who can do the job better. As soon as the everyday bystander starts recognizing THOSE voices (the voices of the better informed), and giving THEM carte blanche, then I can agree that we have made significant progress as a country.

    What do you think, Pac Vike?

  3. jweiler Says:

    PV and LP

    Great comments. LP – I am of two minds about your take on Barkley. On the one hand, I certainly agree that he’s a sledgehammer, not a subtle guy. And, you are no doubt right that some of the audience that likes the jocular Barkley will turn on him if he really starts to speak out in a consistent way on these issues in the way he did to the new Republic. On the other hand, I think there are a fair number of people out there, including in the sports fan precincts, who have strongly populist sentiments (I hear it on sports talk radio all the time), and maybe Barkley’s way of putting things will speak to them.

    Just ranting and raving won’t create change, of course. But, given Barkley’s platform, I think it’s a potentially valuable development that he’s introducing issues that get so little attention among mainstream sports commentators who – despite all their whining about overpaid athletes – are themselves generally privileged, well-off guys who have no stake in questioning current economic arrangements. Just my two cents.

  4. Last Poet,

    You know what, you’re right: I guess I’m not sure a shift from “serious but reviled” to “buffoonish but accepted” is an actual sign of progress. It might be, but it might not. The fact that many of my students think Dave Chapelle is hilarious may or may not mean they are taking racial stereotypes and perceptions seriously. The progress I see is that those athletes you name weren’t hired by a TV network that basically accepted them saying whatever they wanted. But I think your point is valid.

  5. Everyone deserves the opportunity to grow up…even Barkley. But save us the tirade.

  6. Craig W. Says:

    Hey guys (and gals),
    This is not a new turn for Barkley. If you have been listening to him, he has been saying much the same thing for the past few years. He doesn’t obsess about it, but it does find its way into his vocabulary somewhere most nights when he is on TNT. Also, in other interviews he has been open about his view of class/rich/poor and black responsibility.

    It has been mixed in with this other comments and I suspect will continue to be in the future. This, I think, will allow him to continue being relevant to people who don’t want to listen to 15-20 straight minutes of social commentary. Personally, I believe Charles is filling a very specific niche in the communications fabric and I am thankful he is doing this. There are other, more intellectual voices that can speak to our social leaders. We need people to speak in a blue collar voice.

  7. Craig, that’s true: in 2004 when Barkley was telling us to vote for John Kerry, Barkley had more honest things to say about race and class than any presidential candidate. Sort of weird that a guy that plays the clown so often can address things more honestly than somebody running for higher office. To bounce further off LP’s point, perhaps it is Barkley’s frequent role as buffoon that really allows him to address these things better than others–but the problem is, people might not be taking the serious things he says seriously because of that clown role.

  8. The thing about ol’ Chuck that I like is how he has various passions yet keeps them seperate. One minute he talking about rebounding, the next social problems. If anything, what Barkley does is allow athletes the ability to say “we aren’t just athletic robots, we have opinions and we have a forum. We might not be 100% right and you might not agree, but we have an opinion too, so let’s talk.” Maybe other athletes who have opinions and can come out and make their voices heard because of Barkley’s example.
    Definitely recommended: Barkley’s “I might be wrong, but I doubt it.” I think thats the title. Written a few years ago. Check it out.

  9. Have any of you read the entire article? Jason Whitlock got raked over the coals for his comments about blacks but Barkley gets a pass? His sweeping generalizations about blacks are puke worthy. He talks about “we” but what does HE do besides talk about what other people are or not doing? Does he mentor or provide tutoring for these “fucked up” black people? Has he started or joined any outreach groups? How can anyone be impressed with an individual who just wants to bring his fame and notoriety to an issue? The problems facing blacks in America have nothing to do with a lack of discussion. There’s been too much talk about social issues. It serves no other purpose but to make certain kinds of people feel morally and intellectually superior. Talk is cheap. Charles Barkley is a buffoon.

    Why should Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods or any athlete pushing Nike speak out? Is it because of alleged slave labor in china? If that’s the problem, don’t buy athletic shoes period, and definetly stay out of Wal-mart. That would have a much more profound effect than some athlete popping off at the mouth. And if they should speak out because they are black, well that’s just tired. Non- black athletes are never put under pressure to speak out about social issues. No one asks Yao Ming to speak out about his country buying oil from the Sudan. No one asks David Stearn about his decision to move the NBA to china even though they are supplying the weapons to carry out genocide in Darfur. As a matter of fact no one has even mentioned let alone criticized David Stern for his silence on the actions of Israel in the Middle East. Peyton Manning or Brett favre aren’t asked to “discuss” the class issues having an effect on the trailor park crowd, But blacks are suppose to be front and center attacking everything and everyone.

  10. Eric,

    I think the difference between Barkley and Whitlock is that I find that Barkley’s arguments (for the most part) identify structural root causes of problems, while, from what I’ve read, Whitlock’s arguments are too often essentialist.

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