One night a few years ago, my wife and I were playing Scrabble with her grandparents when her grandfather put down his letters and formed a word my wife and I had never heard. When we questioned him, he told us that it was a slang word for some ethnicity or another. We were amused and told him we'd never heard the word.
What followed was five minutes of ethnic profanity. The sort of profanity I would not have wanted my four-year-old daughter to hear. My wife's charming grandfather proceeded, with a delighted look on his face, to tell us every single euro-ethnic slur he'd ever known for Italians, Irish, Jews, Germans, etc.
These were words that I blush just thinking, but my wife's grandfather grew up in New York City, the son of immigrants, in a rough-and-tumble world where these words were apparently bandied about almost like a sport.
If someone I worked with had used one of those words to describe a co-worker, I would be outraged. Coming from my wife's grandfather, I just chalked it up to a guy who grew up in a different country from the one I live in today.
I was reminded of this incident with my grandfather-in-law recently when I'd heard that Jesse Jackson had weighed in on the LeBron James-Dan Gilbert controversy and went for the full monty, saying with regard to Gilbert that:
"His feelings of betrayal personify a slave master mentality. He sees LeBron as a runaway slave. This is an owner employee relationship -- between business partners -- and LeBron honored his contract."
The predictable reaction of many people--and message boards all over the Internet bear me out on this--has been outrage and fury. It really angers people that Jackson, one of the most prominent Civil Rights figures in the country and a constant crier for racial equality, would cloak this controversy with the vestiges of civil rights era rhetoric and allusions to slavery.
And this makes logical sense to me. Personally, I think it is absurd to think that Dan Gilbert's written assault on LeBron James had anything at all to do with the fact that LeBron James was black and Dan Gilbert was white.
In fact, I think it says a lot about where we've come as a country that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Dan Gilbert, and Pat Riley can move about freely without concern whatsoever for their racial differences.
Jackson does not agree. Fine.
Here's the question, should it really upset us that Jesse Jackson sees a racial issue in the Dan Gilbert-LeBron James controversy?
In my opinion, Jesse Jackson has paid his dues and earned the right to say what he thinks on the issue of race at any time. Jackson is not some Johnny-come-lately to the civil rights movement; he was there with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the march from Selma to Montgomery, he was there during the Freedom Summer, and he was there when Dr. King was assassinated.
Jackson came of age in an era of segregation, an era in which blacks were prevented from voting and going to the same schools as whites and joining unions, and were beaten simply for protesting the fact. Jackson was 23 year old when the Civil Rights Act was signed, and by the time he got to his thirties there were still segregated schools in some of the darker reaches of the southern states.
The fact that Jesse Jackson looks at a dispute between a white franchise owner and a black ballplayer and sees vestiges of segregation and slavery is, frankly, not surprising. Jesse Jackson is not so old that he doesn't remember a time when such a characterization would have been fitting, if not altogether correct.
At the same time, Jackson is also an old man. While not as old as my grandfather-in-law, Jackson will be 70 years old next year. We all know members of the older generation who still see things the way they were several decades earlier. Older women rail against the clothes young girls wear and the lifestyles they live. Older men rail against young men and their lack of hard work and responsibility.
Older people have different perspectives from younger people, and the younger people often think those perspectives are crazy.
Crazy or not, though, sometimes it just isn't worth getting worked up about the things older people, especially when they represent a truly antiquated perspective.
Jesse Jackson thinks Dan Gilbert is a racist who sees LeBron James as his slave.
Is there anyone out there who thinks Gilbert feels this way? Is there anyone out there who thinks LeBron thinks Gilbert feels this way?
The proposition is laughable, and not worth getting worked up about.
I think we should chalk Jackson's statements up as a hearkening back to an earlier time when interactions between blacks and whites really were always racially tinged, by a man who has lived long enough to remember, vividly, the horrors of the racial segregation and the violence of the Civil Rights Era.
Jesse Jackson has weighed in LeBron James and Dan Gilbert.
Instead of getting offended, let's respect the man's perspective even though we know he is wrong. Jackson didn't grow up in the America that you and I know today, and if he sees the world a bit different than you and I do, so be it.
The knowledge that he is wrong should be enough to assuage our outrage.