-- This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's September 14 New Orleans Issue. Subscribe today!
IN THE FIRST 239 days of 2015, 185 black men were murdered in the city of Baltimore. In post-Katrina New Orleans, FiveThirtyEight concluded, black residents are more likely to live in poverty than before the hurricane 10 years ago. The Washington Post recently released data indicating that every nine days, on average, American police kill an unarmed black man. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a 9.1 percent black unemployment rate for July, nearly twice the rate of whites.
White America grows exasperated by the insistence that race still matters, but these facts are a neon sign pointing not at post-racialism but to an entrenched underclass. In Akron, Ohio, hometown of LeBron James, the black poverty rate is 28 percent, 12 points higher than the state average. To James, the numbers are not just a topic, ammunition for winning an argument, but statistical recognition of his life before fame. Days after the anniversary protests marking Michael Brown's death in Ferguson, Missouri, James partnered with the University of Akron and countered the numbers with other numbers, pledging $41 million to send as many as 2,000 at-risk Akron kids to college.
It was a massive initiative, a reminder that, in addition to protest and pressure, the rhetoric of pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps means nothing without boots. It was also something else: proof that James is the signature socially conscious athlete of his time. By this measure he need not aspire to be Michael Jordan. He's already run right past him.
James and Dwyane Wade organized the first athlete protest of the killing of Trayvon Martin. James used his power to rally players and challenge the NBA to be decisive on Donald Sterling. James wore an i can't breathe shirt in warm-ups to show solidarity with young black men disposable to society because they lack his talent. Instead of blaming hip-hop or admonishing the less fortunate, he confronted the "dead or in jail" narrative that permeates black male life with a real program backed by real money. He wrote an enormous check as part of staring down a bitter truth: If "dead or in jail" is as good as it gets for black boys who don't have a blinding 40-yard dash time or a bull's-eye jumper, then at this late date in the American story, integration has been a colossal failure.
James does not live independent of his environment, and neither did Jordan. James is in the prime of his youth and earning power amid national protest and Black Lives Matter. His generation is not a new target of police brutality; it is the latest edition of the same old target. He grew up witnessing the collision between the progress of some and the dead ends for most of the kids who look like him, at a time when the term "post-racial" sounds not only ridiculous but naive. America could not be more racial than it is right now.
Jordan, meanwhile, came of age during the most comprehensive wave of conservatism in the 20th century, a political retrenchment that followed the sweeping social ambition of Lyndon Johnson. Jordan was 15 when the Supreme Court struck down minority set-asides in the landmark Bakke case, limiting affirmative action, and 18 when President Ronald Reagan fired 11,000 striking air traffic controllers. Jordan's 1980s were a market correction of the 1960s, not a time of protest or challenge but one of accumulating individual wealth while Great Society, labor union and New Deal gains and attitudes were being scaled back. Jordan's time was when money was celebrated as the only measure. Greed is good.
The similarities between James and Jordan end when their shared No. 23 jersey rests on a hanger, for Jordan has never been known for a single courageous social act. While James attempts to bridge the powerless to a future, Jordan sued a defunct supermarket chain and won $8.9 million over an advertisement that reportedly yielded all of $4. (Jordan said he planned to donate the money to charity.)
James has accepted a challenge of his times so foreign to the 1980s, making him an heir not to Jordan but to the civil rights movement, to Jim Brown and Bill Russell, to the idea of the athlete as activist. Every day of his career has existed under the shadow of Jordan, but as citizen, LeBron does not look up to Michael. It should be the other way around.