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A League of Their Own

Last weekend, a group calling itself the All-American Basketball Alliance announced plans to form a professional whites-only basketball league. According to a statement—released for some reason just before Martin Luther King Day—"only players that are natural born United States citizens with both parents of Caucasian race" would be eligible to play. It's more proof, if any were needed, that we don't live in a "post-racial society."

"White basketball players are essentially 'shut out' of conventional professional basketball due to the proliferation of non-organized play on the court," the league's statement explained. Don "Moose" Lewis, the former boxing and wrestling promoter who is behind the new league, insists there's nothing racist about it. "There's nothing hatred about what we're doing," he told the Augusta Chronicle. "I don't hate anyone of color. But people of white, American-born citizens are in the minority now. Here's a league for white players to play fundamental basketball, which they like." After all, he asked, "Would you want to go to the game and worry about a player flipping you off or attacking you in the stands or grabbing their crotch?"

But Hall of Fame basketball player Charles Barkley is right to say the proposed league is "blatantly racist." It's a racial fantasy in the first place to imagine there really is a "Caucasian race" with distinct characteristics of its own. It's worth remembering that although they're all seen as white now, it's not that long ago that people of Irish or German descent were looked down on by people who had English ancestry. The truth is that we all—white, black, Asian—come from a mixture of backgrounds, and that our supposed races are as much social categories as anything else. It's similarly racist to suggest that non-whites are not "all-American," as if this were not as much their country as anyone else's. And of course it's racist to assume that non-whites necessarily play "street ball"—or, for that matter, that they grab their crotches. NBA players don't always play fundamental basketball largely because the crowds who come to see the games and buy NBA merchandise love flashy highlight plays, not because many of the players are black. Never mind that it's Tim Duncan—who is black—who's earned the nickname "the Big Fundamental" for his solid, smart team play. And if the style of basketball were really the issue, it would be easy enough to actually test the skills of prospective players instead of automatically assuming that anyone with darker skin can't pass the ball or play team defense.

Whites, in any case, are not in fact a minority in the United States. Even excluding Hispanics, whites still make up about 2/3 of the population. It's not clear why it would matter if whites were in the minority anyway. It's certainly not as if they aren't being given a chance to compete at the highest levels of the sport. Nevertheless, I think the idea that whites are in the minority—and the idea that they are being treated unfairly—is a product of shifting demographics and changing racial norms. People like Lewis resent the fact that whites no longer necessarily have a higher social status simply by virtue of the color of their skin. They bend the facts to justify the feeling that they're being treated unfairly. But the truth is that what bothers them is not that they're not being treated fairly, but rather that others are finally beginning to be treated as equals.

UPDATE: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution thinks there might not really be an "All-American Basketball Alliance" at all. On reflection, I suspect the Journal-Constitution is right. Embarrassed as I am to be taken in by this stunt—if that's what it is—there is no real evidence there is any such league outside of Lewis' statements. And, of course, as a sports promoter generating publicity is what he does. The truth is, while something rings true about the racial resentment, it would surprise me if anyone actually tried to create such a league, even setting aside the incredible legal hurdles. And, of course, you can't believe everything you read on the Internet. My apologies for being taken in.

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