Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.
So there was this big argument on ESPN about basketball and race which led to a big argument on Twitter, which led to me bringing it here to you. I love when sports and race intertwine.
Kendrick Perkins and J.J. Redick, two former NBA players, were on ESPN recently arguing about the NBA MVP race. Perkins, a brother, suggested that there’s racial bias in the voting for NBA MVP. This arose partly because a white man named Nikola Jokic is expected to win his third straight NBA MVP. If he does win, Jokic, from the Denver Nuggets, who has zero NBA championships, will have done something that no Black NBA player has done in over 50 years. Neither Michael Jordan nor LeBron James nor Kobe Bryant nor Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ever won three MVPs in a row. The only other player to have won three in a row in the last 50 years is Larry Bird. (For any Zoomers who might be reading this, Bird is white.) All of this has some Black basketball people a little upset.
That day on ESPN, Redick, who’s white, got very upset and said to Perkins, if he’s going to call MVP voters racist, he’d better have evidence. Perkins didn’t know how to respond to that but I do: If there’s zero racial bias in the NBA MVP voting, then that would be pretty much the only place in America where there’s no racial bias.
I’ve talked to Redick on Twitter before, and I think he would come across as an ally most of the time. I looked at his side of the argument as an example of how people who seem like allies can, sometimes, say things that aren’t anti-racist. Right-wing folks loved Redick’s position. Arguing that racism can’t be alleged unless someone provides concrete evidence is music to their ears. But modern racism isn’t always easily quantifiable. Quite often there are no clear receipts but if we really know America, we know what’s going on. Redick’s demand for a smoking gun is problematic and triggering — allies don’t demand receipts for racism. But this isn’t really a story about Redick, so let’s move on.
After the TV dustup, there was lots of talk on my Twitter timeline, which in many cases consisted of different versions of this question: How can the NBA MVP voters be racist if white players hardly ever win the award? No one is saying the voters are racist. Calm down and put away your straw man. Also, over the last 40 years, going back to the days of Bird, white men have won the MVP award nine times. The NBA is about 17% white and 72% Black but white players have been judged to be the most important player in the league almost 23% of the time. So almost a quarter of NBA MVPs have been white despite them only making up less than 1/5th of the entire league, which means that relative to their small size in the NBA, white men win the MVP quite often.
I looked deeper into MVP voting, like who was No. 2 through No. 5 each year for the past 21 years. I combed through Basketball Reference to see the MVP rolls, looking for how many white players have been in the top 5 of MVP vote-getters. I found that over the past 21 years, a white player got within the top 5 just 11 times. But, within that two-decade period, white players won the MVP six times. So more than half of the times when they were near the top, they were at the top. That’s an incredible percentage.
The white guys who have won — Jokic, Bird, Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki — are unquestionably extraordinary players. Hall of Famers or future Hall of Famers. There’s definitely a case to make for them winning MVP — i.e., it’s not crazy to vote for them — but I think there’s also something going on.
White privilege works in insidious ways. 65% of NBA MVP voters are white. I would guess that 0% of them are racist, but I also think that racial bias is often hard for white people to see. An audit of last year’s MVP voting by race found the 24 Black voters gave a slight edge to a Black superstar, Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers, over Jokic. Embiid was the Black voters’ pick for MVP while the 65 white voters preferred Jokic over Embiid by a significant margin. That alone doesn’t prove anything, but it’s an interesting disagreement.
Also, last year, white superstar Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks got more votes from white voters than from Black voters while Embiid and Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns (who is Black, Mexican and Puerto Rican) got fewer votes from white voters than from Black voters. To be fair, Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks got more support from white voters than from Black ones. For some on the right, that fact would suddenly mean this whole analysis blows up but no; when we deal with race, everything is not absolute and simple. There are slight differences in how white and Black voters are responding to these elite players because this is a nuanced conversation.
I don’t think there was any racism or hatred — let’s vote against the Blacks — nor was there collusion — let’s all vote for the white guy. That’s not the way it goes down now. This is how it happens: I suspect that many white voters gave those elite white players a few extra points for being both great and white. Call it “whiteness points.” I bet voters aren’t even consciously aware of what they’re doing, but white players succeeding in an overwhelmingly Black league looks more impressive to them because they see it infrequently. It’s just a few extra points. Nick Wright agreed with this notion saying: “If you’re a white player who crosses the threshold to undeniably great, you get a few bonus points. Not intentionally.” Race plays a subconscious role in how Americans evaluate each other all the time. If race played no part in how these players were perceived, that would be unusual.
A few whiteness points are not enough to propel a very good player to MVP, but they are enough to push an elite white player ahead of elite Black players. You can’t say Nash wasn’t great but in 2004-05 when he won the MVP — he averaged 15 points and 11 assists and led the best regular season team in the league. Great, but that year the No. 2 vote-getter was Shaquille O’Neal who was in his first year in Miami and he was red hot averaging almost 23 points a game on the best team in the East. The next season, Nash won the MVP again and No. 2 was LeBron James, who averaged over 31 points a game. The following year, Nowitzki won while Bryant averaged over 31 points a game. Do you think any GM or player in the league would want to have Nash or Nowitzki on their team if they could get Shaq, LeBron or Kobe?
These whiteness points don’t mean the elite white players didn’t work hard. Doesn’t mean they’re not great. Doesn’t mean someone in the situation was overtly racist. This is the way white privilege works in so many spaces — white people get a few extra points just for being white. It doesn’t assure them of victory, it doesn’t promise success, and it doesn’t mean they don’t have to work hard. It’s a life advantage. Whiteness points are all out in the open nowadays. They’re at the Oscars propelling Jamie Lee Curtis over Angela Bassett. They’re at the Grammys pushing Harry Styles up over Beyoncé. And they’re probably at your job, helping some mediocre white boy get that promotion that you deserve. Whiteness points are everywhere you want to be, just like Visa, and they give white people wings like Red Bull because the fact is, like Dunkin, America runs on white privilege.
Touré is a host and Creative Director at theGrio. He is the host of the podcast “Toure Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is also the author of seven books including the Prince biography Nothing Compares 2 U and the ebook The Ivy League Counterfeiter. Look out for his upcoming podcast Being Black In the 80s.
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