LeBron James, ‘I Can’t Breathe’ and the History of Race in America

For all the controversy LeBron James may or may not have started Monday night when before the Cleveland Cavaliers game at the Brooklyn Nets he warmed up with a shirt that said ‘I Can’t Breathe’ across the front I think at the very least we can all agree that it continued our ongoing conversation about Ferguson and Eric Garner and, for some, especially younger people who might not be following the news as closely, was an engaging way to raise awareness that could, if handled properly, open the doors for wider discussions about the history of race in America. Now it’s up to us, the parents and teachers of young people to add context to these important moments in our history.

As a former high school history teacher I can tell you with complete confidence that most teenagers aren’t watching CNN or reading the New York Times but they are following the likes of LeBron, DRose, Kyrie and Kobe on social media and while we socially conscious adults may find it hard to believe that any person, regardless of age, living in the digital age could have missed the events of the past few weeks you’d be amazed at what does and doesn’t permeate the bubbles of young people in this country. So while many of us adults who follow the news and understand the larger, contextual issues at hand dismiss the influence of athletes like LeBron on young people in this country we are potentially missing out on an opportunity to introduce and engage younger generations on of a very difficult, complicated topic in American history. Call it a hashtag with a context.

My hope is that in classrooms and living rooms across America, teachers and parents are taking the pop-culture momentum created by LeBron and company and using it to frame the events in Ferguson and Staten Island in a much larger, deeper historical context of racial injustice in America. The discussion can start with the sharing of other examples of athletes promoting social justice like Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City before morphing into a much deeper conversation on the Civil Rights Movement and all of the challenges that this country counties to face as we strive for greater equality and tolerance.

The good news is whatever young people lack in historical context they make up for with an overall absence of racial prejudice. For the most part kids nowadays do not see color. They do not see sexual orientation or religion. They are poised to become the most tolerant generation in American history and it is our responsibility as adults to educate and teach them about how we got to where we are today. Sheltering them from this difficult discussion is not the way to promote and sustain long term progressive changes to our society because they’ve got to understand where we came from in order to understand where we’re going. Talking about things like Thurgood Marshall and the Jim Crow South, race riots in Chicago and Boston, LBJ and the Great Society, these are all important moments in the history of racial injustice in this country that can help young people better understand why the recent events in Ferguson and Staten Island make old wounds feel so fresh and for all the progress we have made as a society we still have a very long way to go.

Like it or not, athletes are role models and if all it took to start the conversation on racial injustice in America were a few Cleveland Cavaliers breaking the NBA’s dress code then I think we can all agree that that is a small price to pay for progress.