Charles Barkley has suddenly become a go-to-guy on matters of race in America. At this point, it is what it is. He has seemingly stepped into a void that many who share a similar historic background would rather he not fill. Indeed, and if he should fill it, then they'd muse it should be filled in the manner they deem fit.
Earlier this week, I was invited down to the Paley Media Center along with other invited media outlets where Barkley was assembled with several activists and experts to screen several clips of his upcoming TNT two-part docu-series American Race. Also on hand were activist and restaurant owner Sharmina Zaidi, activist and actor Peter Jae Kim, civil rights attorney Gerald A. Griggs, fgactivist Justin Normand and civil rights attorney William H Murphy, Jr.
Among the first things that Barkley addressed was the appearance of the racist alt-right talking head Richard Spencer in the series.
"I'm glad we have him on the show," said Barkley. "I want to know who my enemies are...there are so many people who think like him and we don't even know when they're around. I don't like this dude, obviously. But he doesn't hide behind it. There's so many people out here in America who think just like him but we don't know where they're at."
As the discussion progressed to other topics, the segment that included Spencer burned into my mind. Once, in my teenage years, Nazism and race hate groups were still considered a bunch of dangerous losers on the fringe.
Now, they have political clout and the "mainstream" media has given them a pass. I asked about being face to face with someone who wants to subjugate, marginalize and eliminate all people of color. My voice shook with emotion just a bit.
"I'm never going to change Spencer's mind," Barkley replied. "He's gone. Justin and Billy said something really important and significant, until we get white America to stand up for Black America, Muslim America, Asian America...they got all the money and the power. Forget what Richard Spencer says. All of a sudden minorities are taking over the world? He's crazy."
"But, Justin and Billy said, we need white America to stand up for minorities before something significant is going to be done. At some point they start thinking we're crying wolf. It's become a news clip and then we move on to the next story. Justin said, we gotta get white people to stand up for the others. That's the thing. This dude is a fool. Ain't nobody gonna talk him down. He's actually gotten to the point where he believes this stuff. At some point, a person believes who they are."
"He ain't gonna change. Once I met with that guy, I ain't thought about him another day until y'all showed me this picture. I can take cookies and cakes to his house every damn day for a year and that won't change anything."
"Here's the thing that a lot of people don't understand about Richard Spencer and his alt-right movement, it's an un-American movement," said Griggs. "He does not believe in equality, he does not believe in American values, he doesn't believe in the essential founding principles of this country. I believe he called them a homophobic slur regarding life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
"Once you shed light on the fact that he is anti-American, it gives you license to push back against it," Griggs continued. "But, like great men have always said, all it takes for evil to flourish is for good men to sit back and do nothing. In the past, in combating it, we gave it too much room to foster. Now it has elevated and it reached all the way to up to the White House. Now it's time for real Americans to stand up for real American values, and push back."
"Here's the problem with this analysis, the man you saw on television, has an actual, prototypical friend in the White House named Bannon who believes in everything he says," replied Murphy. "He is one of the major policy architects of the President of the United States. Our Attorney General believes everything this man says."
"His policies are beginning to reflect what they said," Murphy continued. "This is not a minority point of view! If you look at the survey numbers, there's millions of white Americans who agree with this guy. We're having a lot of discussion, but we've got to effect that. Until we learn how to effect that, and kumbaya is not gonna do it. But until we do we're going to be faced with intractable, structural racism in this country."
American Race will air over two nights – Thursday, May 11, and Friday, May 12 – with two episodes each night at 9 and 10 p.m. (ET/PT). In addition, TNT will offer a preview of the first episode on Sunday, May 7, at 11:30 p.m. (ET/PT).