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Charles Barkley Doesn’t Have the Answers (or Know How to Ask the Right Questions)

‘American Race,’ the NBA legend’s new TNT docuseries, spends a lot of time “starting a dialogue” that’s hardly new and rarely illuminating

(TNT)
(TNT)

In American Race — TNT’s new four-part docuseries, produced by Dan Partland — host Charles Barkley wants to solve the nation’s biggest problems via the time-honored managerial practice of inviting all of the aggrieved to the table to sit down and talk things out.

The second episode of American Race finds Barkley in Irving, Texas. The city garnered widespread attention in 2015, when 14-year-old Sudanese American Ahmed Mohamed was arrested for bringing a homemade clock — which sorta maybe kinda not really looked like a bomb — to school, revealing a fissure between Irving and its Muslim community to a national audience. The episode tries to get at the root of the problem by wading into a paranoiac state bill that technically outlaws the practice of sharia law. (Titled “Muslim Is the New Black,” it also reveals a dangerous if not uncommon ignorance to the existence of black Muslims, of which Mohamed is one.)

Standing in the doorway to the Islamic Center of Irving, Barkley strains for the first rung of awareness: “So the Quran,” he says to imam Zia Sheikh, “is basically y’all Bible.” It’s not as bad as asking whether a tomato is actually a fruit, but it’s close. While Barkley aims to give a platform to topics he feels aren’t wrestled with enough, to “provide a conversation,” he assumes everyone is entering at the same starting point he is. He further assumes all conversation to be meaningful and doesn’t bother to ask questions that push it any deeper than the surface-level answers people usually offer.

In “Muslim Is the New Black,” Mayor Beth Van Duyne’s straw-manning about the protection of American freedom, values, and interests is treated with equal consideration as the imam’s patient delineation of how Van Duyne’s Muslim constituents have come to be targeted. The latter also includes a CliffsNotes version of what sharia law really is (religious precepts that can be peacefully followed or willfully misread, just like in Christianity). Whether unwittingly or purposefully, Van Duyne has made Muslims feel unsafe in their own homes. And as of Wednesday, she’ll be overseeing housing and urban development in Texas and four other southern states — including the one I come from — as an appointee of President Trump. This will probably produce further disparate social outcomes. We’re not looking in the eye a singular fracture in human compassion. We’re gazing upward at a towering, systemic process of pushing people to the fringes and forgetting about them. Had your knowledge of the controversy started from absolute zero at the opening credits, surely by the episode’s conclusion you’d have ended up closer than idly wondering whether Mayor Van Duyne had been sowing anti-Islamic hysteria, as Barkley still does.

It may sound like I don’t think Barkley is “woke” enough to usher in a renaissance of critical inquiry, and, frankly, I don’t. It’s unclear how much research or even prior thought Barkley put into making himself a mediator, let alone a skillful one, but it’s not just that. Barkley’s lack of context leads him to approach prejudice as a disagreement between different groups that can be settled by finding common ground. But common ground isn’t exactly halfway between two competing positions, and these disagreements — which aren’t between equals and therefore aren’t really “disagreements” — have dangerous, structural implications. This is American Race’s fundamental problem: Barkley doesn’t comprehend the basic terms of the conversation he’s trying to lead.

The NBA legend turned TV analyst’s grand mission is simple and easy to remember — figure out what the hell is going on. But more so than can make American Race feel constructive, the show orbits Barkley’s own hang-ups. Before tunneling into the public unrest following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in 2015, Barkley says, “I’ve always felt there’s no good reason to riot.”

Over the next hour, you walk with Barkley as he spends shoe leather gathering perspectives: from Devin Allen, a photographer whose viral photos of the protest eventually covered Time; a grievance counselor; a civil rights lawyer; the loved ones of victims of both gang and police violence; city councilmen; a historian; several activists. Somehow, Barkley still ends up telling the people of Baltimore about how they should work on themselves and their neighborhoods, as the police are trying their hardest.

This line of reasoning isn’t new, and is wide of the point in at least two ways.

First, it presupposes that rioters who looted and burned convenience stores thought of those stores, and indeed the neighborhood, as their own and not as the spare amenities they were left with. Secondly, Barkley appears to assume that things would get better if black people could just do better, the main article of faith for respectability politics (marginalized groups’ concerted efforts to police their own and adhere to mainstream values in hopes of thereby peeling the targets off their backs, rather than indicting the mainstream values themselves). But what its champions, like Barkley, seem to always miss is that while mending ourselves and owning our own businesses are both important endeavors, neither has ever magically made anyone bulletproof. And for that matter, neither has business-casual attire.

This has all been thoroughly discussed before. The conversations Barkley sought to start were already happening both among black people and on a national scale. It’s fair to wonder where he’s been, and so, too, to question why his dialogue doesn’t feel in conversation with that preexisting discourse. To put it simply: Why now? And why Charles Barkley?

Barkley grew up in the south South; the projects of Leeds, Alabama, during the ’60s. He followed basketball from there to an illustrious NBA career with a scrollable list of accolades. The most valuable of those, however, was the reputation he gained for his willingness to tell it like it is irrespective of anyone’s sensibilities. His brand was “straight talker,” not “role model.”

All of this has sort of given Barkley carte blanche to draw out homespun takes about social issues he hasn’t been paying attention to. The question of trust between law enforcement and the communities they police has been explored for so long that the debates surrounding it have been parodied. We could probably do without Barkley parachuting in to ask a group of Baltimore police officers simple-ass questions like, “There’s been long simmering tensions between the black community and the cops. … What’s going on?” when there have been books and whole TV shows centered on this conflict. This is little more than airtime for platitudes.

It does lead to a particularly interesting segment, though, in which Barkley undergoes a first-responder training course for tactical shooting and decision-making. He’s cycled through a few scenarios: a domestic violence dispute, a home invasion, a traffic stop. In practice, he makes a few costly mistakes you could imagine yourself making on account of nerves or a misjudgment of just how close 21 feet is. Shooting too early, shooting too late, approaching a tense situation with your gun already drawn. This reaffirms Barkley’s grasp of policing as a tough job that burns on both ends and briefly complicated my own. That is, until I remembered that even with astronomically high stakes, it’s still a job (that one can quit!) and, as with any job, you will be judged on your performance. Sometimes unsparingly. But far more often, the consequences stop at harsh words and administrative duties. For black people who encounter those officers, the ramifications are often fatal.

A rather satisfying clip of Barkley being shouted down at the town meeting he called to talk through what continues to ail Baltimore made the rounds over the weekend, and it’s a small sample of a much longer verbal ass-whooping he took. To his credit, he stayed in there and took every lick. However, with that conclusion, the first episode of American Race doesn’t leave us … much of anywhere, really. Which is appropriate for a problem so storied and complex, but even still, it’s hard to go under and come up with any meaningful takeaways.

I personally don’t need to watch Barkley educate himself, but a lot of people are operating with precisely his level of understanding. So in the interest of bringing them along at pace, some of the stumbling could be performative. Divining just how much is a different task, given Barkley’s knack for saying the exact wrong thing when asked, but not such a pressing one, when the show seems to be aimed at whoever might leave their TV on for two hours after Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals (or whoever might have both a cable subscription and the desire to watch Barkely for an entire season’s worth of television).

If that’s you, the good news is that American Race probably won’t make you more intolerant. (But I should note that anti-Islamic sentiment and centuries of anti-black racism can’t be untangled with the same problem-solving tactics used to address tension between stressed coworkers.) It’s helmed by Charles Barkley, an approachable celebrity whom you may know, and he’s talking about Important Stuff that isn’t basketball. Moreover, it’s on a major network close to prime time and not on public access in the middle of the afternoon.

The bad news is that those parts don’t add up to much more than “awareness.” And there’s like, forever to go after that.