March Madness and the Other America

By Tommy Airey

March Madness is back. The men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournaments caught the coronavirus last season right when my Kansas Jayhawks were ranked number one. That was before police murdered George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, before the NBA bubble almost burst after police shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back. This year, I couldn’t bring myself to fill out a bracket, but I have watched a lot of basketball. This year, more than ever, I have embraced the tension between sports and social analysis—a glorious tension released by a sabbath-jubilee Spirit soaked in a trifecta of Hebrew words: hesed (steadfast love), mispat (justice) and sedekah (faithfulness to the most vulnerable). My wife-partner Lindsay, a licensed marriage and family therapist, says that my devotion to the game is not about escaping the real world, but integrating it.  

This year, my mind is penetrating past Magic Johnson and pivoting towards Lyndon Baines Johnson, the last Democratic Presidential candidate to get a majority of the white vote. In 1967, in the wake of anti-racist uprisings in Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles and Newark, LBJ commissioned a congressional investigation. He wanted to know what happened, why it happened and what could be done to prevent it from happening again. The so-called Kerner Commission released its findings seven months later, on the last day of February 1968. The scary thing is that the results of the investigation are still ruthlessly relevant today: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.

The ten white men and one white woman who wrote up the 426-page report dug to the roots of the so-called riots: lack of economic opportunity, failed social service programs, police brutality, white racism and the white gaze of the media. White society is deeply implicated in the ghetto, the report lamented. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it. Dr. King called the report a doctor’s warning of approaching death. Kerner’s prescription was for billions of tax dollars to be made available, a massive government investment in jobs, education and housing for what King called the other America. Those locked in the basement desperately needed something that could transform the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope.

The 1968 NCAA men’s basketball tournament began one-week after the release of the Kerner Report, which was published and made available in book form. It sold millions. That season, Lew Alcindor led UCLA to the second of three straight titles. When Alcindor was a freshman, he shared a mailbox with my dad, an Oregon State graduate (go Beavers) who migrated south for grad studies in computer science. Mail was arranged alphabetically. Airey then Alcindor. My dad became a junior college math teacher for 45-years. His mailbox mate became the greatest college basketball player in history.

Ten days after the Bruins won the Final Four in Los Angeles, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in Memphis. More uprisings erupted. That summer, Alcindor declined an invitation to play for the US Olympic team because he did not want to signal support for the way people of color were treated in the country he loved. Instead, he spent the summer in his native New York City teaching kids how to play basketball while compelling them to stay in school. For his conscientious objection, he got hate mail, calling him an ungrateful n-word, among other things.

Back in 1968, every D-1 college basketball coach was white. The first Black coach would finally be hired by Illinois State two years later. Will Robinson. Before that, Robinson was the only Black high school coach in Detroit for almost two decades. Today, about 20% of college basketball players in the NCAA tournament are white, but 80% of the head coaches are. A lot of white people call this “progress.” Because most of America’s racism has moved from hate mail white supremacy to white male mediocrity. It mirrors a white settler mentality: settling for a society where one-half of the country—the other America—can barely breathe.

During the ’68 tourney, LBJ ripped up the Kerner Report. In the decades since, both political parties followed suit. They rejected Kerner and replaced it with what I call the dominant culture consensus—rooted in the most mediocre economic system ever: neoliberalism. The horror of the neoliberal age, according to Dr. Bruce Rogers-Vaughn, is that we are not horrified. And not only are we not horrified by the neoliberal nightmare. We don’t even know what neoliberalism is. So here’s the scouting report: neoliberalism combines corporate capitalism and colorblind ideology by placing austerity measures on poor people, privatizing the public good and pitting success and failure on personal responsibility. The winners earned it. The losers are just lazy, illegal or criminal.

For people of conscience, the polarization of American culture does not pit Democrats against Republicans. In post-Kerner America, the real divide is between the dominant culture consensus and the other America. The ones who believe they’ve earned their degree, their job, their home, their health care, their vacation, their portfolio versus the ones who Langston Hughes spirited up in his classic poem: the poor white, Black folk, Indigenous peoples and Immigrants. All of them finding only the same old stupid plan/Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak. The dominant culture consensus is our nation’s official religion because it offers a sense of security and safety and legitimates success for the winners. And above all else, America is about winning.

*          *          *

The dominant culture consensus creates winners and losers with both its hands: the invisible hand of the market and the iron fist of law-and-order. The invisible hand cuts taxes on corporations and wealthy folks and cuts social programs that support the other America. Wages are lowered to a minimum while jobs are outsourced to non-union states and other countries. Water and other utilities in the other America are shut-off when residents cannot afford to pay. Education budgets are tied to property taxes so that schools in suburbia are far more resourced than those in the other America.

What’s really creepy, though, is that this hand is invisible because it is actually a greasy palm of quid pro quo that reaches under the table giving out golden handshakes, rewarding those who make campaign contributions. Investors are offered lucrative tax credits in inner cities, promising jobs, but really just increasing property values while displacing long-time, low-income residents. Banks are deemed too big to fail, bailed out and de-regulated. Meanwhile, low-income students drown in debt with very little relief.

The other hand, the iron fist of law and order, protects and serves property, not people. It declared a “war on drugs” on the other America and poured billions of tax dollars into building new jails and prisons to house “criminals.” Police forces have been monetized and militarized, deputized to stop and frisk the other America for just about any reason they want. The military budget has bulged. ICE and Border Patrol agents raid the residences and businesses of undocumented people and deport them.  

The dominant culture consensus is a religious ideology that thrives off its supremacist claims. The official motto is there is no alternative. This is just how life is. These are the rules of the game. From the very beginning and into eternity. As if Kerner never even happened. The liturgy of the dominant culture consensus creeps into every corner of life. Even college basketball. During a first-round game of this year’s tournament, the announcers were raving about the generosity of coaches and fans who donated money to the Coaches Versus Cancer charity. The color commentator proclaimed, It’s not just how you live, it’s how you give. It’s the dominant culture consensus in a creed. Play by the rules. Hustle hard. Don’t ask questions. Donate to charity.

I have absolutely nothing against supporting efforts to eradicate cancer. Lindsay and I are approaching the ten-year anniversary of the loss of her father to pancreatic cancer. He had just five months from diagnosis to death. He was 57. We know cancer is vicious. The problem with Coaches Versus Cancer and other charities is that the focus stays on the nasty symptoms instead of the neoliberal system. The dominant culture consensus protects the current arrangement by encouraging causes. Like cancer, homelessness, hunger and sex trafficking. All issues made infinitely worse by the dominant culture consensus, which portrays the nonprofit organization as the savior of the world. Less taxes, more tithing. Charity is the conversation stopper, the guilt absolver. It is one of the more insidious ways that the dominant culture consensus mutes the truth about reality. The neoliberal nightmare is not only enabled by the nonprofit industrial complex, it is fueled by it.

*          *          *

After a tough loss a week before the tournament began this year, Doug McDermott, the head coach of Creighton, pleaded with his players to “stay on the plantation.” It was awful. He knew it. He apologized. He still has his job. What’s clear, however, is that white supremacy during March Madness is far more than what white coaches and broadcasters think or say. It’s what they don’t say. What they won’t say. I got the inside scoop on one white head coach (who didn’t make this year’s tourney) who, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, refused to publicly proclaim that Black Lives Matter. He believed that he shouldn’t have to say something so radical because his players should already know he’s not a racist. College basketball is bound to a brand of white supremacy inextricably connected to socio-metric status: the need, above all else, to keep the respect of one’s peers. It is a shame-based posture promoted by silence.

The one thing you will never hear on a college basketball broadcast, or even in a locker room, is that college basketball is a Black majority space and that the dominant culture consensus is not designed for Black players and their families to succeed. Commentators and coaches will quote Dr. King cuddling up with the content of your character, but never Dr. King lamenting that most white people are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than justice and humanity. You will never hear them point out the ways that the public school system, prisons, police and private health insurance viciously promote poverty and early death in the other America. Because if they did, they might lose their jobs or, even worse, the respect of their peers. Because cancer research is cool, but any critique of the dominant culture consensus is “getting political.” The dominant culture consensus is a cult that teaches us that any talk of real alternatives is borderline madness.

But there is an alternative to the dominant culture consensus. The dogma is released by a sabbath-jubilee consciousness. An abolitionist imagination. Prisons, police, private health insurance and property-tax-driven public schools must be abolished. Kerner can be reclaimed. Its recommendation ramped up. Fully-funded preschool -to-college education—not just for those who were born in the right neighborhoods. Universal healthcare—not just for those with jobs. Clean water and nutritious food for all—not just for those who can afford Whole Foods. A guaranteed minimum income—not just for those who get inheritance money.

In the game of basketball, defense wins championships. But I believe that those of us committed to the God of hesed, mispat and sedekah—those of us conspiring with the other America—must focus more on our offense. We must be willing to threaten our precious social connections. Whoever is not with me, Jesus warned right after respectable people proclaimed that he was demon-possessed, is against me. The key question for our time, living in a post-Kerner world, is whether we are with the other America—or against it.

If we are really with the other America, then we will break rank from mediocrity and respectability—which are really just white supremacy in sheep’s clothing. We will break rank from the white settler mentality that so easily settles for the collateral damage of the dominant culture consensus—chronic death to the other America. We will break rank like Lew Alcindor did. Back in the day when he shared his mailbox with my dad. Back in the day when the Olympics came calling and he decided to play for the other America instead.

Tommy Airey is a retired high school teacher and coach. He is a post-Evangelical pastor and the co-curator of RadicalDiscipleship.net and author of Descending Like a Dove: Adventures in Decolonizing Evangelical Christianity (2018).

One thought on “March Madness and the Other America

  1. Clancy Dunigan

    Tommy, What an infectious rant. Rant on & on & on some more. The Alcindor reminder was thoughtful as he was strategic. Kareem’s long march still continues. Carry on. Clancy Dunigan

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