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Charles Barkley Takes the Court on Race
May 11, 2017  | By David Hinckley

As a TV sports commentator, Charles Barkley has been paid for years to be provocative.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that in his first game as a conciliator – on the rather larger matter of race relations – he doesn’t always score.

It matters more that he’s on the court.

Barkley is hosting American Race, a four-part TNT series that runs Thursday and Friday, 9-11 p.m. ET.

Its most challenging and promising premises are the same: Barkley’s repeated acknowledgement that the whole subject is far more complicated than any one conversation, or any thousand conversations, are likely to resolve.

That’s why he keeps the goal of American Race modest. He wants to start a dialogue, he says, and he does that. If at the end of the series he moves matters ahead for even a handful of people, that would be a good thing.

Given his background as a colorful professional basketball player, television commentator and good-time celebrity, he doesn’t exactly come into this role as the reincarnation of Dr. Martin Luther King.

That’s okay because it makes him human, which arguably is the root of the whole issue. On race as on so many other subjects, we get a lot wrong, sometimes deliberately, because we’re serving our own interests first – sometimes inadvertently, because we just screw up.

American Race is set up as a tour, taking Barkley to different locations for each episode. 

It starts in Baltimore, which isn’t a bad idea given the death of civilian Freddie Gray in police custody and its unresolved aftermath.

Barkley talks to Baltimore people who explain their frustration and note that the city has a long history of tense race relations.

In 1910, one historian recalls, the city passed ordinances laying out exactly where colored people could and could not live. 

The practical effect was that banks wouldn’t loan money to anyone in the black districts. So those neighborhoods deteriorated, giving the white city fathers a classic self-fulfilling prophecy.

The consequences of that separate-and-unequal legacy linger today, and Barkley stresses that dire economic conditions cannot be ignored in any discussion of why the black community has problems with white authority.

Barkley also talks to both sides, as he says he will try to do through the series, and this leads to a fascinating segment in which he participates in a police training exercise.

That exercise simulates situations police officers could face and requires them to respond. If a simulated figure is coming toward an officer and might have a weapon, the exercise illustrates how long the officer has to respond and make a decision whether to use potentially deadly force.

Barkley seems shaken after several of these simulations, both by the cases where he would have shot someone and one case where he could have been shot himself.

It gives him a deeper appreciation, he says, of how quickly police must respond to potentially lethal situations.

He mentions that experience when he hosts a town hall meeting largely populated by community activists, including the mother of another man killed by the police.

Many attendees blast Barkley for bringing up the dilemma facing police officers, saying he’s taking the side of the enemy. He’s missing the point, they say, that simply being black often seems to be the crime.

It’s a segment that, sadly, underscores Barkley’s original assertion about both the complexity and the pervasiveness of the American racial divide.

Barkley’s own views and past comments play a role throughout the show. He previously called looters in Ferguson, Mo., “scumbags,” and he’s hammered again here when he reiterates that he sees violence as a step backward, not forward.

One of the people featured in this segment is Devin Allen, a photographer whose images from the post-Freddie Gray disturbances in Baltimore made the cover of Time magazine. Allen argues that while he doesn’t like violence, either, the more important result of those days was that it started bringing the community together and defining a larger common purpose.

Allen calls it an “uprising.” Barkley sticks to calling it a “riot.”

They both call it a conversation.

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