Charles Barkley calls it friendly fire.
When he talks about racial issues, it isn’t only whites he risks angering. Some of the biggest complaints come from fellow blacks, who figure he’s too rich, too successful to possibly understand their struggles.
“Like, those people say he’s not black anymore, he shouldn’t speak on black issues,” Barkley said. “I’m like, `Dude, I’m always going to be black,’ but that’s a double-edged sword I’m willing to deal with.”
So not only will he keep talking, he wants to lead the conversation.
The basketball Hall of Famer and TNT analyst will debut “The Race Card” on the network in 2017, a show that won’t just be about black and white, because Barkley believes America’s problems are more about rich versus poor.
“I just want to do a positive dialogue because I’m sick of arguing over race all the time,” Barkley said. “Like, I’m very aware that racism does exist, it always has and probably always will, but the media does a really poor job. There’s more good than bad, but the bad pops off the newspaper and on television. And like I said, the truth is somewhere in the middle.”
On one hand, he seems an unlikely choice to be looking for it. In a Nike commercial during his playing career, he said himself he’s no role model , and he still doesn’t like the term now. And wearing a Ralph Lauren sweater and matching brown slacks during a lunch at a Manhattan restaurant Tuesday before slipping into a tuxedo for the induction of TNT’s “Inside the NBA” studio show in the Broadcasting Hall of Fame, he does project the image of a comfortable life.
But born in Alabama in 1963, the year Ku Klux Klan members killed four girls in a Birmingham church bombing, he sees the same struggles now as during his youth. Like many of today’s athletes, he’s discouraged by the killings of blacks by white police and the protests, sometimes violent, that have followed.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers has been kneeling in protest during the national anthem, and many NBA players have stood with arms locked during the preseason. Barkley respects their actions but would like to see more.
“It goes back to the Kaepernick thing,” he said. “I said, you do what you want to do, you’re a grown man. But I challenge all these guys, what are you actually doing in the black community to help our people?”
For Barkley, that’s included donating millions to his high school and colleges in Alabama. But he can’t blame today’s athletes who grapple with their involvement, a discussion he had with a professor for the show.
“He says, `First of all, it’s unfair for all you guys to have to solve the ills of all the black community. It’s unfair, you guys aren’t activists because you all haven’t lived what those guys have been through,”’ Barkley said. “And he says, `I really think it’s cool that you all are trying, but to try to compare today’s black athletes to Jim Brown, Bill Russell, (Muhammed) Ali and those guys, we’re doing them a disservice because those guys like lived.’
“They never told me I couldn’t go to a restaurant or go to the same hotel,” Barkley added. “I ain’t never been through anything like that.”
For the first episode of “The Race Card,” Barkley interviewed minorities about the way they are portrayed on television. He spent a day with Muslims, finding something in common.
“We started talking about, like every time I see a mass shooting, I’m saying to myself, `Please don’t be black.’ And I said to them, every time you see a bomb, what are you thinking?” And they’re like, `Please don’t be a Muslim,”’ Barkley said.
He spoke with four blacks, who gave very different accounts of their treatment by police. He met with Asians, telling them his perception of them from TV was that they’re really smart and outperforming Americans.
“We’re not that smart and we don’t know karate,” they replied.
He interviewed entertainer Ice Cube, lamenting the criticism they get from African-Americans.
“And he says it’s the stupidest thing he’s ever heard. We’re not supposed to be successful, and like wait, we’re not black because we’re successful?” Barkley said. “First of all, they should be patting us on the back because we made it, instead of saying, `Well, they don’t know what it’s like to be black because they haven’t been in the hood in so long.”’
But Barkley said he will handle it, because it’s important to keep talking about social issues. He’s warned his bosses at Turner never to prevent him from talking about what he wants, and while he once desired a chance to run an NBA team as a general manager, he realizes now that job would lessen his platform because it would require staying silent at times.
Specifics about the show, including the debut date, are still being discussed, but Turner is eager to see which direction Barkley plans to take it.
“Charles will tell you himself: There has been no bigger problem in his life than racism. That is why we’re doing this series with him. He wants to spark real dialogue and get everyone involved,” said Michael Bloom, TNT/TBS senior vice president of unscripted series and specials.
A political independent who said he’s always voted Democrat but once weighed a run for Alabama governor as a Republican, he’s disappointed in the presidential campaign and pondering not voting at all. He’s also disgusted by TV coverage he said is often two panelists yelling at each other over the same soundbite.
So he’s hoping his show can be the one that deals with difficult topics in a proper manner.
“What I’m trying to do with the show is, all the racial BS is somewhere in the middle. It’s not black and white … like everything is not all what it seems,” Barkley said. “I’m just trying to open up a positive dialogue. That’s all I’m trying to do.”