Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on George Floyd protests: Black Americans have been playing catch-up economically since the Civil War

Anger over the May 25 killing of George Floyd has coincided with “the slimy underbelly of institutional racism” being exposed by the coronavirus, wrote NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in a recent L.A. Times op-ed. The recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Abdul-Jabbar is the NBA's all time leading scorer, six-time NBA champion, and only six-time MVP. 

“I just tried to point out to Americans what they were watching when they saw all of the unrest,” Abdul-Jabbar said in an interview with Yahoo Finance. “People pushed to the edge, people who have no voice, no power, no economic power.”  

“They just are tired of dealing with the system, that it often times ends up killing them. The police forces kill black Americans at an inordinate rate and it has to do with racism,” he said.

Racism, however, is not confined to acts of police brutality and the unjustified deadly use of force against African-Americans as seen in the case of Eric Garner who died in a police chokehold or George Floyd who drew his last breath as a cop’s knee pressed into his throat.

Philonise Floyd, a brother of George Floyd, speaks during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on proposed changes to police practices and accountability on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, June 10, 2020, in Washington. (Greg Nash/Pool via AP)

Economists have pointed out that black workers suffer from a first fired, last hired phenomenon. In the midst of the pandemic, the overall official unemployment rate fell from 14.7% in April to 13.3% in May. However, the unemployment rate for black workers rose from 16.7% in April to 16.8% during that same time period. 

“History speaks to us. Black Americans starting out as having nothing other than the clothes on their back at the end of the Civil War. We've been playing catch-up economically ever since then and have never caught up,” said Abdul-Jabbar, who is the author of 16 books. 

Corporate America has made headlines by donating millions of dollars to organizations fighting racial injustice. Abdul-Jabbar says companies also have a role to play in addressing racial income inequality in America’s workplaces.

“For some reason, they have woken up to the fact that certain segments of our society need a cash injection to get rolling, hey, that's a start,” he said. “We have to start figuring out who needs help and giving them the aid that they can use to succeed.”

Protesters rally Tuesday, June 9, 2020, in Mesa, Ariz. demanding police reform. The protest was prompted by the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers May 25. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Addressing income inequality requires ensuring a living wage for black workers, says Abdul-Jabbar. While some states like New York and New Jersey have passed $15-an-hour minimum wage laws, the federal minimum wage still stands at $7.25. 

The living wage amount for workers should be determined “not in numbers, but in results,” says Abdul-Jabbar. “People being able to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table and send their kids to school. You know, the bare minimum that gets you ahead. I don't think that is unobtainable. That should be possible.”

Education is a key to closing the racial income gap.

“The jobs that black Americans end up getting tend to be less glamorous, pay less, not much future in them,” Abdul-Jabbar says. “And that is a consistent factor in the status that blacks have economically in our country. All of that affects the bottom line and our bottom line is a lot worse than white Americans.” Black workers earn 82.4 cents for every dollar their white counterparts are paid.

Corporate America has a critical role to play. “If you have a ninth grade education, you can't participate except at a very low level. We have to recognize that and figure out a way to train people so that they can be productive. That is a valid goal and these corporations can go a long way to seeing that those gaps are filled with those types of people,” he says.

Victor Contreras, an 11th grader at Citrus Hill High School, in Riverside County, explains his school's project to grow affordable produce using hydroponics and aquaculture to basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar during an education seminar in Sacramento, Calif., Monday, Nov. 18, 2013. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Abdul-Jabbar founded the Skyhook Foundation in 2009 in an effort to serve underprivileged kids and give them further exposure to science, technology, engineering, and math subjects. “We send kids to camp and they get a [a week of] hands-on experiments with the STEM subjects. They go out, they observe the night sky,” he said, “They take samples for water quality. They look at the flora and fauna and make observations and get an idea of just how technology and science are involved in most of the jobs that they want to get in the 21st century.”

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