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The Kyrie Irving Controversy

Kyrie Irving
Kyrie Irving. Credit-WikiCommons-Flickr-Eric-Drost-CC-BY-2.O

The Kyrie Irving controversy is electric. He is now suspended, but will it continue to unfold?

By Mathew Quest


Many do not realize why the Brooklyn Nets and the National Basketball Association (NBA) have hesitated for so long to discipline and confront Irving’s irrational behavior and current association with public and transparent hateful views.

The larger crisis has something to do with the limits of corporate American multiculturalism and the failure of America to confront the popularity of fascist conspiracy theories not simply among white Americans but also African Americans.

This includes historical conflict between Blacks and Jews as well as Blacks and Asian Americans in New York City—and Brooklyn in particular. Few have made this plain.

Why did it take so long to discipline Kyrie Irving?

Anytime individuals of a specific ethnic or religious group come into conflict, it does not mean they are consciously acting on behalf of their heritage or faith communities.

Still, prominent people acting irresponsibly in initiating or responding to crises can be troublesome.

Sometimes, public pronouncements can set off unanticipated grassroots responses that spread violence. Language can be unintentionally coded, or people may not know what they are doing by affirming historically abusive ideas and symbols.

A cascade of appeals

For several days, appeals had cascaded into an overflow for Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai to punish star guard Kyrie Irving. The invested voices in his circle included NBA commissioner Adam Silver and Nets general manager Sean Marks.

Both had sided with a broad layer of the public in believing Irving’s refusal to condemn the contents of an anti-Jewish bigoted film he shared on social media had left the Nets no choice but to suspend him.

Against the backdrop of calls for swift action, Tsai had resisted and insisted on taking time to educate Irving on the horrors of antisemitism. He’d enlisted the counsel of the Anti-Defamation League and watched the full three and a half hours of the hate-filled movie Irving had shared, Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America.

Anyone that has sat through the film can see it includes Jewish Holocaust denial and quotes from anti-Jewish bigots such as Adolf Hitler and Henry Ford. It also appears to quote an obscure medieval scholar with an Arabic name who says “Black is Beautiful.” This is an idea that first came to prominence in the Black Power era.

Blacks, Africans, and African Americans have not been known by the same name across time and space. This fact has often revealed past forgeries in pseudo-scholarship on Black and African history.

Similarly, one Hitler quote in the film seems to show the Führer—meaning “leader” in German—legitimately concerned about Black people someday coming to conscious awareness. Nothing could be further from the truth.

These concerns are consistent with research into Black Hebrew Israelite beliefs the film represents. Irving has frequently referenced such beliefs in public settings. The Black Hebrew Israelites are a sect known to urban America.

They are perhaps among the last soap box preachers on street corners. All Black Jews or Hebrews are not racist. This sect happens to be, as evidenced by the film.

Beyond Black Hebrew Israelites toward Black heritage

There is a dilemma in this public controversy that has gone understated: Irving’s concern to research what he termed his Black heritage.

The fact is the idea that precolonial Africans as well as Old Testament and other biblical figures were “black” is a widely held view among a sector of scholarly people.

The NBA and the Brooklyn Nets have not acknowledged this. Could this idea be just as disturbing as references to Hitler? If not, why not underscore its validity and separate it from Kyrie’s fumble of his own cause?

The idea that there is an African origin of the Jewish religion is a worldview that has been maintained by serious scholars without mixing it up with fascist conspiracy theories pertaining to European Jews.

African origins of modern Judaism?

In fact, Jose Malcioln’s African Origins of Modern Judaism, a critical-analytical nuanced lengthy read of history, acknowledges that European Jews have historically been oppressed by bigots in Germany, Russia, Poland, and elsewhere.

Malcioln, in his own way aware of fascist conspiracy literature, takes a stance independent of these fabrications. It is not a requirement for Black Jews to subscribe to fascist theories about European Jews.

St. Clair Drake’s Black Folk Here and There has covered Black individuals in the Old Testament, Black Nations in Jewish History, and color symbolism in the Bible. Drake makes clear that flowing from Noah, Ham, Shem, and Japheth was “a table of nations” that many have revised in contradictory ways over time.

The Black Hebrew Israelite movement has revised this chart to include, for example, Latin America and Native Americans. These peoples and regions of the world were on the minds of very few ancients (if any) of the Mediterranean world and certainly not under these names.

Adam Silver’s leadership of the NBA, held in esteem for his stances against white racism in the past, could have shown this basic understanding of the validity of the search for African origins in public statements.

Without such projections, the NBA appears to be lecturing a Black man about his heritage studies. This is despite the fact that the sources Irving chose were unproductively mixed with fascist conspiracy theories.

Why has Tsai been excessively patient with Irving?

Joe Tsai, the owner of the Nets, may feel that his attempt to counsel Irving, may have declined into what the owner has experienced as a repetitive exercise in Irving’s betrayal of good faith.

For nearly a week, Tsai kept extending the clock to give Irving a chance to get his own image and view satisfactory for himself, the franchise, and Jewish communities.

Irving never returned a single communication from the owner of his team. They have a business partnership; Irving has a contract for tens of millions of dollars.

Almost a week later, Irving had shown no inclination to deliver an apology, a disassociation of the movie’s contents, or a willingness to answer “No” when asked if he held “antisemitic” beliefs.

Not a scholar, but searching for identity

Irving is not a scholar, but those advising him in the interest of the team and the NBA aren’t either.

The primary concern here is thin public relations for accumulating wealth on all sides—not any deep reflection on Jewish or Black history.

Even where formally educated, it doesn’t mean the stakeholders approaching this controversy understand the full ramifications of what is at stake or what to do about it.

Ethnic conflict

Behind the latest Kyrie Irving public relations crisis are larger fears few will name that have a historical basis in Brooklyn.

It is irrational to equate whole ethnic groups or religions with individual acts of violence. However, this is how many everyday people process things, especially when motivated by fear and suspicion.

Black/Jewish conflict in post-civil rights America has periodically flared up. Particularly, this is so among professionals in the cultural apparatus of society. People in sports, entertainment, media, and education have been central to these dynamic tensions.

Jewish and Black intellectuals and political figures have often been critics of privilege, highlighting disparities in power and wealth. Often, thinkers from both communities have been central to corporate responsibility discourses. Yet, spontaneous accidents have also set off Black/Jewish conflicts.

From Ocean Hill-Brownsville to Crown Heights

The Nets play in Brooklyn, home to the 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville public school crisis and the 1991 Crown Heights Riots. These historically explosive incidents happened in neighborhoods that are two and four miles away from where the Brooklyn Nets play.

By subway, large amounts of people can arrive there in a flash. These are famous grassroots conflicts among Blacks and Jews that spiraled out of control from accidental circumstances but also long-term resentments.

From Anti-Asian hate to Black Hebrew Israelite attack

Brooklyn has also been the location of the explosive confrontation of the 1990 to 1991 Korean market boycotts by Black Nationalists in response to anti-black racism. During the 2019 to 2021 COVID-19 crisis, Asian Americans in particular were targets of hate crimes all across the U.S., carried out by both white and black people.

There were over two hundred hate incidents in New York City. In late 2019 in Jersey City, a town right across from Manhattan, there was a hate attack by a Black Hebrew Israelite on a Kosher supermarket where people were shot dead.

Real estate and gentrification

Much of Brooklyn that had been run-down and boarded up for decades has become revitalized in recent years. New buildings have been raised, and old ones have been refurbished. The Brooklyn Nets and Barclay’s Arena have been central to this development.

Brooklyn has been part of a gentrification trend in real estate. Those middle age and older do not recognize the Brooklyn of their childhood. The elderly recall a decline after the Black Power era of urban uprisings that crested in 1968 against the police and the looting during the 1977 blackout. In 2020, national uprisings against the police, including in New York City, threatened property once again.

It is essential to reflect on these incidents and the fact that they cannot be summed up only as moments of Black crime but as times when anger by Black people at racism has boiled over. Jewish people in Brooklyn have sometimes met ethnic conflict with equal anger in the streets.

Tinder for the fire next time?

This is why a basketball player’s social media posts to millions of fans matter so much. Beyond public relations, at the grassroots level, Brooklyn, and, more generally, the New York City metro can be tinder for the fire next time.

Kyrie Irving doesn’t represent all African Americans. Joe Tsai is Chinese. He doesn’t embody the life of all Asian Americans. Adam Silver is a Jewish American. Neither Silver nor Tsai have reputations as being racist toward African Americans.

But in an explosive social environment in which the simple-minded think in terms of ethnic archetypes, a dispute between them can come to mean justification for racial conflict or taking sides with a long view of resentment and misunderstanding.

Troublesome language

On Thursday, the team advanced a five-game suspension (at minimum) and without pay, declaring Irving “currently unfit to be associated with the Brooklyn Nets.” Are all the Brooklyn Nets saints without prejudice? Or are they acting in bad faith and thinly concerned about protecting their brand?

For all the questions surrounding this troubling week, one question remains. Why did it take Tsai so long to get there? The social background is explained above.

However, on the interpersonal level, Tsai had held out a hope that there could be a two-way conversation with Irving.

A charlatan or a fool?

Tsai issued a public statement Friday night, declaring he was “disappointed that Kyrie appears to support a film based on a book full of antisemitic disinformation.” He described his desire to “sit down and make sure he understands this is hurtful to all of us, and as a man of faith, it is wrong to promote hate based on race, ethnicity or religion.” Of course, this is wrong. But is Irving the last charlatan or fool? History proves otherwise.

After a combative news conference on Saturday night in which Irving said he refused to “stand down,” stronger calls emerged within Nets leadership and the NBA commissioner’s office to level a suspension. For the franchise and league, embarrassment grew and patience waned. For most, the news conference had portrayed a familiar Irving—defiant, uncompromising, and crusading with misinformation. Irving insists he is “a beacon of light.”

A beacon of light?

“I’m only going to get stronger because I’m not alone,” Irving said. “I have a whole army around me.” Informally, it is true there are many people who identify with Irving and the fascist conspiracy theory ideas he affirms. That they can be mixed up with a version of Black heritage is also disarming but quite common in urban America.

However, the Nets and the NBA’s handling of the situation, in the name of patience and reason, actually repeat past mistakes of similar disputes in history, particularly in the history of ethnic conflict in Brooklyn, New York.

There is carelessness and arrogance among the unscholarly to tell their counterparts the meaning of their history without proper attention to detail and respect.

Both Blacks and Jews have functioned publicly in this fashion in the last decades of New York City history. This is despite every conceivable view, even wrongheaded ones, finding multi-racial fellowship. The world can be a strange place.

The last straw

Irving’s circulation of this film was the last straw. It echoes Irving’s anti-science and anti-vaccination stance of at least a season ago. Irving’s stance against the COVID-19 vaccine undermined team chemistry.

He did not play home games as a result of a New York City law banning the unvaccinated from working with the public. Many organized their lives to join his team to play with him specifically.

Before the COVID-19 crisis, he made a big show of another statement. Irving seriously asserted “the world was flat.”

During the COVID-19 crisis, Irving had some support from those who agreed with him, and some even had a multi-racial protest at Barclay’s Center in solidarity.

Before the recent projection of the merits of this film, he supported another controversial cause. Irving supported Alex Jones, the recently convicted conspiracy theorist’s denial of the Sandy Hook public school shooting that killed many children in Connecticut.

Irving not likely to change if surrounded by “yes-men”

NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recently explained Irving is not likely to change because his wealth and arrogance cover up his inability to distinguish between facts and interpretations. Many aspiring students of history and religion have trouble with this. Abdul-Jabbar explained when only having “yes-men” as advisors, the world cannot be seen clearly by a celebrity.

Much of the Nets’ standoff with Irving in the offseason had been rooted in the franchise’s unwillingness to guarantee the 2011 No. 1 overall draft pick a long-term contract, leaving him in the final season of his deal at a $36.5 million salary.

The failed negotiations with the ADL

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) is a Jewish civil rights organization with close ties to corporate America and the government. In some ways, it is similar to the NAACP for African Americans.

Tsai had wanted time and space to work together with the ADL and Irving, but there was no direct dialogue with Irving himself. Silver cautioned Tsai that issuing a joint statement with the ADL without dealing with Irving directly or including a condemnation of the movie’s material and full apology simply didn’t reach a tolerable level.

Many sportscasters in a Pollyannish way responded to the situation by underscoring that you can’t just throw money at an issue without expressing sincerity. How does an exchange of money ever solve fascism or institutional racism? Does human dignity have a price? Still, throwing money at problems is how many, including most Blacks, Jews, and women, deal with civil rights or discrimination issues in the United States.

Throwing money at problems

On Wednesday, the Nets and Irving publicly pledged $500,000 each to the ADL for the purpose of combating antisemitism.

ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt publicly declared hours later, following news of Irving’s suspension, that the group would no longer accept the donation after Irving’s debacle of a news conference on Thursday.

Silver’s patience had run out by Thursday morning. What had started as humiliation for the Nets had become full-scale embarrassment and a crisis for the league.
Silver issued a piercing condemnation of Irving’s failure to offer “an unqualified apology and more specifically denounce the vile and harmful content contained in the film he chose to publicize.”

In another world

Irving has been dragging the morale of his team down. He had played a careless game on Tuesday in a loss to the Chicago Bulls, leaving his teammates and opponents to informally describe him as disengaged, seemingly “in another world.”

For a player averaging thirty points and shooting at almost every opportunity, Irving didn’t make a basket until the fourth quarter. He had been distant to everyone in recent days, his presence feeling more like a burden.

Before the Nets on Thursday took off for a weekend trip to play Washington and Charlotte, Irving had walked over to an assembled group of media members and again refused to apologize or condemn the film.

Asked if he held antisemitic beliefs, Irving responded, “I cannot be antisemitic if I know where I come from.”

Misguided and disastrous

For Tsai, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Irving’s refusal to disavow antisemitism and Holocaust denial convinced him Irving had been insincere in his joint ADL statement hours earlier, sources said.

The efforts to educate had failed miserably with Tsai’s faith in Irving proving once more to have been misguided and ultimately disastrous for his franchise.

The only questions left for Tsai and the Nets was how long of a suspension Irving would get and what the path to reinstatement would be.

After hours of conferring with lawyers and the league office, the Nets landed on five games without pay, costing Irving $1.2 million, and a requirement to complete a “series of objective remedial measures that address the harmful impact of his conduct.”

Demands for reinstatement

In an email outlining the suspension to his agent, the conditions needed for Irving’s reinstatement include a public statement recognizing the film is antisemitic, an apology for supporting the film and the falsehoods within it, and training sessions on the dangers of hate speech, sources reported. There would also need to be meetings with Brooklyn Jewish leaders.

The NBA players’ association (the equivalent of a union) while not being specific in public, has indicated they will protest certain measures of the consequences for Irving. This is despite the fact that Irving has been disruptive to the union organization in the past in relation to the COVID-19 crisis.

Four hours after learning of his suspension, Irving issued a statement on his Instagram page that went further than he had gone in the previous week.

“To all Jewish families and communities that are hurt and affected [b]y my post, I am deeply sorry to have caused you pain, and I apologize,” Irving wrote.

“I initially reacted out of emotion to being unjustly labeled Antisemitic, instead of focusing on the healing process of my Jewish Brothers and Sisters that were hurt from the hateful remarks made in the documentary,” he said.

Marks on Friday called the apology a “step in the right direction” but “certainly not enough.” Do the NBA, Brooklyn Nets authorities, and the insulted feel they own the term “anti-semitic?”

The meaning of antisemitism

Kyrie Irving has not been seen as sincere in his apology in which he has rejected the idea that he could be antisemitic. He was defined as an anti-Jewish bigot. This is certainly valid.

His logic seems to be that African Americans don’t have the power to be racist and fascist. But if he is a Black Jew, how can he be hostile to his own status?

Scholars understand that “Semites” are not simply Jews in history but are a group of languages and ethnic groups that include Arabs and Arabic, Amharic (Ethiopia), Tigrinya (Ethiopia), Tigre (Sudan), Aramaic (spoken in Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Iraq, and Iran) and Maltese.

The mainstream of multicultural discourse, especially keepers of corporate responsibility who claim to promote anti-hate education in the U.S., do not take this seriously.

Do Semitic Africans identify with Black Africans?

Africans who claim Semitic origins and those who do not often have the same complexion. In fact, there are Semitic people on the African continent that may be darker-skinned than many African Americans. The real world of African heritage is complex.

An opportunity has been missed to ask questions and show sincerely that everyone involved cares about more than money and basketball in this big hullabaloo.

Supporters of Kyrie Irving’s search for identity, or African Americans’ quest more broadly, need to rethink the link between Semitism and African heritage. There is a famous case study to inquire if all people with an “Asiatic” or “Semitic” identity in Africa actually identify as “Black” people. Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia embodies this dilemma.

In the 1930s, this lack of Black identity became a controversy around Selassie. This is despite the Rastafari of Jamaica later building a cult around him. The contradictions of Selassie’s religion and ethnicity, viewing “blacks” as equivalent to “slaves,” is a mentality that can also be found in Northern Sudan and other parts of the African continent.

Why not identify with the Yoruba?

Perhaps Irving did not wish to identify with pre-colonial traditions of African cosmologies. Why not identify with the Yoruba as many in the African diaspora do—or the Fante, Nuer, Masai, or Zulu?

Through the prism of monotheism, their cosmologies could be seen as idolatrous.

The film he circulated claims to challenge colonial mentalities. It actually has a “chosen people” imperial mindset toward African peoples and religions. Neither Irving nor the film showed identification with the African goat herder, peasant farmer, mid-wife, market woman, mechanic, or industrial worker.

Rather, like many African Americans, the imagined heritage they wish to identify is an invented royal bloodline. To be clear, all such bloodlines are socially and historically manufactured. Irving, and African Americans more broadly, did not invent racial thinking.

Unfit and in need of remediation

Deeper reflection is crucial for this, but this is exactly what NBA authorities have not done in handling this Kyrie Irving controversy. Many view that statements against his undoubted disastrous behavior are also racially charged.

The language of unfit implies eugenics—a certain race or class that cannot govern itself. Remediation is for someone who has special needs, needs extra help, or has failed calculus and has been sent to summer school. Many politicians and corporate executives above society have behaved distastefully or made major mistakes.

Who proposes their remediation? This may be the stance of a boss toward an employee but not people genuinely obsessed with public relations in a society desiring to overcome racism.

All fumbling the ball now

The Nets’ stance, since Irving’s suspension, that he is “unfit” to be associated with the team and the league, sets the wrong tone. “Remediation” is also difficult language for some to accept. These words strike the proper tone for many, but some Black people, who are alert to the historical ethnic conflict in the city, find that emphasis inappropriate and even inflammatory.

Are they right? Undoubtedly, this is why Tsai and Silver had hesitated previously.

Tsai and Silver were wise enough to go slow. Yet, as with Irving, neither of them could find credible words and strategies for managing this crisis. Irving has made a plethora of mistakes in his public life. Now, on some level, they are all fumbling the ball.

Individuals and groups

While Irving does not represent Black people—much like Tsai does not represent Asians as a whole and Silver does not represent Jewish people—this is how many process things. This cannot be forgotten when considering Brooklyn and the potential for clashes in the streets.

Amid the suspension, the Nets are in freefall. They have lost six of their first eight games to start the season. There is talk of Irving being traded to another team. This might be attractive, for he has an expiring contract.

Lastly, Irving, it appears, is contemplating early retirement rather than complying with the consequences meted out by his workplace for his disturbing errors of judgment. It is a mistake to think that what Irving started simply comes to an end whenever the NBA and Brooklyn Nets decide.

By Mathew Quest




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