Urban Wire LeBron James says “being black in America is tough.” He’s correct.
Justin Milner, Steven Brown
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We can debate where LeBron James sits in the pantheon of great basketballers. There should be no debate, however, about his role as one of sports’ most insightful figures.

In response to an abhorrent act of vandalism involving a spray-painted racial slur on his house, James offered a thoughtful reflection on the intersection of race and class in America.

"No matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, being black in America is tough. We got a long way to go for us as a society and for us as African Americans until we feel equal in America.”

Although there are several important points embedded in James’ statement, his comment on wealth has attracted the most scrutiny. Is it true that even wealthy black Americans have a tougher time?

The answer is yes.

Just look at a few key indicators in housing, health, justice, and labor.

Why is wealth a weaker protector for black Americans?

In general, higher socioeconomic status is associated with better outcomes across many domains. But for black Americans, it appears income and wealth are a weaker protective factor than for other groups. Why? No single explanatory factor exists, and the reasons are particular to the outcome considered. For instance, redlining has contributed to housing inequalities, and “weathering” has perpetuated health inequalities.

Although LeBron James will continue to be a super-rich basketball deity and he and his family are safe, the symbolism of this act of vandalism is unmistakable. Black families have been subject to the threat of violence through these kinds of warnings for decades—from rocks thrown through windows for moving into white neighborhoods to cross burnings on the lawn.

That LeBron James was the target of this crime represents ethnic intimidation intentionally magnified by the moment and his central role in the spotlight of the NBA Finals.

And although we should be dismayed that the act took place, we should appreciate the perspective LeBron brought to the event. He closed his statement with a reflection: “If this incident that happened to me and my family today can keep the conversation going and can shed light on us trying to figure out a way to keep progressing and not regressing, then I’m not against it happening to us again.”

James' comments are a timely reminder that the legacy of racism in the United States ripples across all levels of socioeconomic security and success. 


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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Race and equity
Tags Racial and ethnic disparities Wealth inequality Structural racism
Policy Centers Research to Action Lab