Boston Celtics forward Jaylen Brown opened up about his experience with racism growing up in Marietta, Ga., and how he thinks President Donald Trump emboldens racists.
In London for Thursday’s NBA game, where the Celtics, the leading team in the Eastern conference, will face the Philadelphia 76ers, Brown spoke of painful racial incidents of his youth in an interview published by The Guardian on Tuesday.
“Racism definitely still exists in the South,” he said, recalling occurrences as a teen in Marietta.
“I’ve experienced it through basketball. I’ve had people call me the n-word. I’ve had people come to basketball games dressed in monkey suits with a jersey on. I’ve had people paint their face black at my games. I’ve had people throw bananas in the stands.”
Brown then expressed that racism currently is “hidden in more strategic places.”
“Racism definitely exists across America today,” he told The Guardian. “Of course it’s changed a lot — and my opportunities are far greater than they would have been 50 years ago. So some people think racism has dissipated or no longer exists.
“But it’s hidden in more strategic places. You have less people coming to your face and telling you certain things. But [Donald] Trump has made it a lot more acceptable for racists to speak their minds.”
Michael Steele said that Trump “was the man picking at the scab” of racism in the U.S. "until it became a wound again."
Brown was asked if his anger has been amplified during Trump’s presidency.
“Not really,” he said. “I just think Trump’s character and some of his values makes him unfit to lead. For someone like him to be president, and in charge of our troops? It’s scary to be honest.”
With Trump in office, non-white people are much more stressed than they were one year ago, according to a recent DiversityInc reader survey. Participants were asked, “How much would you say your overall stress level has increased since November’s presidential election?”
Ninety-two percent of non-white participants responded “moderate to extreme,” compared to 77 percent of white respondents.
In 2016, after a year at the University of California, Berkeley, Brown paused his studies and became the No. 3 pick in the NBA draft, even though there was a suggestion by a league executive that Brown was “too smart” for the NBA.
While at Berkeley, he said he learned about subtle racism and how it has affected the U.S. education system.
“I learned about a more subtle racism and how it filters across our education system through tracking, hidden curriculums, social stratification and things I had no idea of before,” he said. “I was really emotional — because one of the most subtle but aggressive ways racism exists is through our education system.”
Brown, who taught himself how to play the piano, enjoys learning languages and playing chess, wrote a thesis about how institutionalized sports has an impact on education.
“There’s this idea of America that some people have to win and some have to lose so certain things are in place to make this happen,” he said.
“Some people have to be the next legislators and political elites and some have to fill the prisons and work in McDonald’s. That’s how America works. It’s a machine, which needs people up top, and people down low.
“Even though I’ve ended up in a great place, who is to say where I would’ve been without basketball?”
Brown also shared his thoughts on NFL players taking a knee during the National Anthem, a form of protest initiated by former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2016.
“For Colin to put his career on the line, and sacrifice himself, was amazing,” he said. “But Colin was fed up with the police brutality and pure racism. He speaks for many people in this country — including me.”
Brown speaking out against racism, and in his second season with the Celtics averaging 14.1 points per game, was made possible by NBA pioneer Bill Russell, who also questioned the status quo of America. The racism that Brown believes Trump is allowing to thrive is what Russell endured when he first started playing professional basketball in the late 1950s. Celtics fans didn’t accept him as they did his white teammates.
The 83-year-old civil rights activist opened a new account in pursuit of social justice.
Despite racism, Russell endured. He led the Celtics to win 11 championships in just 13 seasons (1956 to 1969), and he was the NBA’s MVP five times. As a professional athlete, he became an outspoken supporter of the civil rights movement. Russell was in the front row during Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech in 1963 during the March on Washington.
The 83-year-old created a Twitter page at the end of September. He did so to post a photo of himself taking a knee in support of NFL players protesting.
Brown told The Guardian “sports is a way to channel our energy into something positive.”
“If people didn’t have sports they would be a lot more disappointed with their role in society,” he said. “There would be a lot more anger or stress about the injustice of poverty and hunger. Sports is a way to channel our energy into something positive. Without sports who knows what half of these kids would be doing?”