Yes Morant shows how a ‘good guy with a gun’ can never be black

“Man enough to pull a gun, be man enough to squeeze it,” NBA superstar Allen Iverson rapped on his song “40 bars.”

This was two weeks before the 2000–01 NBA season in which Iverson would be named the league’s MVP. Yes Morant, the 23-year-old star point guard for the Memphis Grizzlies, was barely 1 year old.

Today, Morant’s game is conjuring that of the electrifying Iverson. With colorfully colored dreadlocks, an infectious smile and a signature sneakerYes represents the next generation of NBA superstars.

But his explosive athleticism, so evocative of Iverson, comes with a price: the perceived threat of the black gangster.

On March 4, 2023, Morant posted a Instagram Live video of him showing a gun at a strip club in Denver. Colorado is an open carry state, but it is illegal to carry a firearm while under the influence of alcohol. Although Morant was never charged with a crime, the NBA suspended him eight games for “conduct prejudicial to the league.”

Then, on 14 May 2023, another Instagram Live video appeared of Morant holding a gun in a parked car with his friends while dancing to rap music. In response, The NBA suspended Morant for 25 games to start this upcoming season for “engaging in reckless and irresponsible conduct with weapons.”

I do not want to defend Morant’s behavior. It was careless and he could have hurt himself and others.

But as a scholar of black popular cultureI can’t help but wonder what the reaction would have been if Morant was white.

For many politicians and activists in the gun-obsessed United States, the freedom to own and brandish firearms is a sacred right. And yet, throughout the nation’s history, gun ownership among black Americans has provoked fear and recrimination. Even when people like Morant innocently and legally possess a gun, they find themselves too easily typecast as villains.

Disciplining ‘thugs’ and ‘kids’

The NBA has long had a fraught relationship with its black superstars.

When global sports icon Michael Jordan retired from basketball in 2003the league was in a transition period.

How would it continue to fill arenas, satisfy advertisers and spread its vision of a global game without its brightest star?

Not only did the NBA need a new crop of superstars to cushion Jordan’s exit, but it also needed a fresh attitude. In response, the league turned to marketing of hip-hop and black culture.

Players openly professed their love for rap music, with stars like Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe BryantIverson and other record and publish music. The players wore oversized T-shirts, baggy jeans and New Era fitted caps as they traveled. You’ll see durags and cool diamond chains during post-game interviews.

First, the league saw opportunity — an opening to usher in a new one post-Jordan audience.

But in 2004, two events led to a backlash.

First, there was the infamous “Evil in the palacewhere Indiana Pacers players took to the stands to fight fans who had provoked them at Detroit’s Palace of Auburn Hills stadium.

Indiana Pacers forward Ron Artest fights with a fan during a fight at a game against the Detroit Pistons in Auburn Hills, Mich., on November 19, 2004.
Photo by Duane Burleson/AP

A year later, there was an infamous Team USA dinner in Serbia. As the Washington Post reported“Iverson and some of his colleagues from the National Basketball Association arrived wearing an assortment of sweatsuits, oversized jeans, sparkling diamond earrings and platinum chains … Larry Brown, the Hall of Fame coach of the American team, was shaken and embarrassed.”

Former commissioner David Stern continued to institute a controversial dress code for NBA players, which, among other things, prohibits baggy clothes together with the display of flashy jewellery. But Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson revealed the quiet truth of the ban.

“The players have been wearing prison uniforms for the last five or six years,” he said. “All the stuff that’s going on, it’s like gangster, thugs.”

The NBA decided that its foray into marketing hip-hop with basketball required a paternalistic discipline to keep its players’ “street cool” in line and avoid the toxic image of black crime.

And like Jackson all those years ago, ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, on the network’s Lowe Post basketball podcastcriticized Morant with not-so-subtle racial undertones.

“Yes Morant is a child,” he announced. “This guy is so worried about being cool: ‘Look at me, man: Life is like a rap video.'”

The NBA’s gun culture

Yes Morant is not the first NBA player to get in trouble for carrying a firearm.

In 2006 Stephen Jackson was suspended just seven games for firing a gun after an argument at an Indianapolis strip club. IN 2010 Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton were suspended for 50 and 38 games, respectively, after pulling guns on each other in the Washington Wizards team facility. And in 2014, Raymond Felton was suspended four games after pleading guilty to charges stemming from an incident in which he threatened his estranged wife with a gun.

Like Yes, all of these players are black. But unlike his situation, these incidents were violent, criminal acts.

The closest analogues to Morant are Chris Kaman and Draymond Green. Damna former center, who is white, posted photos of his arsenal to social media in 2012, 2013 and 2016. In 2018, during a trip to Israel, the Golden State Warriors played forward. Draymond Green posed with an assault weapon. Neither Kaman nor Green were suspended for their posts.

The metaphor of guns also saturates the league in ways that reflect the country’s obsession with firearms.

Alias ​​of Andrei Kirilenko, a former All-Star for the Utah Jazz, was “AK-47.” Fans anointed the Lakers guard Austin Reaves nicknamed the “AR-15” until he denounced it after the tragic mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas. NBA superstar Kevin Durant Instagram handle is “easymoneysniper.” Watch Hall of Fame broadcaster Mike Breen announce a game and you’ll inevitably hear his famous catch phrase“BANG.”

Has it ever been about guns?

After Morant’s latest incident, Adam Silverleague commissioner, said, “I’m assuming the worst.”

But why, according to Silver, is Morant suddenly a bad role model for “millions of children, globally“, especially when earlier and present athletes have done the same without penalty?

To me, the answer is simple: In America, armed blacks conjure up pathological criminality.

Since the nation’s beginnings, guns have cemented a uniquely American masculine imagination: the revolutionary and the cowboy, the policeman and the soldier, the spy, the hunter, the gangster—all coalesce around the presumed thrill of the trigger. These fantasies reflect National Rifle Association’s most destructive and strangely patriotic lie: “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

At the same time, historian Carol Anderson’s book “The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America” explores how the imagined danger of armed black people has long shaped the national psyche.

In her telling, this story begins in Morant’s home state of South Carolina, where the The Negro Act of 1722 and Negro Slave Act of 1740 claimed that blacks were “instinctively criminal” and abolished their access to guns and the right to self-defense.

So if people are so certain of Morant’s villainy, I ask without a hint of snark: What does responsible black gun ownership look like?

Similar to Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and the Black Panther Party, whose armed protests were the driving force behind it California’s stricter gun laws—legislation that was supported by the NRA?

Black and white photo of black men and women gathering, with some men holding guns.
Armed members of the Black Panther Party stand in the corridor of the California capitol in May 1967.
Walt Zeboski/AP Photo

Looks like Philando Castile? We’ll see Marissa Alexanderwho was sent to prison after she fired a warning shot at her husband who had threatened to kill her?

For me, it was never about guns—just like the early 2000s were never about rap music or baggy clothes.

It’s about white paternalism. It’s about how black people can’t trust guns. It’s about how the country’s veneration of gun ownership as an inalienable right is seconded only by its commitment to making armed blacks an existential danger to the decency and fabric of America.

Blackness seems to reject any possibility of being a “good guy,” gun or not. Kyle Rittenhouse was a “good guy with a gun.” It was too George Zimmerman. Both committed extrajudicial killings, and both went unpunished.

According to this quirky, uniquely American fantasy, “good guys with guns” can never look like Ja Morant—and good guys can always kill bad guys.

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