Brandon Mebane's housing discrimination complaint adds to LA's complicated history with race

Brandon Mebane is back in his hometown in Los Angeles. (Getty Images)
Brandon Mebane is back in his hometown of Los Angeles. (Getty Images)

When the Los Angeles Chargers’ Brandon Mebane spoke out earlier this summer about being denied a housing opportunity because of race, he became the latest pro athlete to show vulnerability to the problems of racial discrimination in the Los Angeles area.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and LeBron James, two other high-profile athletes with homes in the Southern California metropolis, have had complications living in the city. Organizations like the Housing Rights Center have dedicated themselves to protecting residents in cases of housing discrimination. Abdul-Jabbar found some solace via Westside Fair Housing when the nonprofit successfully filed and won a housing discrimination case on the basketball Hall of Famer’s behalf.

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Westside Fair Housing, a nonprofit that later merged with the Housing Rights Center, filed a case for Abdul-Jabbar, then known as Lou Alcindor, in 1970.

The Housing Rights Center, 17 years later, issued a statement of support for Mebane, who is black, and is currently following the NFL player’s situation closely.

Chancela Al-Mansour, the executive director of the Housing Rights Center, said athletes like Abdul-Jabbar and Mebane show that housing discrimination is widely seen across LA, regardless of income.

“In our initial pivotal case, when we represented Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, you had an African-American professional basketball player who had a large enough income to afford to live in an all-white neighborhood,” Al-Mansour said. “The similarity that you find in a lot of these cases against athletes is that their income may have changed and their skin color hasn’t.”

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Mebane, a defensive tackle, spent his life growing up in this complex city, and when his professional football team, then based in San Diego, moved back to his hometown, Mebane figured it would be a happy homecoming. But the transition wasn’t smooth.

A 1970 Los Angeles Times article details the lawsuit filed by the Westside Fair Housing Council on behalf of Lew Alcindor. (Screen shot via Westside Fair Housing Council)
A 1970 Los Angeles Times article details the lawsuit filed by the Westside Fair Housing Council on behalf of Lew Alcindor. (Screen shot via Westside Fair Housing Council)

The football star, who plays on a $13.5 million contract, hoped to rent a home in Irvine, not far from where the Chargers would practice and play, but says his application was denied. In an interview with the Los Angeles Daily News, Mebane explained that the owner denied his application because another renter had a credit score four points higher than his. He believes, however, that the rejection of his application had little to do with a credit score.

“When your credit score is in the 800s, it’s pretty much a wash,” Mebane told the newspaper. “But you can’t tell a person they can’t come in your neighborhood because they’re black; that’s against the law. They don’t actually say those types of things. But they’ll point out things like those four points. The neighborhood was brand new. There were no black families there.”

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Mebane wrote on his personal blog that he felt tension from residents in the Irvine neighborhood and suspected “some owners in the suburbs we were visiting did not want us living in their house.” He also told The Undefeated that other black teammates faced the same problems.

Owners can’t outwardly show discrimination under the Fair Housing Act, but the micro-aggressions and the small decisions hinted at in Mebane’s blog sent a message that the football player was not welcome.

LeBron James referenced a similar sentiment when his LA home was vandalized just before the NBA Finals in June. Although he did not share experiences with housing discrimination, James explained how the derogatory spray-paint on his Brentwood home shows that racism continue to permeate cities in the United States, and even the most famous, wealthy stars can be targeted.

“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,” James told reporters in June. “And we have a long way to go for us as a society and for us as African-Americans until we feel equal in America.”

Someone spray painted a racial slur on the front gate of LeBron James' home in Los Angeles on the eve of the NBA Finals. (AP)
Someone spray painted a racial slur on the front gate of LeBron James’ home in Los Angeles on the eve of the NBA Finals. (AP)

David Leonard, a critical race and culture professor at the Washington State University, said athletes like James and Mebane who have used their position as elite athletes to address social issues in America are valuable.

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The cases of hate crimes and housing discrimination show the disparity of the way black athletes are treated on and off the field, Leonard said. Top athletes may be regarded as superstars in their sport, but in their community or other communities around the country, they may not be treated with complete respect.

“It’s important to have context of the hope that people who cheer for Brandon listen to him, that his skills on the field aren’t the only thing that he has of value,” Leonard said. “He’s speaking on his experience and it speaks to how the experiences of black athletes have been one of celebration on the field and when the game ends an entirely different experience.”

Taking a stance hasn’t always been met with encouragement and support, and Leonard recognizes this concern. Athletes who are considering speaking out about social issues don’t have to look far to see the negative consequences. Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, remains unemployed after he took a knee in protest during the national anthem throughout the 2016 season. When it comes to housing discrimination, however, Al-Mansour hopes that Mebane’s story will encourage others to speak out.

Retribution for being open about housing discrimination is against the law, Al-Mansour said, but she acknowledges that many still fear that reality, particularly low-income residents.

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“Retaliation is one of the No. 1 reasons people don’t complain, that’s why there’s laws to protect their ability to complain. Those rights are protected,” Al-Mansour said.

From the outside looking in, Los Angeles and the neighboring counties may seem to be a city of sun and stars. But as Mebane’s story shows, the city still needs to sort out serious societal issues, particularly in regards to the way residents are treated.

“In LA, a lot of people think it is liberal, but unfortunately, housing discrimination is pervasive,” Al-Mansour said. “We are seeing the number of reported cases going up, so it was not surprising. While disheartening, it was not surprising. Even someone with a strong economic background could face discrimination.”

Brandon Mebane (L), in his Seahawks days with Marshawn Lynch in 2015, spoke out about housing discrimination. (AP)
Brandon Mebane (L), in his Seahawks days with Marshawn Lynch in 2015, spoke out about housing discrimination. (AP)