Charles Barkley’s getting his own TV show about race in America

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Dan Devine
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Charles Barkley holds court. (Getty Images)
Charles Barkley holds court. (Getty Images)

Over the years, Charles Barkley has proven more than willing to share his opinions about plenty of things beyond the basketball court, including thorny social and political issues on which his unvarnished opinions can touch many more nerves than his takes on which teams really have a shot at winning an NBA championship. Now, the Basketball Hall of Famer and Turner Sports commentator will have his own televised forum for exploring the divisions between black and white Americans — a TNT series tentatively titled “The Race Card.”

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From TNT’s announcement:

NBA legend and “Inside the NBA” analyst Charles Barkley has had enough. The America that he knew has lost its way, becoming mired in partisan politics, social divides and entrenched corporate interests. Now he hopes to get to the root of the problem in the new limited-run series “The Race Card.” TNT has ordered six hour-long episodes of the show, with plans to launch in early 2017.

In “The Race Card,” Charles Barkley wants to bust up the echo chamber mentality that so often has people retreating to corners of the like-minded, where views are reinforced and ideas are distorted into angry, unexamined groupthink conclusions. Each week, Barkley will take on the rapidly calcifying positions around today’s hot-button topics. He will seek out the sharpest and most varied viewpoints from today’s cultural leaders and tastemakers. He will then challenge and probe those ideas, even trying them out on himself.

No idea presented on “The Race Card” will be left in the abstract. Barkley will put ideas on their feet, with real-world proof-of-concept tests that will engage people and expose the truth behind their closely held beliefs. In the end, Barkley will reach his own conclusions guided only by his own wits and common-sense wisdom.

“We as Americans never discuss the issue of race in this country and how it impacts everything in our lives until something bad happens,” Barkley said. “I see this project as a way to talk about race, class and cultural differences and challenge everyone’s status quo.”

Race, class and cultural differences are big and awfully complicated issues to try to wrap your arms around. TBS/TNT president Kevin Reilly lauded Barkley’s “ambition” in taking on such heady stuff during a chat with Ellen Gray of the Philadelphia Daily News on Sunday:

The way Reilly sees it, “it would be really, really easy for [Barkley] to not take this on, but he felt strongly about it…and I think it’s to be applauded.” Plus, if the current election cycle proves nothing else, it’s that “they want people to at least be real.” […]

“He is the most entertaining and captivating guy,” he said. “This is very tricky territory … but he’s got the cachet and he’s beloved enough across the board to actually put this out there, and do it in a way that I think will be both entertaining and illuminating, as opposed to just some sort of school lesson.”

Barkley’s certainly one of the most beloved sports commentators and characters on television. That’s not necessarily true when it comes to his perspectives on race, though.

Once a staunch Republican who had pondered a run for the party’s nomination in the 1998 Alabama gubernatorial election, Barkley later decided to become an independent. He left the Republicans in 2006 in a rejection of what he saw as a central change in the party’s ideology. (“I was a Republican until they lost their minds,” he said at the time.) He supported Barack Obama in his run to the presidency, and has loudly criticized Donald Trump for his stances toward Hispanics and Muslims.

In recent years, Barkley’s responses to incidents involving the deaths of black people at the hands of law enforcement, and to the civil unrest that has followed, have come under fire from many observers. The former All-Star forward has frequently bemoaned what he sees as the “self-inflicted wounds” from which the black community suffers, and spoken of the need for black people to “do better” so that they don’t wind up in compromising, and potentially fatal, positions.

In July of 2013, after neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman was acquitted on the charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter he faced in the February 2012 killing of 17-year-old high school student Trayvon Martin, which Zimmerman claimed was in self-defense despite only a can of iced tea and a pack of Skittles being found on Martin’s body, Barkley agreed with the verdict, because while he was “sorry that young kid got killed, [he felt the prosecutors] didn’t have enough evidence to charge [Zimmerman].”

After the death of unarmed black man Eric Garner at the hands of police officer Daniel Pantaleo in Staten Island, N.Y., in the summer of 2014, Barkley gave the officers the benefit of the doubt despite Pantaleo using a banned choke hold: “When the cops are trying to arrest you, if you fight back, things go wrong. I don’t think they were trying to kill Mr. Garner. He was a big man and they tried to get him down.”

In December of 2014, after a grand jury’s decision not to indict Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown sparked looting and rioting in the city, Barkley took the demonstrators to task in a radio interview: “Them jackasses who are looting … those aren’t real black people; those are scumbags. The real black people, they’re not out there looting.”

He also cautioned black people from painting all law enforcement officials with a broad brush after incidents in which police officers kill black civilians: “If it wasn’t for the cops, we’d be living in the Wild Wild West in our neighborhoods. We can’t pick out certain incidents that don’t go our way and act like the cops are all bad. I hate when we do that.”

Barkley struck a similar note last month during a radio interview following the police killing of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., the police killing of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minn., and the killing of five police officers by a lone gunman at an otherwise peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas.

“The cops have made some mistakes, but that doesn’t give us the right to riot and shoot cops,” he said. “We need the cops, especially in the black community. We as black people, we’ve got to do better. We never get mad when black people kill each other, which that has always bothered me … I’ve always said if we as black people want more respect, we have to give each other respect. You can’t demand respect from white people and the cops if you don’t respect each other. We’ve got to do better as black people.”

Barkley’s past comments have drawn rebukes — including from his TNT colleague, Kenny Smith — as at best ill-considered and short-sighted, and at worst, hypocritical and irresponsible. From Jason Johnson of CNN, back in 2014:

For the last several years Barkley has fashioned himself as some type of hard-truth-telling cultural critic — especially on issues of race in America. What his Ferguson commentary makes obvious is that he’s just an uninformed rich guy who is given way more credibility than he deserves when discussing racial and political issues in America. […]

Charles Barkley is a very, very rich man, whose fame and celebrity have protected him from the kind of hostility and harassment from the police that thousands of other Americans, especially African-Americans, experience every day. It’s easy for Charles Barkley to lecture protesters and looters and mourning families about how to deal with anger. But most Americans can’t defuse a “tense” police situation with the aid of celebrity. […]

Barkley gets a huge forum to talk about cases like Ferguson and the killing of Trayvon Martin because he’s black and famous, not because he’s informed, or credible or even representative of any segment of the population. And while that might make for entertaining television, it certainly doesn’t amount to social criticism anyone should take seriously.

That sort of commentary, combined with the fact that Barkley doesn’t exactly have a reputation as the most rigorous student of the game he’s been paid millions to cover over the years, has led to some skepticism about the prospects for “The Race Card”:

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It’s possible that a different format and approach could introduce audiences to a different side of Barkley … or that the purported exploration at the heart of the show could change the man himself.

“Ever since I’ve known him, he’s always been in a constant state of becoming,” former Philadelphia journalist and Barkley confidante Larry Platt told Jesse Washington of The Undefeated last year. “He’s impossible to categorize […] “He has this unbelievable empathy for the conditions that others exist in.”

Whether that empathy comes across on camera remains to be seen. Given network boss Reilly’s praise of Barkley’s willingness “to take a provocative position that’s usually not necessarily predictable,” though, it seems a safe bet that “The Race Card” will aim at eliciting strong responses, whether in support or opposition … though its central figure likely won’t much care which way we react. From a December 2014 piece by USA TODAY’s Josh Peter:

“People like to hear your opinion unless you disagree with them,” he said. “I don’t think I’m right all the time. But I think I have an obligation to be fair to myself and try to be as honest as I possibly can.”

His father said that makes him especially proud.

“You might not like what he says, but that’s him,” Frank Barkley said. “And I don’t want him to be saying things and then going back and saying ‘I’m sorry.’ You don’t say things that you don’t mean.

“Here’s what I tell people. You don’t want to hear him, turn the damn TV off.”

Fans haven’t yet, and with Sunday’s announcement, Reilly and the rest of the Turner Broadcasting brass are betting that they won’t start now.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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