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After being targeted in a hate crime, LeBron James gives America a wake-up call on racism

On the eve of the NBA finals, the superstar talked about Emmett Till.

Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James warms up before an NBA basketball game against the Brooklyn Nets at the Barclays Center, Dec. 8, 2014, in New York. Professional athletes have worn “I Can’t Breathe” messages in protest of a grand jury ruling not to indict an officer in the death of a New York man. CREDIT: AP Photo/Frank Franklin II
Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James warms up before an NBA basketball game against the Brooklyn Nets at the Barclays Center, Dec. 8, 2014, in New York. Professional athletes have worn “I Can’t Breathe” messages in protest of a grand jury ruling not to indict an officer in the death of a New York man. CREDIT: AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

The night before LeBron James’ seventh straight NBA Finals appearance, the most important part of his press conference wasn’t about his quest for a fourth NBA championship or his thoughts on what Kevin Durant adds to the Golden State Warriors.

It was about Emmett Till.

On Wednesday morning, someone spray painted the n-word onto the front gate of James’ Los Angeles home. Police are investigating it as a hate crime.

James, who has been a vocal advocate for the black community throughout his career, did not shy away from addressing the incident when a reporter asked him about it.

“I think back to Emmett Till’s mom, actually. That’s one of the first things I thought of,” he said. “The reason she had an open casket was that she wanted to show the world what her son went through as far as a hate crime, and being black 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’ve got a long way to go, for us as a society and for us as African Americans, until we feel equal in America.”

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It’s been 62 years since the 14-year-old Till was lynched in Mississippi, and though in some ways we’ve grown as a nation, racism still permeates everything.

James is not saying that he and Till went through the exact same thing, but what he is saying, in very eloquent and powerful terms, is that what happened to him and Till stems from the same hatred of black bodies. Racism comes in different forms, but it’s something that as a black man, he’s always dealing with. It’s not something that he can out-earn or out-dress or out-class.

“It just goes to show that racism will always be a part of the world, a part of America,” he said. “Hate in America, especially for African Americans, is living every day.”

The NBA Finals are one of the best events in sports, and it’s tempting to want to view them as a spectacle that’s completely separate from the social and political turmoil facing our nation. But this is yet another reminder there is no barrier between the former and the latter.

Black players comprised 74.3 percent of all NBA players in 2016, according to the 2016 NBA Racial and Gender Report Card by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports. Comparatively, only three teams had a black CEO and/or President last year, and only eight black men are head coaches in the NBA right now.

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This year, for the first time in 42 years, two black coaches will square off in the NBA finals, although it won’t go down in the record books — Mike Brown, an assistant coach for the Warriors, is only acting as head coach during playoff games as Steve Kerr recovers from a back injury. Kerr might return at any time during the finals.

Michael Jordan is still the only African American majority owner of a NBA team, though James recently announced his plan to own an NBA team after he retires from his playing days.

In other words, even in a league where black players dominate and which touts itself as progressive and inclusive, the power is still overwhelmingly in the hands of white men.

Outside of the NBA, things are even worse. There has been an uptick of hate crimes since President Donald Trump was elected in November. Trump’s administration is drastically pulling back on civil rights. On Wednesday, for the second time in a week, a noose was found in a public gallery at the Smithsonian — this time, in the Segregation Gallery of the National Museum of African American History.

Racism is not our country’s past, it’s our country’s present.

So while we should enjoy the NBA Finals, we shouldn’t let them distract us completely from the real problems that are impacting our country. That’s why James wants to talk about the n-word that was spray painted on his home — because as Till’s mother showcased when she left her son’s coffin open, we need to stare directly at racism before we can address it.

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“I mean, if this — if this is to shed a light and continue to keep the conversation going on my behalf, then I’m okay with it,” James told reporters.

“My family is safe. At the end of the day, they’re safe, and that’s the most important.”