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Black men have a life expectancy shorter than that of black women, white women, or white men. It is a well-known fact, but it is spoken of too casually and rarely expresses the devastation that results from poor health care, unbearable levels of stress, and high homicide rates. The recent death of writer Ralph Wiley at the age of 52 is the most recent example of a gifted black man who passed away too soon.

Ralph Wiley was perhaps best known as a sports writer and commentator, but he was also a fine essayist. Wiley had written for the Oakland Tribune, then as a senior writer for Sports Illustrated and He also provided commentary for NBC and ESPN. He was the author of books on subjects as diverse as boxing, basketball, the life of Martin Luther King's children, and political commentary. At the time of his death he was collaborating on a screenplay with Spike Lee. Wiley coined the term “Billy Ball” to describe the late Billy Martin’s style of managing baseball. While sports were most often the subject of his commentaries his razor sharp insight enabled him to dissect any subject that he chose. Ralph Wiley's talent lay in his willingness to point out the empty way in which serious issues are addressed by Americans, even when that emptiness was perpetuated by other black people.

Wiley began to make his voice heard nationally in 1989 when NBC News produced "The Black Athlete: Fact and Fiction." Television networks had already discarded the documentary as a format but that year Tom Brokaw and his bosses felt compelled to resurrect the genre. They spent one full hour attempting to prove that black people are superior athletes. (One wonders if NBC would produce the same program after Yao Ming entered the NBA.) Fortunately, Brokaw went on to write endlessly about the so-called Greatest Generation and left black people alone as a subject of his reporting. But the foolishness was unleashed and the damage was done.

While prominent people who should have known better, such as Arthur Ashe, went along with dubious notions affirming black physical superiority, Ralph Wiley put his finger on the discomfort that most of black America felt about the question being raised at all.

"Are black people, all people of African descent but especially African-American men, naturally superior athletes? If you are asking me, I'd have to say not that I've noticed. But why ask in the first place? I want to know why black men have to be naturally superior athletes. If we are, it would inevitably follow that black men are naturally inferior at something else. Like thinking."

 – from Why Black People Tend to Shout: Cold Facts and Wry Views from a Black Man's World, by Ralph Wiley, 1991, page 181. (Italics mine)

It is unfortunate that Wiley was not better known during the feeding frenzy of outrage and stupidity that took place during the O.J. Simpson trial. Giving opinions on the Simpson case became and remains a cottage industry in its own right. It was Wiley who waded through the endless and useless debates about whether Simpson was or was not guilty and why black and white people felt differently. He calmly pointed out that Simpson probably was guilty but was aided and abetted by privileged white Americans in his successful effort to be acquitted of the crime. “Even after the double-murder, O.J. was treated not like a black person. I never heard of a black man being charged with a double murder having the handcuffs taken off him, and being set free, and being told he could turn himself in next Tuesday, or the Friday after Thanksgiving, or whatever.” (see Wiley, “White Lies: HBO Gets It Half Right.”)

I saw Wiley in person when he gave a reading of his work at the West 115th Street branch of the New York Public Library. During the Q&A session one reader asked if the work environment at Sports Illustrated was racist. Wiley replied that it was no more or less so than any other American corporation and he added that institutional racism was “The way the system is set up."

He wasn’t being cavalier about what is a life and death matter for black people. Instead he was pointing out what is obvious but overlooked in our search to make some sense out of a predicament that is truly insane. It is imperative to know that the system is set up to foster police brutality, keep large numbers of black people unemployed or incarcerated, and devalue our lives in many other ways.

Right wing forces in America create terrible burdens for black people and then use those burdens to promote policies that work against us. In order to give Wall Street a windfall of billions of dollars in retirement money, conservatives love to cook up schemes to do away with Social Security. They point out that black men either don't live long enough to receive benefits or receive them for a shorter time than any other group. They never explain how raiding the public treasury will help black men or anyone else. They only know what buttons to push in order to fool us into advocating against ourselves.

Ralph Wiley didn’t live long enough to collect Social Security. I wish I could believe that the right wing are sorry that he is dead.

Margaret Kimberley’s Freedom Rider column appears weekly in .  Ms. Kimberley is a freelance writer living in New York City.  She can be reached via e-Mail at [email protected]. You can read more of Ms. Kimberley's writings at


June 24 2004
Issue 96

is published every Thursday.

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