Charles Barkley and executive producer Dan Partland speak during the American Race Press Luncheon in May in New York City.
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That “American Race,” the new TNT docu-series about race hosted by Charles Barkley, manages to illuminate some truths about the way Americans talk about race is largely accidental. Over its four episodes, the impolitic former NBA star travels to different parts of the country trying to dig into racial controversies that have bubbled up locally; at each stop, his insights don’t go much beyond platitudes about America being made up of people from different backgrounds trying to carve out lives for themselves.
That doesn’t mean that “American Race” isn’t revealing, in its way, about how Americans think about race. Barkley reminds us repeatedly that he wants to start a dialogue — which is all he reveals about his motivations for doing so. And like so many other self-appointed dialogue-starters, Barkley seems mostly indifferent to the extent that conversations he’s wading into and their contexts predate him.
In the series’ first installment, Barkley spends a day training with Baltimore police officers and playing out scenarios in which they might have to fire their weapons. He then heads to a town hall at a black church in the city, during which he tries to impress upon the all-black audience how difficult it is to be a police officer. (Just to up the degree of difficulty for his pitch, he also rattles off some numbers on black-on-black homicides, with an implicit finger-wag.) “I spent the day with the cops…we’re talking split-second decisions,” he tells the visibly restless audience. “They can do 95 percent of things correct, and five percent screw up, and we spend all of our time talking about the five-percent [who] screw up.”
While the folks in the town hall audience are polite to Barkley at first, they’re also not buying what he’s selling. One woman stands up and identifies herself as the mother of Tyrone West, a man who in 2013 died in mysterious circumstances while in police custody. “I don’t know you, I don’t like you,” she says to Barkley. “You said you rode with the police and you had a conversation with them and it takes them only a split second to make a decision. Tell me why it took 15 to 20 minutes to beat my son to death.”