Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on racism in America: "Nothing has changed" in 30 years since Rodney King

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar defends protests
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar defends protests 08:29

Responding to the nationwide protests sparked by the death in police custody of George Floyd in Minneapolis last Monday, former NBA star and social and political activist Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said that racism in America needs to be addressed by all Americans.

Appearing on "CBS This Morning" Monday, Abdul-Jabbar explained why he supports the protesters, and the changes he believes need to happen.

"Everybody I think remembers what Colin Kaepernick went through," Abdul-Jabbar told "CBS This Morning" co-host Gayle King. "His protest was a peaceful protest about this very issue. And he was ostracized, he lost his job, and he was blackballed for it. That was peaceful protest. That's what it got you. That's the benefit that it got him. And nothing has changed since then.

"Think about this: nothing has changed since what was supposed to be a routine traffic stop of Rodney King. That was 30 years ago. And still nothing has changed. White cops still can act with impunity and kill people that they feel like they want to kill.

"It's got to stop someplace," he said.

This March 31, 1991 image made from video shows police officers beating a man (later identified as Rodney King) in the San Fernando Valley. Its broadcast led to outrage, and charges against four police officers. Three of the four were later acquitted.  AP/KTLA Los Angeles, George Holliday

In an op-ed published Saturday in the Los Angeles Times, Abdul-Jabbar defended the nationwide protests against police brutality, describing demonstrators as people "pushed to the edge."

Abdul-Jabbar said protests represent the voice of the powerless. "A lot of them are losing their opportunity to vote because the Republicans are working very hard to limit voter participation. So, what tools do these people have to affect change?

"These are people who do not have any opportunity to have their voice heard and have someone react to it with respect and appreciation of what they're saying. They do not have that power," he told King. "I have this vision of a sign that I saw in Minneapolis that said, 'Can you hear us now?' That to me was very significant. I think that's what it's about."

King asked, "We remember in 1968 when you boycotted the Olympics [in protest of racial violence]. What do you think this current generation can learn from what you experienced?"

"Well, I think that this current generation has to understand that they have to cross the finish line with what needs to be done, and that's going to take a lot of determination and organization," he replied. "They're going to have to get out and vote and make their voices heard in a way that can affect change. You know, violence and looting and burning might get you some attention, but it's not going to change anything significantly.

"So, the people that are doing that really have to realize that, and they have to step up and organize and vote."

King said, "Killer Mike was very, very powerful when he said anger is not a strategy … you need a plan." 

"We have to have a plan, and we have to engage our fellow citizens and get them to do what's right," Abdul-Jabbar said. "Because too many times we find out too late that the American people are behind law and order in a way that can benefit all Americans — that's not a foreign subject to them. But they don't understand the differences between what they experienced and what the average person of color experiences. And that needs to be underlined at this point."

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. CBS News

In his L.A. Times op-ed, Abdul-Jabbar described racism as like dust, barely visible, permeating the air. 

"Have you ever been in a room and you feel a little something itching in your nose?" he said. "There's something in the air, a dust or pollen that you can't see. But if you take a flashlight and shine it through the air, you see all these little dust motes in the air and little particles.

"Racism is like that. It's ingrained in our society. And it's taken for granted. And all of the things that are taken for granted can accumulate and be deadly on certain segments of the population. It comes down on the heads of poor people and people of color."

In his article, King noted, "You said you do not want a rush to judgment; you want a rush to justice. What does justice look like to you?"

"Well, I think justice will look like maybe reinforcing the consent decrees that have been sent out to a number of police departments to change their culture and try to get involved in de-escalation. The Supreme Court is very tough on people who try to get cops to be held accountable. 

"We have to find a legal way to deal with bad cops," he said. "You know, the overwhelming majority of cops are good cops. And they need to be protected in all of this, too, because they have a very important job.

"So you know, we got a lot of work to do. And all of us have to be involved in it, every American," he said. "It's so clearly in front of us that this issue has to be dealt with."

  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at CBSNews.com and cbssundaymorning.com.