Charles Barkley's round face and massive body may be ubiquitous on television, but, in person, the former All-Star power forward is even more physically imposing. At the Atlanta studio that anchors TNT's NBA playoff coverage, Barkley greets me warmly with a strong handshake. Throughout the day, he greets guests in his green room--staffers, a reporter's father--by teasing them affectionately. When a young man, the son of a former TNT employee, enters and informs Barkley about his straight-A grades, Barkley tells him that he can have, as promised, $100 from his money clip. "But don't be taking my ones," Barkley says jokingly. "I need those for the strip club." Barkley replicates his on-air banter off-air with whomever is around. He teases those who work under him about their weight or laziness or dating habits, and they tease him right back. But, since his humor isn't rooted in anger or hostility, he is extremely likeable.
And, yet, those who have followed Barkley's path from NBA great to commercial pitchman to star of the best sports show on television know that he is also outspoken on issues of race, class, and politics. In a wide-ranging interview with TNR, he made noises about running for governor of Alabama and weighed in on a range of issues, including Obama v. Hillary, his problem with Al Sharpton and Don Imus, and the Duke lacrosse case. Here are some excerpts:
CHARLES BARKLEY: Illegal immigration to me is the easiest thing in the world to fix.
TNR: How so?
All they have to do is penalize the people they work for. You should get penalized. It's all poor people who argue over illegal immigration. They want poor people to--I call it divide and conquer. That's all they do is divide and conquer.
The rich people are trying to divide the poor people?
Yes, they got all the money, they got all the power. Whether it's that, or they divide you racially on certain things. They divide you racially, economically, and on things like that. It just splits the vote, and the rich people still end up on top at the end of the day. They control everything.
So is that what interests you primarily--economic issues?
America is divided by economics strictly. You know, people always talk about race, and we have racial problems in this country. Of course we do. But the real issue is the rich against the poor. We've got to get poor white people and poor black people and Mexicans to realize they are all in the same boat. If you in one of those three groups and you are poor, you are going to be in a bad neighborhood, you are going to go to a bad school, and you are going to have strikes against you. You can't commit crimes in good neighborhoods. They will get your ass. Their kids go to private school, or they go to school in a good economic area. But the poor people, they are all in the same boat but they divide you based on race or stuff like that. A lot of these politicians say things like "We've got to stop all these illegal immigrants." I am like, "That is so easy to stop." They are not working for other immigrants.
Has your perspective on these issues changed in the last few years?
Yes, when I realized that rich people will always be rich and the poor people are like crabs in a barrel. They are going to fight with each other, but they are really in the same boat. They want you to argue about gay marriage. They want you to argue about the war in Iraq. There is not a single person in this country in good conscience who can say the war in Iraq is going well. But then when you see someone criticize it ... some other guy from the other party says he is badmouthing the troops. And I am like, "No he's not." We are able to disagree, and saying that the war in Iraq is not going well is not treason. Some of these guys want to try people for treason. The war in Iraq is not going well.
When did you stop considering yourself a Republican?
I never was a Republican. I said this when I was playing. I was doing some interview talking about politics, and my grandmother was there, and the reporter said, "Are we Republicans or are we Democrats?" My grandmother said that Republicans were only for rich people, and I said, "Well, I'm rich."
Didn't you say you wanted to run for governor of Alabama as a Republican?
No. If I run, I would run as an independent more than anything. But I am not sure you can win as an independent because there is so much money at stake in politics. My only goal in life is to help poor people. The problem I have is, in America, people just believe anything they read or see on television, and some of those things are slanted. If you watch Fox, it's slanted--and I mean really slanted. Sometimes I think the people just don't have any common sense. A lot of them don't.
Are there any politicians now that you like? I have heard you have Barack Obama in your cell phone. Is that true?
Barack is a good friend of mine. John Edwards is a good friend of mine. I supported John last time because John got my attention last time. He said that we had to address the issues, the disparity between the rich and the poor. And I called him and talked to him and said, "You aren't going to be talking no bullshit against gay people." America has got to address the differences between rich and poor. That is the number-one problem we have in this country--economics. And John got my attention, and I am going to meet with him again; I like him. Barack is a friend. I've got to make sure where his head is and make sure he is not just trying to get elected. This is going to be a very interesting election because we are going to find out who is sexist and who is racist. Because I don't think a woman can win, because I think America is sexist. I am not sure Barack can win, because I do think we have a racial divide in this country.
You said you wanted to figure out whether Obama was in it for the right reasons. Do you have concerns that he is not?
No, I think he is, but you cannot say stuff to get elected. You have to say, "This is what I want to do." You can't say, "Well, I am going to say this and do that." It has backfired on John McCain. You know, like last time I liked John McCain. I didn't like Republicans but I liked McCain. He was kind of a maverick. He was trying to do some good stuff. And then you see when he lost, he's flip-flopping now. He's just kind of saying everything just to get elected. And now which McCain is it? And I don't think he can get that momentum back. I would love to see Barack do well, because I think he is a good guy, but I want to know what his platform is.
What do you think about Hillary?
I like her, but I want to know what her platform is. She has obviously screwed up on the war thing. But I want to know what they feel on certain things. I am not going to vote for Barack just because he is black. I ain't going to vote for Hillary just because she is a woman. I want to know what they stand for and what they will do.
In some quarters Barack has been criticized for not being black enough.
Well, that's because black people are fucked up. One of the reasons that black people are not going to be successful is because of other black people. We tell black kids that if they make good grades, they are acting white. If they speak well, we tell them that they are acting white. We have a lot of demons in our own closet--in our own family--that we have to address. But first of all, we want black men to be intelligent and articulate and things like that. That's not acting white. That's the way it should be. ... We become our own worst enemy with random black-on-black crime, teen pregnancy, single-parent homes. You know we cannot blaming white America for our ills. Does racism exist? Of course it does. But, at some point, I have to make sure I am educated. I don't have ten kids and no job. I am not killing other black people. At some point, you have to grow up.
Are you seriously considering running [for governor of Alabama, where he is from]? You bought property [to comply with the residency requirement]?
You have to live there for seven years. I would have run in 2010, to be honest with you. But they have the loophole in the constitution.
In terms of more cultural issues, gay marriage you are totally OK with?
Yeah, I am. I am not going to judge other people. Only God can do that.
Looking back on the Don Imus thing--
What he said was atrocious. He should have got suspended, and not fired.
I don't think you can fire everyone for everything they say, first and foremost. It was wrong, it was hideous, as a man who got a daughter, as a black man who got a daughter. But I thought he should have gotten suspended, and that's it. I would have been content with that.
Do you think that people are too--
I am telling to tell you why I said that. I knew the repercussions. This is not going to work out well for black people. This is going to turn around. They are going to start blaming us for using the word. We have this new war going around in our community about rap music. And I said, I was telling a friend of mine, I am not sure where I stand on this rap music thing. We have to address it. But I know what happened with Don Imus wasn't our fault.
In terms of this rap thing, you were famous for saying that you didn't want to be a role model. Do you think that rappers who might be role models to kids have a responsibility to--have you changed your opinion on this subject at all?
We are really struggling in the black community because all our kids want to play sports or be rappers. And they don't even think about being doctors or lawyers or engineers or teachers or firemen or policemen. That is what I tried to do. And everyone is figuring this shit out now. I figured it out when I made that commercial back then. Our kids are getting washed. They are confused. When I go to speak at these schools, 99 percent of these kids want to play sports. They aren't gonna play sports. And that's when I went to Nike about making that commercial. Now as far as the rap thing, I am not sure how I feel about that. ... I used to say it is just music. Don't these people have any common sense? But now I am starting to think, maybe they don't have common sense.
About the Duke case--
It was racism. Racism works both ways. The black people are racist. The guy was an idiot--Nifong. But those people assume the white guys were guilty and the black girl was telling the truth. That is reverse racism. Those people were full of shit down there. You have got to be really fair when you talk about race. You can't allow black people to be racist.
Obviously everyone feels badly for these kids. But you hear people say, look, there are black people in America who are wrongly accused every day.
But two wrongs don't make a right. That don't justify it. You have to look at things individually.
But does it say something about society--
That we are a racist society.
That we were so concerned about this case, upper-middle-class white kids?
That is because of the economic thing. That is economics. Those kids were upper-echelon kids. But this is what I was saying about class. ... It is interesting to me, being a black guy married to a white woman, how she comes home and black women who know she is married to me give her a hard time. Or my daughter has gotten shit. And some of the sisters give me shit.
A BARKLEY AIDE: Aren't you worried about whether you will be accused of class warfare--
That is what rich people want you to think. If you are rich, you are always going to be rich. It is the poor people I have to bring together. Look, I have nothing against rich people. I am rich--blessed, fortunate, lucky. I want to bring my fame and notoriety to bring attention to these problems.
You mentioned Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson earlier. What are your opinions of them?
I know them both, but they are race-baiters who have double standards for white racism and black racism.
Isaac Chotiner is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.