Charles Barkley: 'Time we talk about race in America'

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Charles Barkley (right) with Dr. Donte Hickman Sr., at a town hall-style meeting in a Baltimore church during filming of Barkley's TNT docu-series "American Race"

Charles Barkley, who caught some heat in 2014 for calling rioters in Ferguson, Mo., “scumbags,” might not be everyone’s go-to guy to talk about race, much less to spark a national dialogue on the subject.

But the former Sixers great and Inside the NBA analyst will be talking plenty – and listening, too — in his four-hour docu-series, American Race. (When the show was announced last summer, its working title was The Race Card.) The first episode gets a preview after NBA playoff coverage Sunday (11:30 p.m., TNT). On Monday, all four episodes will be available on demand, as well as on the TNT app, before the show runs in its entirety at 9 and 10 p.m. Thursday and Friday.

“In this country, we don’t like to talk about race. But race gets into everything, whether we like it or not,” Barkley says in Sunday’s premiere.

“I grew up poor, in Leeds, Ala., in the ’60s and ’70s. We had Selma, we had Montgomery, and now, 50 years later, we’re more divided than ever,” he says, sounding exasperated. “I just want to give everyone a seat at the table. It’s about time we talk about race in America.”

That first installment takes Barkley to Baltimore, where, in 2015, riots followed the death of Freddie Gray, who succumbed to injuries sustained in the back of a police van.

“Police brutality. We’re seeing too much of it. Baltimore, New York, Ferguson, we’ve seen too much. But I’ve always felt there’s no good reason to riot. Baltimore went up in flames, and a lot of people got hurt. I understand and support Black Lives Matter. But I’ve always thought it was stupid to destroy your own neighborhood," Barkley says. "I want to find out what the hell happened in Baltimore.” 

He then embarks on a few days of research that include conversations with residents and police as well as a ride-along with officers and a training simulation at the police academy. It all culminates in a town-hall-style meeting that maybe doesn’t go quite the way Barkley intended, as he’s attacked for defending the police and for raising the issue of black-on-black crime.

American Race is at its best when Barkley, who’s confronted more than once about his Ferguson remarks, is listening, not talking. The one episode I've seen isn't enough to say that anyone has changed his mind, or that he has changed the minds of anyone he has met.

It’s possible that his star power will bring to the  show people who wouldn’t otherwise tune in to hear someone like civil rights attorney Billy Murphy – who represented Gray’s family – draw a line between the civil rights strides of the 1960s and the ensuing “war on drugs” in which, he says, mass incarceration was used “to nullify political progress.”

“I thought you were a Trump supporter,” the lawyer tells Barkley at one point.

“Be serious,” Barkley replies.

Barkley is clearly intrigued by Devin Allen, whose Instagrammed photo of a man running from the police during what Allen calls “the uprising” made the cover of Time magazine.

“For media, it was a bunch of angry Negroes destroying their own community,” says Allen, who invites Barkley home to meet his extended family. “What I saw was a shift in Baltimore, where we understood our power and woke the city up and showed that they’re not just going to keep killing us. That’s what the uprising was, for me. The uprising gave me a purpose, it gave me the power I needed, it gave me my path in life.”

Barkley, while learning from Allen’s mother some of the secrets of her crab dip -- he’s surprised to find out crabs are cooked alive —  is nevertheless pleased when the young photographer’s family disagrees with Allen, who believes the looting and burning had served a purpose in bringing the media to the streets to see what was happening.

“This is why I’m great at my job,” Barkley says. “You all [are] having a great conversation and disagreeing.”