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Muhammad Ali Did Not Transcend Race

Boxing legend Muhammad Ali died at 74 on Friday. Weekend feeds were filled with obituaries, video clips, photos, emotional true encounter stories, and quotes from the champ himself. Collective grief is one of the things that social media amplifies so well; sometimes it feels like a flash funeral forms around you, with everything but the row of covered dishes in the kitchen afterwards.

People took Ali’s death as an opportunity to shine a light on the parts of his life that were truly great, the parts that really did shock the world. And that’s when things got sticky. Search “transcends race” on Twitter and you can see the tension grow, as people called out a troubling phrase that began to appear in obituaries and tributes usually written by white people.

The collective take was swift and direct. To say that Ali “transcended race” was to make the parts of him that make people uncomfortable—his frank conversations on racial violence, his willingness to confront the U.S. government, his vocal devotion to Islam, his unapologetic love for black people—disappear. He didn’t transcend race. He showed us how he lived it.

Muhammad Ali In-Store Appearance for "The Greatest" at Sam Goody in New York City - May 25, 1977
Muhammad Ali, May 25, 1977 (Photo by Bobby Bank/WireImage)
Photography by Bobby Bank WireImage

It occurs to me now that Ali showed us something else, too: what it meant to be a black man operating in a competitive and increasingly global world. And he declared himself loudly and at scale, bold, undaunted, brash, honest, principled, hardworking, and, of course, pretty.

As a kid, Ali was something to behold. My father, who served in World War II in the segregated army, never missed him on television. I was right there alongside him. We were both transfixed, most likely for different reasons.

When I was writing an article for Fortune called “Leading While Black,” I was amazed to discover that of the three dozen black executives I interviewed, more than half had fathers who were ministers. Now, I consider this a talking point more than a data point, but it was an unusual coincidence. (The other fathers included police officers, career military, and small business owners.)

2014 Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Awards
Muhammad Ali attends the 2014 Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Awards (Photograph by Stephen J. Cohen — Getty Images)
Photograph by Stephen J. Cohen — Getty Images

I asked the men about it and they were surprised, too. Some of them thought it was the expectations and support of their community that made the difference in their own success. Others thought it was the fact that they had a strong sense of mission. But I think Bernard Tyson, CEO of Kaiser Permanente, whose father was both a minister and a carpenter, is on to something when he says it’s about respect. “I was part of a community that saw my father, a black man, as a man,” he said. It normalized something important about leadership and his own humanity.

When you’re the only one in certain settings, “You have to be comfortable in your own skin. You have to walk with a mindset that ‘I have a right to be here.’”