Fans, Media and Racism Without Racists

 Feb, 10 - 2010   no comments   Uncategorized

This is an extremely touchy subject that I have held off on posting about for a while due to its incredibly volatile and incendiary nature. That said, I think the time is ripe for some brief thoughts on the issue, and then I hope you will join me in a reasoned discussion in the comments.

In 2008, Nicholas Kristoff wrote an op-ed article in the Times about the possibility that Barack Obama was facing racism from non-racists. He explained:

John Dovidio, a psychologist at Yale University who has conducted this study over many years, noted that conscious prejudice as measured in surveys has declined over time. But unconscious discrimination — what psychologists call aversive racism — has stayed fairly constant……

Faced with a complex decision, he said, aversive racists feel doubts about a black person that they don’t feel about an identical white. “These doubts tend to be attributed not to the person’s race — because that would be racism — but deflected to other areas that can be talked about, such as lack of experience,” he added.

To state it simply, many of us believe ourselves to be non-racists, but still harbor some unconscious stereotypes and aversions that we are hardwired for culturally. So what does this have to do with sports? I believe that this sort of “racism without racists” creeps up from time to time in discussions and judgements about athletes.

Before I bring an example and expand this discussion, I want to make something very clear. I AM NOT ACCUSING ANYONE OF BEING A RACIST. On the contrary, I am suggesting that as human beings, we have absorbed some of the cultural biases that surround us, and therefore make unconscious judgements and decisions that would be at least slightly racist were they made knowingly. Furthermore, although the op-ed was in reference to President Obama, please leave politics out of your comments. This is a discussion about “racism without racists” in sports.

This topic has been rolling around my head since I saw the following quotes in a Jayson Stark article. Stark asked a number of talent evaluators to choose between Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander, and all chose Hernandez. However, this comment by one of the evaluators caught my eye:

“Now we’ll see what the contracts do to both guys. It won’t faze Verlander, but I guess it’s possible Felix could get a little complacent. His makeup doesn’t suggest it, but you never know.

When I posted this comment on Twitter, a number of followers had the same reaction that I did. Namely, if it is not in the character of either player to be fazed by his new deal, why would Felix be the one to be singled out as a slight possibility to become complacent? To me, this hinted at the issue discussed in the op-ed linked above. Verlander is white, while Felix is not, and the speaker unconsciously attributed complacency to the non-white.

Chris briefly touched upon this dichotomy earlier in the week, when discussing Robbie Cano’s lack of speed. he noted that Joe Buck referred to him as a burner a number of times during the World Series, and suggested the following:

In addition, though I am hesitant to say this in fear of a backlash, there are longstanding ethnic and racial stereotypes which distinguish minorities as “fast runners,” so I wonder if this is also implicitly at play with guys like Robinson Cano and Orlando Hudson. This is a difficult issue to discuss, but, as many academics have noted, it is a characterization that exists.

I think Chris was spot on with his analysis here. Cano, in particular, seems to be a magnet for this sort of rhetoric. In fact, as I was writing this post, Bob Klapisch posted an article in which he suggested Dustin Pedroia would look good in pinstripes, for the following reasons:

Yes, we know the Yankees have the more talented second baseman in Robinson Cano. The Bronx incumbent is smooth, super-cool and has a hitting DNA to die for. But Pedroia plays harder and has a greater emotional investment in the day-to-day outcome of his team. In other words, he cares more than Cano.

There is absolutely no way for Klapisch to know which of the two cares more. All I know is that Robinson Cano is always working on his craft, tinkering with his swing all offseason. When he struggled in 2008, he spent his entire All Star break attempting to fix his swing. Is it possible that he occasionally loses focus on the field? Sure, and people should be quick to point it out when it happens. But to state unequivocally that he cares less than Pedroia is irresponsible, and is, in my opinion, an embodiment of the “racism without racists” mindset.

Baseball fans are commonly exposed to this sort of dichotomy, in which white players are often presented as gritty and do everything they can to maximize their talents, while minority players are “athletic” and “smooth,” and “make it look easy out there.” The successes of white players are attributed to effort, while the successes of non-white players are explained by inherent ability. Failures by minorities players are often explained by pointing to a lack of effort. Failures by white players have a way of occasionally being rationalized away or even forgotten. Paul O’Neill failed to run out two balls in Game 3 of the 1999 World Series. I am a huge O’Neill fan, and I had no idea about this story until recently. It did absolutely nothing to diminish O’Neill’s reputation, and he never got dubbed lazy or inattentive. I wonder whether a player from a minority group would have emerged equally unscathed.

Some will say that I am making mountains out of molehills, and that in most ways, sports have become post-racial. I have a hard time accepting that viewpoint. As I have noted elsewhere, there were racial conflagrations in American cities in the 90’s. Race is still a touchy subject, and one that still touches many issues and spheres of life. Just because there is not overt racism in the judgment of ballplayers does not mean that long standing beliefs colored by racial undertones have not seeped into those judgments.

I stated earlier that I did not intend to call the writers and baseball men referenced above racists, and I want to reiterate that point here. Those quoted above are not “bad” people, nor should they be censured for the things they wrote or said. Rather, I am simply pointing out that we are all a product of the society in which we were cultivated, and our society is not yet finished with issues of race. We have thankfully moved from an era where overt racism in sports is the norm to one where it is exceedingly rare. But latent racism still exists in the sports world, and we do ourselves a disservice by ignoring it or acting like it is not an issue. Only by candidly discussing it can we hope to make it a thing of the past.


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