Thursday, February 11, 2010

63 Years After Jackie, Baseball Still Working On It

The Common Man meant to be random today, but that darned Craig Calcaterra had to start the day off with a light topic: institutional racism. Craig wrote about a Moshe Mandel article at TYU about the phenomenon of ascribing stereotypical traits to different ethnicities within baseball, and then expressing those through code in media reports. Moshe explains,
“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.”
Indeed, going further, Latino players are often referred to as “spacey” or “aloof.” African-Americans are “angry.” Meanwhile, white players tend to be “characters” or “intense.” analyst Keith Law confirms that this bias is still a force within the game,
“Black players are expected to be athletic, and they're downgraded if they're not. White players are more likely to be called "scrappy." Latino position players are a lot more likely to be left in the middle infield. And so on. It's ingrained in the industry - it's not a question of outright racism, or conscious racism, but stereotypes that have existed in the business (and the world) for fifty years and are still alive in the institutional memory that powers so much of the game.”

In particular, Moshe highlighted a recent article by ESPN’s Jayson Stark, where a scout choosing between the future careers of Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez (two elite, right-handed starting pitchers who each recently signed five-year extensions) said, “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.” As Moshe points out, there is no reason given why anyone would make that distinction. Neither players’ makeup has been particularly in question, and the only discernable difference between the two (aside from the fact that Felix is better) is their race.

The Common Man has been heavily engaged in the comments section over at HardballTalk, as this is the sort of thing that really gets him going. Given how much TCM has written over there, he hopes you don’t mind if he adapts it for this space.

It is unfortunate that there is not a better word than “racist” and “racism” that lead to these racially-tinged evaluations. Detractors of Moshe’s article are quick to denounce him for calling the writers, broadcasters, and scouts he quotes as “racists” and accusing him of trolling for traffic. The word “racist,” to me, when applied to a person denotes a level of malice and forethought (and enthusiasm). Rather, I think there are a) degrees of racist behavior and beliefs (kind of like how Babe Ruth and Bruce Sutter are Hall of Famers without being anything close to the same caliber) and b) we should be able to talk about a general racist cultural attitude that informs and influences our underlying assumptions and attitudes without indicting individuals. In addition, it's possible to argue that certain ingrained cultural assumptions lead more easily to evaluations that we can interpret as being racially biased without saying that someone is a capital "R" Racist. Race and racism is a touchy subject and it should be handled with care and subtlety. Broad brush strokes are not productive in the discussion.

So separating out the difference between calling someone a racist and discussing how a racist culture informs what they are saying becomes an absolute necessity. An analogy for BikeMonkey: I know how to ride a bike; in the past, I have ridden a bike; that does not mean, even if I'm currently riding, that I'm an avid bike rider. Moshe's article simply acknowledges that we all implicitly understand this coded language, and sometimes we use it. But if we really thought about it, we don't believe the assumptions behind them (or at least wouldn’t act on them openly). There are differences in degree, level of enthusiasm, and motivation that separate participants in a racist culture from capital "R" Racists. No one is accusing NY Post and writer Bob Klapisch of being in the Klan, but his assertion that “
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,”
cries out to be unpacked and criticized, particularly because they are spoken from a place of privilege. These men and women are assumed to be knowledgeable about the game, and are trusted to impart their evaluations and interpretations to others.

What’s more, the standard cry to not impugn these writers, broadcasters, and scouts with a charge of racism is a disingenuous one. “You don’t know that they are racists;” these critics argue. “To imply otherwise is hurtful, irresponsible, and dishonest.” However, it would be impossible to talk about a racist cultural atmosphere without examples of that atmosphere, wouldn't it? Wouldn’t those critical of the argument scream for relevant examples of the phenomenon in question? If we cannot talk about relevant examples of a phenomenon because to do so would be to unfairly cast aspersions on the motives of others, then we cannot talk credibly about the phenomenon itself. That's not at all productive, because then we can never work on whatever racial baggage we have as a culture.

And make no mistake, this baggage exists. Even within the sports world, it’s regularly visible. Respectfully, that's because you either don't recognize it where you see it or simply aren't looking where it's happening. The Latino coach of the Kansas State men's basketball team is being portrayed as a gardener , there are countless websites questioning whether the President is a citizen, a Muslim, a terrorist, etc., Milton Bradley and his mom are accusing the whole city of Chicago of racism, and the Washington Redskins are still the RED-SKINS (and the Cleveland mascot is a caricature of a Native American man painted bright red). These are the fruits of this country's complicated and troubling history with race. They exist. To deny that our country still has countless issues with race that need to be addressed and worked through is to bury your head in the sand. Baseball is only one front (and a relatively minor one) in this battle, but it is highly visible and worth the effort.

1 comment:

BikeMonkey said...

Time for a little illdoctrine, me thinks.

Nice post, Common. Bravo.