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“When Anti-Racism Strikes Out”


Tim Wise

When

it comes to discussions of racism, or any other kind of "ism" for that

matter, sometimes we miss the forest for the trees. Such was the case recently

when it was reported that Atlanta Braves relief pitcher John Rocker had cut

loose with a string of racist, sexist, ethnocentric, and homophobic slurs during

an interview with Sports Illustrated.

Rocker-driven

he says by "competitive zeal"-said, among other things that Asian

women can’t drive, and that he wouldn’t play for the New York Mets because he’d

have to ride the subway with "queers with AIDS" and career criminals.

He went on to offer that he "doesn’t care much for foreigners," and

asked "How the hell did they get into this country?" All this, shortly

before referring to one of his black teammates as a "fat monkey," and

then–just to make sure he hadn’t been misunderstood–explaining that he was

"not racist or prejudiced."

Now

don’t get me wrong: I personally think Rocker should be fired. "Free

speech" notwithstanding–and of course, this concept has no applicability

to the private sector anyway–the fact remains that if folks are still getting

fired in this country for trying to organize unions, then an asshole like Rocker

should certainly be kicked to the curb for such expressions of outright bigotry.

But

is that really the point? And do the Atlanta Braves really have much wiggle-room

when it comes to condemning racism? I mean, these are the same folks who call

their mascot "Chief Knock-a-Homa," and proudly display a grotesque

caricature of an American Indian on all their merchandise, and have popularized

the stereotypic and offensive "tomahawk chop" as a fan pick-me-up. The

Braves have ignored the protests of large segments of the indigenous, first

people’s communities for years on this score, as have other teams with Indian

names in assorted sports leagues, and yet now they try and position themselves

as champions of tolerance and respect? Pardon me if I’m just not buying it.

And

to send Rocker to psychological counseling-as commissioner Bud Selig did

recently–only further indicates the degree to which many folks still don’t

understand what racism is: or maybe they do get it, but would rather not talk

about the real deal. Racism, and its gender, sexual orientation, and other

parallel forms of oppression are not about maladjusted personalities, disordered

psyches, or repressed whatever. Rather, they are quite logical

adaptations–particularly for members of dominant groups in society–to very

real institutionalized, structural inequities: inequities which reward dominant

group members, so long as they go along with the program, either overtly, or at

least passively, accepting the privileges that come with being a man, or white,

or heterosexual.

For

Rocker to say the things he did, and to believe them, is not aberrant behavior.

It’s all too common. For Rocker to articulate his bigotry so openly may be

thought of as rare, but less so because the beliefs themselves are infrequently

held, than that most folks–especially those getting paid as well as star

athletes–know when and how to keep their mouths shut.

If

Rocker had paid attention these past few years, he would have learned that the

way to bash gays is not to call them queers and trot out the old AIDS-phobias

which are so passe in the era of red ribbons, but rather to talk about the

"homosexual agenda," and "recruitment" of children. He would

have learned that the way to bash Asians is not to criticize their driving, and

to call Asian women "bitches," but rather, to opine about how they are

"buying up America." He would have learned that immigrants are best

attacked not by saying you "don’t much like them," but rather, by

saying you love them, so long as they come to the U.S. legally, learn English

immediately, and don’t suck up too many welfare dollars. Had Rocker stuck to

this kind of script, he could have lost his job with the Braves, and yet,

waltzed right into a very lucrative career as a radio talk show host,

best-selling author, or perhaps a Presidential candidate.

The

handling of the Rocker incident is indicative of society’s greater inability to

address racism at its institutional roots, as opposed to trying to

"heal" individuals one at a time through things like sensitivity

training. Rocker can meet with Andrew Young. He can go through a dozen or more

workshops. He can do that and a lot more, and still, the larger issues will

remain. Like why are professional sports franchises so quick to exploit the

talents of black and Latino athletes, but so reluctant to hire persons of color

to coach or manage the teams? And what is the racist impact of a professional

sports industry that holds out the dream of big money to poor black and brown

kids–though few will make it to the pros–while cities vie for their own team,

often giving away public money for the purpose, thereby undercutting school

budgets, and these same kids of color’s educational opportunities in the

process? These are questions that remain unasked and therefore unanswered as we

go looking for individual villains to sooth our own consciences and assure us

that the problem is someone else.

This

individualization of racism has become something of a favorite pastime for the

President lately. Since 1997, Bill Clinton has apologized for a number of

wrongful military courts-martial against black soldiers during World War II, and

for the Tuskeegee Syphilis project, which resulted in the manipulation of scores

of black men in Alabama over 40 years: told they were receiving treatment, but

in reality being denied said treatment and observed as medical guinea pigs. In

all of these cases, the President could assure the nation that these wrongs had

specific and identifiable perpetrators, and similarly specific and identifiable

victims. And as such, the apologies came easily, for they portended nothing

broader: no accounting for, let alone apology for, let alone reparations for

enslavement over a 260-year period. No accounting for, nor apology for, let

alone material atonement for post-abolition apartheid. Not even a serious

commitment to maintain something like affirmative action, at least not if such a

defense might involve discussing the legacy of, and ongoing reality of

institutional racism. In fact, the President’s displeasure at the suggestion by

his Advisory Commission on Race that his final report on the matter delve into

the issue of "white racial privilege" has scuttled publication of said

report. Don’t look for it anytime soon, or ever, for that matter.

The

most unfortunate thing about all of this is that by neglecting to address

institutional racism and other forms of structural inequity, it becomes all the

more difficult to adequately confront the individual-level attitudinal biases

about which we hear so much. Put simply, so long as our society is one in which

certain folks-say, white, heterosexual men-are disproportionately found in

prominent decision-making positions, and certain other folks-say people of

color, women of all colors, and gays and lesbians-are disproportionately found

in subordinate positions, it will be seen by many as quite obvious (or perhaps

not thought of at all, but simply internalized) that those straight white guys

must be smarter, or harder working than the rest, and thus, "deserve"

their position, while those without power must likewise "deserve"

their subjugation thanks to one or another genetic, cultural or moral flaw. This

is how the myth of meritocracy works with regard to class, and it works just as

well with race, gender, or sexual orientation: inculcating the mindset that the

"winners" won because the "losers" are, well, losers.

So

long as objectively identifiable inequity is allowed to exist to any significant

degree between socially-constructed and classified groups, the combination of

this stratification alongside the subjective propaganda of American

"individualism" as the key to success or failure will continue to

produce racists: those like John Rocker, and those like the millions of other

folks who frankly agreed with what he said, differing only on the style of

delivery. It’s time we got busy addressing the problem itself, rather than

merely its occasional, highly public, symptomatic manifestations. Sound advice:

and you didn’t even have to check yourself in for therapy to get it.

Tim

Wise is a Nashville-based activist, writer and lecturer. He can be reached at

[email protected]