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