Walking on the thin line of racism

One of the lines that sets off an alarm in me is when someone says, “I’m not a racist.”  The major lesson that I take from it is (a) to never make such a statement on my behalf, and (b) to try to make every effort to not say or do things that might be interpreted as racist.  Sometimes I succeed; sometimes I fail.

I have heard people say and seen people do things that set off my “race-dar.’  I imagine that sometimes it’s a real alarm; other times it’s a false one.   Here are a few examples from the world of sports, a realm with which I am somewhat familiar.

For the better part of the last decade, the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team has had very few African-American players on its roster, and those players have largely been fringe ones.  The team has been well-endowed with Caucasian and Latino players and among them are some of the best players in the League.  The Cardinals won the World Series is 2006 and 2011, so no one can say that the organization wasn’t doing everything within its power to win.  In fact no one can say with evidence that the team has tried to limit the number of African-Americans.  We are in an era in which the percentage of African-Americans in baseball has dropped from 20% to 8%.   Some teams have only one African-American player; others have none.  The Cardinals largely swing between one and no African-Americans on the team.  But in the mainstream community of St. Louis, this issue, or question, of why there are so few African-Americans on current teams is rarely, if ever, brought up.  We seem to be scared to talk about race for fear that we might cause trouble. We rarely say that by ignoring it we’re pretending that it doesn’t exist.

phillips_brandon-aThe Cardinals have had a running feud for three years with the Cincinnati Reds.  While the primary instigator of the first brawl was Johnny Cueto, a Cincinnati pitcher from the Dominican Republic, St. Louis fans have taken to placing the blame on Brandon Phillips, the Cincinnati African-American second baseman from Raleigh, NC.  The problem seems that the Cardinals can neither accept Phillips’ humor nor friendliness.  He likes to tweet a lot and at times makes playful fun of the Cardinals.  All in good jest; nothing more than that.  In a 2011 game, Phillips gave Cardinal catcher Yadier Molina a playful tap on the shin guards, but Molina considered it a violation of his space and another brawl broke out.  Ever since then, St. Louis fans and even announcers have described Phillips as being their nemesis and someone who hates the Cardinals.  I cannot say that there is any racism involved on the part of some in “Cardinal Nation;” I can only say that it smells a little like it.  It makes me feel uncomfortable.  It’s also possible in some ways that Phillips and many of his teammates dislike the Cardinals because the team can appear to be a bunch of white Boy Scouts.

The St. Louis Rams football team tried to sneak a talented African-American quarterback from Duke University named Thaddeus Lewis through waivers a couple of years ago.  Lewis had been exceptional in pre-season games with the Rams but he had little chance of replacing starting quarterback Sam Bradford who was both good and a $50 million investment.  Lewis was claimed off waivers by the Cleveland Browns and since has been a backup with the Detroit Lions and Buffalo Bills.  But he could be valuable to the Rams in a couple of ways.  First the team is weak at backup quarterback.  Second Lewis can run a “read option” offense; a style that is becoming to be a norm within the league.  Third, at the very least Lewis could run a “read option” offense in practice against the Rams’ defense.

On a sports radio program in St. Louis, an African-American co-host suggested that the Rams might try to get Thaddeus Lewis back to strengthen themselves at the quarterback position.  The white co-host said, “For what?”  Again, when I heard that, I felt uncomfortable.  Would the white co-host have said that about a white quarterback?  Maybe so, maybe not.  It just seemed like too easy a dismissal of a quarterback who in his one NFL start completed 22 of 32 passes for 204 yards with one touchdown and one interception.

The term “read option” has only come in style since then end of the 2012-13 season.  That’s because they playoffs featured three of the four such QBs in the league, Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers, Robert Griffin III of the Washington Redskins, and Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks.  The fourth was 2011 Offensive Rookie of the Year, Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers.  What virtually no one says publicly is that in a league that for decades was the domain of white quarterbacks, all four of these run-option quarterbacks are African-American.  I don’t know whether it would be better for football observers to say that teams should look for more read option quarterbacks or more African-American quarterbacks.  I don’t think that there is a right or wrong about this; only that it seems that we’re afraid to say “African-America” or black for no particular reason.  If there is a reason, perhaps we should talk about it.

I have written several other articles on the recent history of race in St. Louis sports teams:

It has never been our desire to accuse anyone of being racist because (a) we have no basis for doing so, (b) it never leads to productive conversation.  It might serve us well whenever we feel queasy about a race-related issue that we take time to think through our thoughts and not be afraid to check with others to get their perspective on it.  If opponents of President Obama would challenge themselves to see how much of their opposition to his policies emanate, at least in part, from race, it would help.  I have to acknowledge that I tend to favor his policies more because he is African-American.  Perhaps I’m practicing my own version of affirmative action.  If so, I don’t mind because I think that we are still some distance from equality.  I continue to question my choices; I think that it would be wise for all Americans to do so because we have not cured “our original sin” of slavery.  Let’s continue to make special efforts for the next 50 years and then see where we are.

[See companion article: The new denial: How much of partisan gridlock is driven by race.]