If you follow Major League Baseball, you probably heard the story. In fact, even if you’re not a baseball fan, you may have heard about the incident that took place last week in Boston. Adam Jones, the star center fielder for the Baltimore Orioles, claimed that a Boston fan threw a bag of peanuts at him and harassed him repeatedly during the Orioles-Red Sox game last Monday. Jones said the fan used racially offensive language toward him, including calling him a n****r.
Incidents like this are, sadly, not new. Boston fans are notorious for the obnoxious way they support their teams, and racial epithets are a long-standing part of that tradition. Nor is Boston alone in this. In the wake of Jones’s experience, numerous African-American and Latino players came forward with their own stories of having heard racial taunts and insults in ballparks all over the country.
It happens that this latest ugliness took place in Boston, but no team, no city is immune. The incidents are disturbingly routine. In fact, Jones’s experience might never have reached the ears of the wider public if not for what happened next.
As soon as the news came to light, the Major League Baseball Players’ Association and Commissioner Rob Manfred issued separate statements condemning the incident. Red Sox personnel apologized publicly and privately to Jones, and announced a new policy to banish anyone using racial epithets from Fenway Park for at least a year. In response to these actions, Jones later said, “I think it’s tremendous how the Red Sox, how MLB, they got ahead of it as soon as possible, as soon as they heard about it.”
But what really caught everyone’s attention was the standing O. Outraged at what had happened to his colleague in his ballpark, Red Sox right fielder Mookie Betts took to Twitter on Tuesday, saying that Red Sox and MLB fans “are better than this,” and called on Boston fans to “stand up for” Jones at that night’s game. And they did. As Jones stepped into the batter’s box to lead off the game, the Red Sox faithful stood and applauded the Orioles star for more than a minute. Jones tipped his helmet to the crowd and play resumed. It was a feel-good moment.
And that’s the problem. Feel-good moments like this standing ovation, far from signaling a solution to the racial problems in our country, may actually do harm to the cause of reconciliation and justice. That’s because they serve to inoculate us from the broader issues and make us feel that we have done more than we actually have. It’s easy to stand up and clap your hands for a baseball player. It’s easy to feel moral outrage toward someone who uses the N-word and other racially offensive language. It’s much harder to make real strides toward racial justice.
Successful racial inoculation depends upon a scapegoat. Whether it’s comedian Michael Richards, actor Mel Gibson, former LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling, or this unnamed Boston fan, it’s vitally important for us to find somebody to demonize. Then everyone can express his or her moral superiority, make a token gesture, and go home satisfied with his or her righteousness, without doing anything to foster genuine progress. As long as we can point to somebody else as the “real” racist, and take part in an ovation or post a politically correct comment on Facebook or Twitter, we can safely ignore all the ways we benefit from living in a society based on white supremacy.
Racial inoculation will continue as long as we insist on defining racism in individual, personal terms. If our poster child for racism is David Duke or Archie Bunker or Steve Bannon, we have missed the point. Racism is systemic, not individualistic. It has much more to do with power relationships and the allocation of resources than bigoted comments. If the white people who gave Adam Jones the ovation last Tuesday went home feeling smug about not being racists themselves, but if they then blithely continued to accept the benefits of being white in a country built on systemic racism, then the inoculation worked … and hampered the cause of true racial justice.
Last Tuesday, the Red Sox made good on their promise, and then some. When a fan reported that another fan had made racially offensive remarks about the performer who sang the national anthem, security removed the offender and banned him from Fenway Park for life. Team president Sam Kennedy expressed his feelings about both this incident and the one involving Jones, saying, “It’s disheartening. Saddening. Maddening. That said, we have to recognize that this exists in our culture…. It’s not an indictment on Boston and this marketplace. It’s an indictment on the ignorant people and intolerant people who utter these words … and they need to be held accountable.”
Inoculation initiated. (This won’t hurt a bit.)
Kennedy went on:
I’m here to send a message loud and clear that the … treatment of others that you’ve heard about and read about is not acceptable…. Yesterday, I think I was angered, frustrated, and today I feel more a sense of sadness. Just deep remorse that these things happen in our society. But it’s the reality of the world that we live in and it’s incumbent upon those of us in leadership positions to deal with them, tackle them head-on, address them, and work together to try and stamp them out so that they don’t happen again.
Good luck with that, Sam. Let us know how it works out for you.