White People and Racial Illiteracy

One of the most striking moments of the Micheal Cohen testimony was actually completely tangential to the various misdeeds Cohen laid at the feet of his long time employer, real estate mogul, business criminal, and 45th President of the United States Donald Trump. To tell the truth most of the revelations were fairly pedestrian to the Maddow-philes in the audience like myself. Rather it was the reaction and counteraction to Cohen’s assertion, mostly through personal anecdotes, that Mr. Trump is a racist.

Now I’m pretty sure if you are reading my lil ol’ blog you would file that information along with “water is wet,” and “the Pittsburgh Steelers are Evil,” nothing new here. Trump has a long history of racist behavior dating back to when he helped his Dad keep black folks out of their apartment developments, or when he insisted that five black and hispanic men were still guilty of a crime after they had been exonerated by DNA evidence, or that time he insisted that the late American anthropologist Anne Dunham’s only child wasn’t born here and therefore ineligible to hold the office of 44th President of the United States.

Seen here preparing to eat this baby… photo by Pete Souza

But Freedom Caucus chair and proud representative from North Carolina Mark Meadows was having none of that, and he came prepared. He came prepared with a living breathing African American woman; Lynne Patton, a former Trump Organization employee and now a political appointee in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, to stand mutely behind him as he asserted that her very presence in Trumps orbit disproved accusations of racism.

Then, as the hearing was wrapping up, Meadows threw a complete conniption fit when Rep. Rashida Tlaib pointed out correctly that bringing out a black person as a prop was a kinda racist thing to do. Meadows was personally affronted at the accusation that he was a racist. Ms. Tlaib pointed out that she had been very specific in her wording, not accusing Meadows of being a racist, just that the thing he did was racist. This is an important distinction that anyone who wants to seriously address race needs to understand. We need to understand that it’s possible to do a racist thing, or for your actions to have racist consequences whether or not you yourself would qualify as “a racist.” Like when Meadows went all in on the Birther conspiracy in 2012 to help him win reelection.

Meadows, keeping Ms. Patton out of focus until needed.

Far too many white Americans fall into Meadow’s camp. Our understanding of our nation’s racist history is hobbled by the way we learn about it, by the stories we choose to share. Robin DiAngelo, the author of White Fragility: Why it’s so Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, penned an excellent post for NBC News’ Think that I think is a good introduction as to why we find ourselves in this pickle.

Take the Jackie Robinson story. Robinson is celebrated as the first African-American to break the so-called color line and play in Major League Baseball. While Robinson was certainly an exceptional baseball player, framing the story this way depicts him as racially special. The subtext is that Robinson was the first black athlete strong enough to overcome the barriers preventing blacks from competing with whites; no black athletes before him were skilled enough to do so. While this tagline elevates Robinson as an individual, it implicitly positions African-Americans overall as inferior. It also falsely propagates the belief that racism in sports ended with Robinson, implying that current struggles against racism in sports are unnecessary.

I had a great little picture book about Jackie Robinson back when I was a baseball mad 10 year old. It told his whole story, accompanied by the cute hand sewn baseball his mom had made. But for most American’s that’s the only part of the story we know, the uplifting tale of #42 breaking the color barrier. There’s even the white savior if you want to cast the legendary Branch Rickey in that role, (although the man himself would bristle at that characterization. He hated segregated baseball sure, but he also wanted to win ballgames.)

Historical narratives of racial exceptionality also leave us unprepared to address current conditions. For example, they hide the role of race in the response to the opioid crisis versus the crack epidemic, the Parkland shooting versus the Black Lives Matter movement, gentrification versus Flint, Michigan, the Bundy Standoff versus Standing Rock. We are left without the analysis needed to engage with these deeply complex social dynamics.
Imagine instead, if the story of Jackie Robinson went something like this: “Jackie Robinson was the first black man whites allowed to play major-league baseball.” This telling acknowledges the role of white control. It simply wasn’t up to Robinson. Had he walked onto the field before being granted permission by white owners and policy makers, the police would have removed him. Critically, the real Jackie Robinson story is a story of the relationship between blacks and whites in this country, between this individual black man and a white institution. Reframing race in the Jackie Robinson story reveals white structures of power and the strategies used by those who contested that power, strategies that we can build upon today as we work for racial justice.

(emphasis mine)

The Jackie Robinson story, like so many other stories we tell about race is presented whole but is in fact incomplete. Jackie is just the middle of that story. To truly understand the story we have to start at the beginning. We have to talk about Cap Anson.

Anson, whose plaque in Cooperstown is only a stroll away from Robinson’s, isn’t as famous a figure as Jackie. Which might surprise his contemporaries.

Considered the greatest player of the 19th Century, Anson is credited as one of the great modernizers of the game. When he took over a struggling Chicago Cubs team as player/manager in 1879 he practically invented the concept of a “Major League,” by buying away the best players from smaller leagues across the country. When other National league teams followed suit, the concentration of talent cemented the NL as an institution that could sate the public’s need for the best game out there.

Not mentioned on his Hot plaque or profile page is the fact that he almost singlehandedly established the color barrier that Jackie Robinson would have to smash through in 1947.

“Regrettably, Anson used his stature to drive minority players from the game,” wrote Society for American Baseball Research historian David Fleitz. “An 1883 exhibition game in Toledo, Ohio, between the local team and the White Stockings nearly ended before it began when Anson angrily refused to take the field against Toledo’s African-American catcher, Moses Fleetwood Walker. Faced with the loss of gate receipts, Anson relented after a loud protest, but his bellicose attitude made Anson, wittingly or not, the acknowledged leader of the segregation forces already at work in the game. Other players and managers followed Anson’s lead, and similar incidents occurred with regularity for the rest of the decade. In 1887, Anson made headlines again when he refused to play an exhibition in Newark unless the local club removed its African-American battery, catcher Walker and pitcher George Stovey, from the field. Teams and leagues began to bar minorities from participation, and by the early 1890s, no black players remained in the professional ranks.”

Kevin B. Blackistone
December 2, 2015, Washington Post

That’s the part of the story we always miss when we pick up in the middle. Without the story of Anson, Allison and Stovey then Robinson’s story can be reduced to the heartwarming tale of overcoming personal bigotry we all accept rather than the systematic racism embodied by a society that found it easier to accommodate Cap Anson’s racism rather than confront it.


And Jackie isn’t the end of the story either. That ending (if there ever will be an ending,) is still being written. Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid recently settled their lawsuit against the National Football League. The settlement is considered a victory for the players, who alleged that the NFL owners had conspired to blackball them from the league after their Kaepernick’s silent protest against police violence against minorities, taking a knee during the National Anthem, became a national controversy. One stoked by none other than the Cheeto Tinted Tyrant himself.

All of us have a part to play, but the ultimate responsibility for addressing racism lies with those who control the institutions — white people. Jackie Robinson could not have broken the color barrier on his own. If I don’t understand racism as a deeply embedded system that I have been shaped by and participate in, my inaction will uphold it. In other words, as long as whiteness remains unnamed it will continue to reproduce racial inequality. To de-center whiteness it must be centered differently — in ways that expose its strategies so that we can challenge them. Because the question of whether I have been shaped by and participate in the forces of racism is not a question of if, but of how.

Professor DiAngelis is very specific as to why her work is addressed to white people. They are OUR institutions. They are OUR systems of privilege. We have to do the hard work of dismantling them, and we can’t do that until we recognize them for what they are and stop focusing on what’s in Mark Meadow’s shriveled black heart. (Seriously, he’s chair of the Freedom Caucus, fuck that guy.)


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