Racism and the allegory of the Boston Red Sox

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[Ta-Nehisi]

Commentor David writes:


...you go into an election with the voters you've got, right? Now it's pretty clear that a lot of folks in the left blogosphere would like to do their own purge of the voting rolls--get rid of those dirty, smelly hillbillies, etc., maybe with a literacy test [I've actually seen that proposed on some blogs--ah, progressivism!], but to borrow the metaphor, that dog ain't gonna hunt. In a democracy, it's the voters who reward and punish, for better or for worse. Ta-Nehisi is right: It's a moral problem for the voters, not for Obama. But it's an electoral problem for Obama. He's the one who has to do the wooing. Like El Cid, I think it can be done. Most of these voters who are being interviewed know little of him beyond skin color, and they're not sophisticated enough to mask their racism with the smoke-screens used by middle-class whites; thus they're readily exploited by sensation-seeking journalists. But they're also people with real problems that need to be addressed [and it's telling that "progressives" on this comment thread use those problems as an excuse to dismiss them]. Count me in with those who think Obama needs to take an Appalachia tour. Voters can't be changed by talking down to them; they need to be engaged.

I basically agree with all of this. I especially think the part where he said "Ta-Nehisi is right" is incredibly insightful. But there is one thing I would differ with: I think racism isn't just a moral problem for this country, it's actually a practical one too. The reason I cite the the Civil War example is because the practical consequences were so grave. My good buddy Jelani Cobb, has written some about the fates of Birmingham and Atlanta during the post-Civil Rights era. He argues--and I am going to try to get this right so bear with me--that basically both cities were on the way up during the mid-20th century. But in Atlanta, when the Civil Rights movement hit, then mayor William Hartsfield basically saw the change coming and guided the city through it, crafting this image of Atlanta--in contrast to the rest of the Deep South--as "the city to busy to hate." This (along with many other factors) allowed Atlanta to attract a Coca Cola, to attract a CNN, to host the Olympics. Meanwhie, Birmingham became known as, well, Bombingham.

That's a rough translation of the story. Maybe there are some Southern cats here who can help me out with that one. But my larger point is that racism has tangible costs for blacks and whites. Deciding your president on something as stupid as race could mean (for instance) that you have less access to health care, that your children work in a stagnating economy, that your neighbors kids will die in a stupid war. Or maybe not. Maybe the white guy is completely right. But if you're a racist, you will never know.

Let me be utterly candid her and speak for myself. I grew up in de facto segregation. I didn't have a white classmate until I was in high school. I didn't have any deep relationships with anyone who wasn't black until I was in my early 20s. I also had some very retrograde views about gays (I'm probably most ashamed of that). When I started working in Washington, I had some truly beautiful colleagues, many of whom I'm friends with today. But when I started the gig, I wouldn't hang out with them after work; I thought something might happen if I got drunk around them. That didn't change until my job hired another brother and he informed me of how ignorant I was. A short time later, I moved to New York, and was shocked to live in a place where the black/white dichotomy didn't really exist. I mean it's here, but not in the same way.

My point is this--it's quite likely that had I not been shaken out of my ignorance, had I not let go of my prejudice, you wouldn't be reading this right now. It was not simply ethical for me to become a more open person--it was to my advantage. I know that the math isn't the same for white people, but the point, I think, still stands. Let me end with a nod to America's greatest past time. The Boston Red Sox were the last team in pro baseball to integrate. And for their belief in the grand purity of the Great White Race, they sacrificed a shot at Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, and probably a World Series or two. White racism rewarded them with decades of heartbreak. Not saying racism was the only factor. But it didn't help.

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Matthew Yglesias is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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