On Tuesday evening, Orioles center fielder Adam Jones came to the plate at Fenway Park to a standing ovation, because Monday night someone in the stands threw a bag of peanuts at him and someone (maybe the same person, maybe someone else, maybe many people) called him the most infamous racial epithet in American English. An unusually large number of fans were ejected from Fenway during that game as well, perhaps because the Orioles–Red Sox rivalry is particularly heated at the moment.
By Tuesday morning, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred condemned the fan or fans who shouted at Jones, as did Red Sox manager John Farrell and the mayor of Boston. Red Sox owner John Henry and team president Sam Kennedy also met with Jones and Orioles manager Buck Showalter.
The rest of us spent the day litigating the details of the incident online, and because of the checkered history of run-ins between black athletes and Boston sports culture — from Pumpsie Green to Barry Bonds to Joel Ward — this became a Boston problem. On Tuesday afternoon, CC Sabathia and Vernon Wells singled out Fenway as an incubator for racist invective. Various Bostonians pushed back against the idea that their city is uniquely racist; some haggled over the number of fans ejected (Kennedy said it was in the 30s, while Jones was told it was closer to 60); others demanded proof that Jones wasn’t lying about the racist abuse he suffered.
What happened to Adam Jones, though, isn’t only a Boston problem, and singling out Boston allows 250 million or so white Americans to let themselves off the hook for behavior with which we’re all to some degree stained. By making this a Boston issue, everyone from outside the city sidesteps our own complicity in the hundreds of years of American history that led to this moment.
I’ve lived in sheltered Northeastern suburbs, big cities in the South, and the hippie utopia of Madison, Wisconsin, where white liberals with Birkenstocks and a four-beer buzz can roam free in a place that is quietly and comprehensively segregated by race and class. From housing discrimination to racial slurs to carefully calculated dog whistles to NIMBYism to broken windows policing, racism is in the foundation of bourgeois white America from sea to shining sea. Pointing at, laughing at, and othering sports-radio callers as shitkickers and bigots — whether they’re dialing WEEI or Paul Finebaum — doesn’t accomplish anything. It only lets us think of racism as someone else’s problem.
Even a cursory knowledge of American history, culture, and economics shows that racism touches every American in some fashion. You’d have to be willfully ignorant or self-deluded to believe otherwise, and given the enormity of the crimes from which white Americans have at least tangentially benefited, if not committed indirectly, it’s easy to understand why willful ignorance and self-delusion are so attractive. The alternative is an honest reckoning with history that invites uncomfortable questions about how we talk, how we vote and why, and who gets to live and work where. How should one react at the realization that, hardscrabble and unpleasant as your life is now, it’s only even that good because of the suffering of people you’ve never met?
Instead, calling out Boston allows us to fool ourselves into thinking that the disease can be quarantined when it’s already metastasized.
Staggering as it is that we have to stand up and say “Don’t n-bomb Adam Jones” in 2017, we find ourselves in a frightening place as a culture, where denying dignity and security to others, whether out of prejudice or simple greed, has become the dominant political cause of the century. This is not because most Americans are cruel, but because we’re a nation made up of some violent oppressors, some violently oppressed people, and a few hundred million people who want above all to stay out of it. Cruel people will fight harder to keep being cruel than average people will fight to stop them.
Let’s say every one of the 30-odd people who got kicked out of Fenway last night got kicked out for shouting racist invective. Even then, they’d have been outnumbered more than 1,000-to-one by those average people. It speaks volumes that someone with the predilection to shout the n-word would feel safe and secure doing so in a crowded stadium, and that we woke up the next morning most concerned with either absolving the 30,000 bystanders in the park or absolving the 250 million bystanders across the country. Sometimes hate doesn’t stop when you shout, “Stop!” Imagine how it responds when you shout, “It wasn’t me!”
The problem isn’t Boston, or even necessarily the few shitheads in the stands at Fenway. The problem is that people will find the last sentence of Manfred’s statement reassuring: “The behavior of these few ignorant individuals does not reflect the millions of great baseball fans who attend our games.”
Millions of great baseball fans didn’t shower hate on Adam Jones, but when we’re confronted with a tentacle of our society’s greatest sin and aspire to nothing more than the avoidance of personal blame, the reflection doesn’t flatter anyone.