Maybe it’s a measure of just how stilted our national conversation is at the moment that so many people could not make sense of the banner unfurled from atop the Green Monster on Wednesday night.
There were a mere six words, scrawled in white lettering on black drapery and intended as a historically honest and painful provocation:
RACISM IS AS AMERICAN AS BASEBALL
It’s only a three-part puzzle. America, Baseball, Racism: Some assembly required. But plenty of people had plenty of questions. Is it pro-racism? Is it anti-America? Is it … anti-baseball? (This last one is the strangest. Yeah, oblivious guy, it’s the world’s screwiest anti-baseball argument: Living in a world where the Yankees are good again is the new new Jim Crow.)
Many saw it as the pithy critique of our nation’s shameful past and problematic present that it was intended to be. Inside a historic ballpark that sits on a street still named for a particularly potent racist, it spliced together our national pastime and our original sin in six simple but ferocious words.
But to others, it was apparently some kind of bizarre and baffling show of white power force. Read it like a pro-racism slogan and you’ll understand (“Racism: It’s as American as baseball,” as in, “Racism: It’s what’s for dinner”). This is an odd interpretation that hopefully did not carry over to the rest of the game. “Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack? Who are you calling cracker, Jack?”
But there were a few not particularly subtle clues that could help in decoding future signs.
First, you may have noticed that the modern racist rarely refers to himself as such these days — and certainly not in giant letters on the perfectly good bedsheet he bought for the spare pillowcases to use as hoods. Even the hopelessly unsophisticated racist in your life likely fancies himself proudly politically incorrect or a teller of hard truths.
No, a proper racist’s sign is not subtle, and the kind of racist who might wield such a sign is not known for wry observations. A racist’s sign will say something like “HANG IN THERE OBAMA” next to a picture of a gallows. Often, it will contain at least one brutal misspelling (“OBAMA HALF-BREEd MUSLiN” is a personal favorite, as if someone had set out to make cheesecloth and instead crafted a two-term president). And for the truly lazy racist in your life, an unsteady swastika spray painted on a bathroom wall will do just fine.
And the more burnished bigots? They now trade only in euphemism. They are “defenders of traditional values” or “protectors of western culture” or some such clownery. They’re also not big sign guys. It’s worth noting that, in general, the racists we should worry most about are the ones who aren’t carrying signs.
The fans who unfurled the sign on Wednesday were escorted from the stadium, and that’s to be expected. Fenway Park is under no obligation to hoist any banner that isn’t a World Series banner, and disrupting the game will and should get you kicked out every time.
But the sentiment expressed by the sign is not even particularly controversial: Baseball, like racism, is something that’s popular in lots of places but that we really perfected.
That’s not actually a complicated idea. It just feels incongruous because it’s not how we think about the world or, more to the point, the country. We build our own green monster and wall off what’s good and fun from what’s crushing and irredeemable. But that’s not really how history works.
If the banner that spilled down Wednesday night was ambiguous, it’s only because the truth it packed into those six words is still one so many can’t, or won’t, get their heads around.
That ambiguity doesn’t diminish the potency of those six words. If anything, it’s where their power comes from.