Racism is a wound that’s difficult to cauterize even though it already burns. Just when Boston felt it had gotten the bleeding under control, the wound has been re-opened, gushing disappointment, anger, disbelief, and defensiveness. The news that Baltimore Orioles center fielder Adam Jones was subjected to racial epithets at Fenway Park on Monday during the Orioles 5-2 victory over the Red Sox put a city with a checkered racial past — on and off the field — back on the defensive.
That’s the problem. The immediate reaction of some folks at Jones saying he was “called the N-word a handful of times” at Friendly Fenway was to demand proof. There was a sense of fatigue that racism remained an issue that had to be dealt with and seething that an entire people could be painted in a derogatory fashion with such a broad brush. Welcome to the world of anyone who has ever been discriminated against. That’s exactly how those on the receiving end of racist taunts feel. It doesn’t feel good, does it, Boston?
The first step to fixing a problem is admitting there’s a problem. The moment there is any racially-tinged incident on the Boston sports scene, some people get reflexively indignant and try to debunk the allegations. They turn the debate into a false binary choice between the calumniation that everybody in this region is racist or the naive notion that racism doesn’t exist in Boston at all. That’s not helpful, and it’s not going to salvage Boston’s reputation or prevent further incidents like the one involving Jones. He isn’t the first African-American athlete to report being the target of racism here.
The problem is that Boston has a racist reputation it earned in the past, yet no longer deserves. This is a city that trades on history, but when it comes to racist behavior it wants to elide it completely. Suddenly, the racist rancor of school desegregation and intruders filling the home of Celtics legend Bill Russell with racial epithets and defecating on his bed is to be buried and forgotten, expunged from the record and the discussion.
Russell’s treatment is ancient history for many, but what’s not is the hail of racist tweets that were unleashed when black hockey player Joel Ward scored the game-winner for the Washington Capitals in overtime of Game 7 at TD Garden to eliminate the Bruins from the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Racism can’t be regarded as Bigfoot, some imaginary menace that few have witnessed and that even fewer believe exists. It’s not chimerical. It’s all too real.
Red Sox pitcher David Price told the Globe in January that he experienced racial taunts at Fenway last season. Now, you have a visiting player saying he was subjected to racial-epithets. On Tuesday, Jones said he had been the target of racial slurs at Fenway prior to Monday.
In 2007, outfielder Gary Matthews Jr., said of Boston: “They’re one of the few places you’ll hear racial comments.” Another center fielder, Torii Hunter, said in 2008 that he had been subjected to racism at Fenway as a member of the Minnesota Twins. Hunter’s first stint with the Twins was from 1997 to 2007. Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia told Newsday on Tuesday that he has never been called the N-word anywhere but Boston.
Red Sox president Sam Kennedy said that in a meeting with Red Sox players about the Jones episode they acknowledged that they had heard racially-insensitive or abusive language at Fenway.
“Our players acknowledged in our meeting that they have heard inappropriate remarks in this ballpark, in other ballparks,” said Kennedy. “That’s why I opened these remarks by saying how saddened and disappointed I am to hear that.”
Are all these guys just making up racial run-ins to make Boston look bad? Please. Speaking from experience, anyone who has ever been called the N-word is not liable to mistake it for another. It’s time to face the facts and focus on eradicating this behavior instead of trying to deny its existence.
Kennedy was asked if he was concerned the Jones issue could change the way players feel about the fan base, Fenway Park, and the organization.
“Definitely, that’s my biggest concern. My main message to people locally in Boston, regionally in New England, and around the country is that I think that, unfortunately, this is representative of a very small minority of people that is ignorant and moronic, and is not reflective of a great region with great sports fans.
“It’s really important to get that message out there. That’s one of the things we talked about with our guys, and I think that message needs to get out there and will be well-received.”
Kudos to the Sox fans who gave Jones a standing ovation when he stepped into the batters box at 7:11 p.m. on Tuesday. It was an acknowledgement. That’s a start.
It’s a shame that Jones experienced this abuse at Fenway in the 70th anniversary season of Jackie Robinson breaking major league baseball’s color barrier. Everyone knows the Red Sox were the last team in the majors to integrate their roster. It’s an ignominious honor that haunts the franchise. They were baseball’s real White Sox, not the team in Chicago.
The Sox fielded their first African-American player, Pumpsie Green, in 1959 — 12 years after Robinson broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers and 14 years after a sham tryout Robinson had at Fenway Park with fellow Negro Leaguers Sam Jethroe and Marvin Williams.
If you don’t want to take this issue seriously, then you should listen to Red Sox players who certainly are. The Red Sox have three African-American outfielders — Jackie Bradley Jr., Mookie Betts, and Chris Young. Bradley, the team’s center fielder, sounded crestfallen. He was measured, but the pain and hurt resonated in his carefully-chosen words.
“It’s disheartening. It really is,” said Bradley. “I was in that same outfield at the same time AJ was, so what made it any different that he was called a name, and I wasn’t? It’s not everyone. It’s not. I don’t want that to be something where one person dictates how everyone feels because it’s not the truth, but I feel like that person that’s really how they feel. We should all know who it is. If he feels strongly enough to share that I feel like his co-workers should know, his family, if they don’t already know.
“It’s hurtful. That kind of action, it will not be tolerated. I just want everyone to show love. Like I said, I was out there, too. [Mookie] is out there, Chris is out there. It’s for all races. [We] want to go out there and play a game that we love and support our families.”
Young astutely pointed out that the media shouldn’t be only going to black players for comment on the Jones incident.
To the Red Sox’ credit, they faced this incident head on. They apologized to Jones, both privately and publicly. Kennedy called it “disgusting behavior” and lamented that the team couldn’t identify the culprit yet.
It’s time to dial down the denial and treat these reopened racial wounds as serious.
Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.