"We have moved in the right direction, and there have been improvements, but we still have a long ways to go in the country. The bigger difference is that back then they had hoods. Now they have neckties and starched shirts."
Yesterday, I wrote about Hank Aaron's achievement, 40 years ago, when he passed Babe Ruth and became baseball's all–time home run king.
He remained the all–time home run king for the rest of the 20th century.
I watched, transfixed (thanks to my family's television), as he slugged home run #715. I was just a boy, of course, and there were many things I did not know or understand — but I did know about prejudice and racism. I knew there were racists who objected to a black man breaking a record that had been held for decades by not just a white man but perhaps the biggest idol the sport of baseball has ever had, and I regretted that. Still do.
It really wasn't a difficult conclusion to reach in 1974 — that nearly all of those who opposed Aaron were motivated by racism — but it was a different time. It wasn't far removed from the protests and riots in the streets or brutal attacks on blacks in the 1960s.
Even though I was quite young, I knew that there were people — most but not all (I have learned in my life that nothing is absolute) — who were opposed to Aaron because he was black. And I can understand why he would be bitter about that, even 40 years later. I've seen some of the letters that were sent to him — vile, disgusting.
I also know that we are all the products of our experiences, and his experience during the 1973–74 offseason was the kind of thing that no one should have to face. Again, I understand why he is bitter. I was glad then, and I am glad now, that the threats against his life were never carried out. He had my respect for the way he carried himself in the face of all that.
But he was wrong to assert, in an interview with USA Today, that little has changed. A lot has changed, particularly here in the South. Aaron is right. We do have work to do, but I hear kids talk of racism today in a way that tells me they really don't know what racism is.
That is one area where we need to do some hard work — educating our young people so they will be able to tell the difference between someone who is racist and someone who disagrees.
(I teach writing at the community college here, and I had a student last semester who accused me of racism when his final exam brought his grade down. He was expecting an A. He got a B. Why? Well, my final exam in this class — which is called developmental writing and is designed to make up for deficiencies in students' written language education — is to write what I call an essay — on a topic that I choose — so I can see if the students are applying what they have learned in the class to their writing. I mark off three points for every element that was covered in class but the student in question does not use in the essay, and I mark off one point for each word that is misspelled or should be there but isn't.
(This particular student left out three things that we discussed in class during the semester, and he had a grand total of 19 words that were either misspelled or left out completely. That made his grade on the exam 72.
(Without even seeing the marked–up essay, he accused me of making 10–point deductions — which I have never done — and, when I denied doing that, he accused me of racism.)
Aaron was wrong to suggest that Barack Obama's problems were due to racism. It's much more complicated than that.
Before anyone goes ballistic on me, yes, I know there are some people who are opposed to Obama because he is black. But I can't go along with blanket assertions of any kind. It is precisely that kind of mindset that is behind injustice of any kind — racial, sexual, religious, you name it.
I disagree with Obama on many things, but my dissension is not based on his skin color. It is based on the fact that I disagree with him. If Obama was white, I would still disagree with him on many things. (I agree with him on some things, but I disagree with him on far more.)
There are others who feel that way, too. Every president, even the popular ones, has had his detractors.
I am an American citizen, and I am entitled to disagree with Obama or anyone else — and that does not give anyone the right to dismiss my deeply held beliefs as invalid nor does it give anyone the right to falsely accuse me of anything.
My beliefs matter to me. Others are free to agree with me or disagree with me, but they have no right to belittle me if I don't agree with them.
Now if I cross that line and commit a violent act, that is a crime and should be dealt with as such, but it is not a crime for me to disagree.
At the time that Aaron was chasing the Babe, law enforcement in the South still often looked the other way when violent acts were committed against blacks. But that really has changed in the last 40 years.
Other things will change, too, as time passes.