Sunday, April 8, 2007

Football. Basketball. Videos games. Then baseball.

Marking the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s major league debut is turning out to be a somewhat humbling experience for baseball fans. Robinson broke the racial barrier in “America’s sport,” tearing down previous notions of African American inferiority and inequality; yet over a half century later, ESPN Outside the Lines points out that the number of African American baseball players is dwindling. What the half hour special did not focus on was that the number of African Americans in all sports has skyrocketed in the last 60 years, possibly meaning that Jackie’s baseball debut was about so much more than just baseball. What it also did not discuss is the seemingly unavoidable race distinctions in sports (and indeed, our society).

But let’s come back to the fact that there are a dwindling number of African American baseball players in the U.S., and the idea amongst ESPN analysts and all those interviewed that this is a bad thing. Now before you send me nasty hate mail, consider the strides African Americans have made in our society over the past 200 years. They have gone from being forcibly removed from their native home and enslaved in a far away land; to being Senators, CEOs, famous athletes, and possibly the next President of the United States. Am I saying that African Americans have an equal place in society? Although they most definitely should, I would be naïve to think that this were the case everywhere, especially in some frustratingly backward sections of our country. My point, however, is this: are we helping the plight of African Americans, and indeed other minorities, by continuing to highlight their differences?

Will there come a day when African Americans are simply Americans? Does highlighting the dwindling number of one race in a sport help people of that race better integrate into society as a whole? Inequality still exists in our society, but will continually pointing out that fact do much more than anger all races into further segregation?

Just a few shorts months ago, two African American NFL coaches competed in the Super Bowl, a fact that got more press coverage than the game itself (a fact that was admittedly more interesting that the game itself, but that’s beside the point). It was intended to be a positive sign that African Americans had made incredible strides in the ranks of football coaches, but does highlighting the fact that they are black help put them on an equal playing field with their white colleagues? Or does it cause further divide and resentment?

According to one professional athlete, African Americans in the U.S. are more likely to play football, basketball and video games than baseball. Although this may be true, we must look at the way baseball has raised the status of so many other minorities in sports, accomplishments that are slow-coming in football and basketball where African Americans are represented in far larger percentages. And further, what if black athletes just choose not to play baseball, whereas Puerto Ricans, for instance, live and breathe it? Conversely, the dwindling number of black baseball players could be more than just a matter of choice. If that’s the case, shouldn’t we be focusing on the systemic problems in our society – inequality in qualities of schools, access to higher education, urban poverty and job discrimination – rather than an insignificant, albeit visible, byproduct?

I understand that by accentuating the successes of African Americans we are celebrating our differences and acknowledging the contributions of all races to our diverse culture. My concern is that by continually focusing on our differences, we are putting forth a temporary solution to a long-term problem. Simply ignoring our differences is no solution, but at some point continually pointing them out must become counterproductive. I argue that discussing our differences in a positive light can be constructive; for the beauty of the U.S. is that none of us are the same. We all come from different backgrounds, ethnicities, etc. But we cannot summarily defeat racism by stressing the need for more [insert race] in [insert sport]. Likewise, segregating ourselves by race is not the way to make long-term positive change. Peace is not achieved through cease-fires alone; it is achieved by negotiation, forgiveness, and acceptance.

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