Friday, July 20, 2007

On Racism, and Sheff

I've been troubled by Gary Sheffield's comments, both to GQ earlier this season and to HBO's Real Sports this month, and I've wanted to respond...but I've held myself back. I try not to write angry, specially when the issues involved are as...touchy as the topics Sheff's big mouth has kicked up this time. I just couldn't figure out how to approach this, and my blogger account is littered with unpublishable drafts, trying to approach this and failing.

Then, fortunately for me, a young lady decided to comment on a throwaway remark I made in yesterday's post about the Spike Lee film Summer of Sam. I'd mentioned the fact that Lee got racist hate mail from the residents of Throgs Neck, and noted that in turn, his portrayal of the members of that community was a gruesome caricature, which I considered was also racist. Eve Montana, of the Evie Does It blog wrote in the comments section:
Please stop using the term racist so easily. Racism is the system in which a group of people in power use economics and politics to repress another group. African-Americans in this company don't have the POWER to be racist. Prejudice, yes. Racist, no.
Usually, I hate it when someone quotes the dictionary to me in a discussion. I find it a condescending way to make a point. But, since I make my living in words, when someone tells me I don't know the meaning of a term I usually turn to my good friends at Webster's:
Main Entry: rac·ism
Pronunciation: 'rA-"si-z&m also -"shi-
Function: noun
1 : a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
2 : racial prejudice or discrimination
- rac·ist /-sist also -shist/ noun or adjective
Neither of these definitions support the "only white people can be racist in America" theory that Eve sets forth. By the second definition, racism is racial prejudice, so I don't see where drawing a distinction between racism and prejudice makes much of a difference. Moreover, the idea that African Americans don't have the power to affect others through their feelings of racial antipathy is a little dated. Power isn't just controlling the national government. There are all sorts of power relationships in society, which means all sorts of opportunities to put their ignorant attitudes on display to the world. If someone denies you service at their restaurant because of the color of your skin--I don't care what the color of your skin is, or what the color of their skin is--you've been subjected to racism.

Getting back to Summer of Sam, to imply that Spike Lee doesn't have power is just plain silly. He's one of America's foremost filmmakers, and by the standards of most folks, he's pretty darn wealthy. The idea that he's on even footing with the people he was skewering in that movie is absurd--they may be white, but he's the one with the big pulpit. So yes, when I look at the portrayal of characters as racial and ethnic stereotypes, with no intelligence or redeeming qualities, I don't think that calling said portrayal "racist" is out of line. You might look at it, and disagree, say maybe Lee wasn't being unfair, or that I'm overreacting about the portrayal...I'll admit it's not as clear-cut a case as the portrayal of African Americans in Birth of a Nation or Mickey Rooney's turn as a Japanese landlord in Breakfast at Tiffany's.

But if it's not racist, the reason isn't because African Americans (or any other group, for that matter) are unable to exploit whatever power they might have to express prejudices and/or feelings of racial superiority. Honestly, I can't figure what purpose re-defining the word racism as Eve proposes serves, other than to selectively excuse prejudicial conduct.

Which brings me to Sheff. Like Lee, Gary Sheffield is someone whose work I love. Sheffield's a hitting machine. The player he reminds me of is Paul O'Neill--the slashing stroke, the unrelenting attitude--just most of his career has been spent performing at the peak levels of O'Neill's career. Throughout his career, by and large, his reaction to adversity (whether external or self-created) has simply been to perform, and to keep hitting. During his first two years with the Yankees, he was probably the player I was happiest to see at the plate in a big spot. And this season--as I remarked more than a month ago--he's been exactly what the Bombers have been missing.

That, however, is 20/20 hindsight. When the Yanks traded Sheff this past winter, I understood with and agreed with their reasoning. Sheffield was a 38-year-old coming off a big injury in 2006, whose performance had been off even before he got hurt. The Yankees had acquired a replacement who was five years younger, uninjured, and under contract for 2007. Since they were tethered to the Jason Giambi contract, the Yanks didn't have the DH at bats available that Detroit's been able to give Sheffield this season. Plus, there was the fact that as he always has in his career, injury or no Sheffield was intent on negotiating his next contract in the media.

So, it seemed like moving him was a good idea at the time. The Yankees did well by Sheffield, trading him to a contender that immediately re-upped him to a new deal. The fact that he's hitting like last year's wrist injury never happened, and that he's on the Tigers--one of the teams that the Yanks are now trying to catch for the Wild Card--should be all the revenge that Sheffield needs against the Yankee franchise. But from day one, Sheff's been sniping at Joe Torre, sniping that's now reached the level where Gary Sheffield levels the claim that Torre treats African American players "differently." While he claims to stop short of calling Torre a racist, the fact is that Torre had power over Sheffield and other African American players, and Sheffield clearly implies that Torre showed preference to other players based on skin color.

Anyone reading his comments should be forgiven for thinking that he's calling Torre out as a racist, becoming just the last person to slam one of the best managers in New York City history on what seems to be his way out the door. Classy, very classy.

But who's treating people differently on the basis of race, here? It's Sheffield who's applying the brown paper bag test to his former teammate, Derek Jeter, saying that the Captain (the longest tenured African American on Torre's Yanks) doesn't qualify as "all the way black" because his mother's white. It's Sheffield who suggested that he has more Hispanic colleagues in baseball than African Americans because Latinos are docile creatures who don't demand that their employers "treat them like men."

I'm not just a Yankees fanboy grouchy over the fact that Sheffield's taking on the Yankees' sacred cows--Jeter and Torre. Those two have plenty of defenders. As a Dominican American, it's the lack of respect that Sheffield has shown his Latino colleagues (including, presumably, the Latinos who are keeping his team in contention: Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Guillen, Placido Polanco, and Ivan Rodriguez) that burns me.

For all the garbage that Sheffield's spewing, the outrage hasn't really been there. Hispanics haven't fired back at Sheff, neither have Jeter and Torre. I'm not one for silencing people's views, but I can't help but thinking that if someone where making similarly negative comments about African Americans, players and interest groups would be demanding suspensions or firings.

I guess maybe more people buy into Eve's definition of racism than I thought.


Anonymous said...

DJ - please e-mail staff (at) waswatching dot com - I have a question for you thanks

Gabby said...

I completely agree with you. I live in a country that is 95%black and 5% white. Which means that I, a white person, am actually in the minority and if racism ever occurred (which is thankfully relatively invisible here), it would be against that white people. Still counts as racism though. I know its not the same, but its an example.

On a side note, don't you find it amusing that Sheff waits till after he's out from Torre's team to speak up like this. One, if there was true racism, I imagine he would have said something earlier. And two, how can he put down latinos for not standing up for themselves, when he in truth hasn't either? IF Torre was racist, than Sheff is not really doing anything, he isnt giving any proof and he's waited till the end of Torre's career. He's doing just what he accused latino's of doing, nothing. Idiot. He's disgracing all the early african american and latino players!

DJ said...

Well, Sheff has a lot of doing nothing going on. Everyone praised him for saying in his Real Sports interview that he would "probably" meet with the Mitchell Commission--if he was really willing to meet Mitchell, he had close to a year to do so before he was put on the spot by Kremer.

Eve Montana said...

I did not get my defintion from a dictionary but from numerous books on race and ethnicity and ALL of them equate racism to power. Don't expect a dictionary to delve deep into a defintion. Look up Christopher Columbus and they'll tell you he discovered America in 1492 which everyone (should) know is bullshit.

And again, I'm not saying that African-Americans, if in power, would not be racist. There's a saying that even the oppress, oppress. It's just that the term "reverse racism" or even racism applied to a minority group is NOT the same as it being applied to the group in power.

Spike Lee's portrayal of those citizens may have been unfair, but racist? No. He did not think he or African-Americans were better than the Italians of Throgs Neck. He wasn't comparing them to any other ethnic group. If anything, they are the ones who showed their true colors first by sending him the hate mail in the first place. Was he fair in assuming that ALL of them felt this way? No. He simply got too hot under the collar when he received mail with words our country stupidly teaches ended after the Civil Rights movement.


DJ said...


You should give dictionaries a try, rather than just assuming they're full of misinformation when they disagree with what you believe. For example, if you look up Christopher Columbus in the won't find him there. That's what encyclopedias are for, and they do go in depth. Maybe if you check the Brittanicas from the 1940s, you might find Columbus discovering America, but quite honestly, that just means you need to get better reference materials.

I have no doubt that there's a number of books that engage in your definition of racism. That doesn't make any of them accurate, or their reasoning sound. The idea that racism is something that can only be perpetrated by the majority goes back to arguments about affirmative action. Outside of that context, however, it just doesn't work.

And no, I'm not a believer in "reverse racism" either. There's just racism, whether it's applied whites to blacks, blacks to whites, or Asians to Hispanics. "Reverse" racism would literally be if one considered other races superior to one's own, and treated them extra-nice accordingly. Sadly, no one uses it that way.

As for the rest, did you actually see this movie? Because there was a scene--which featured him in a cameo as a TV news reporter--which made the comparison pretty directly. So I don't know where you have any basis to say that Lee didn't think himself and other African Americans superior to the residents of Throgs Neck.

I'm not saying he didn't have reasons for what he did--I'm the one that brought up the neighborhood's hostile reaction, after all. But having a reason and being justified are different things.

Eve Montana said...

"You should give dictionaries a try, rather than just assuming they're full of misinformation when they disagree with what you believe. For example, if you look up Christopher Columbus in the won't find him there. That's what encyclopedias are for, and they do go in depth. Maybe if you check the Brittanicas from the 1940s, you might find Columbus discovering America, but quite honestly, that just means you need to get better reference materials."

Oh really. Then you should visit your local elementary school and see what the history teachers are telling the kids. Pull aside any kid (frankly some adults) and ask them who "discovered" America and tell me with a straight face that Christopher Columbus' name doesn't come up.

And since when is someone feeling superior to a GROUP OF PEOPLE IN A SPECIFIC NEIGHBORHOOD racist? As long as Spike didn't voice his disdain for ALL Italians, then it is not racist. Try as hard as you might, but it doesn't apply.

DJ said...

I take it from the fact that you didn't answer my question that you haven't seen the movie. Which is disturbing, since if you haven't seen the movie, you have no idea what I'm talking about, and therefore no basis to comment. You seem willing to say I'm wrong based solely on your preconceptions, and nothing else.

I could talk to you about scenes in a number of movies where Spike Lee has created really axe-grinding ugly caricatures of Italians. But it would likely be a waste of time, since you've made up your mind, and you don't seem interested in discussing any facts to the contrary--whether they're on the screen or in the dictionary. You'd rather divert our attention to opinion polls on Christopher Columbus in elementary schools, which have nothing to do with anything we're talking about.

"And since when is someone feeling superior to a GROUP OF PEOPLE IN A SPECIFIC NEIGHBORHOOD racist? As long as Spike didn't voice his disdain for ALL Italians, then it is not racist. Try as hard as you might, but it doesn't apply."

By that logic, Birth of a Nation wasn't a racist film, because D.W. Griffith was only expressing his superiority to a few African Americans in the South, not ALL African Americans, right? I guess it also wasn't racist because the movie only glorified a specific group of Klansmen, not the KKK as a whole.

If white person made a portrayal of Bed-Stuy, where every member of the community was a racial stereotype, where everyone was stupid, ignorant, bigoted and immoral, with no redeeming features, people would complain. (Heck, people have complained about far less negative portrayals.) If that movie was set in Washington Heights, featuring knuckleheads of the same heritage as mine, I'd take it personally. I guess you'd say that the filmmaker there wasn't talking about blacks or latinos, but merely discussing neighborhoods.

I think it would be hypocritical to be offended by the film set in Washington Heights, but defend artistic choices of the director who decides to ply the same negative stereotypes in Bed-Stuy, or Harlem...or Throgs Neck. The only thing that attitude would say is, "When the stereotypes are aimed at me it's racism, when they're aimed at you it's entertainment."

cathy said...

if a white player were to say about a black manager what sheff said about torre, the 'african-americans' would be up in arms.....and that's where the 'power' comes from.....blacks can say about whites what they want and if critisized then it's a race thing. the race card is being played WAY too often....