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·ismNeither 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.
Pronunciation: 'rA-"si-z&m also -"shi-
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
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.