Friday, June 09, 2006

The McGwire Paradox

Via the always insightful Belle Lettre, we have an unusually sharp analysis of anti-discrimination law through the lens of Baseball.

The article specifically focuses on the hostility Barry Bonds has faced while chasing Babe Ruth's 714 home run mark. What does it stem from? Well, one candidate is racism: Hank Aaron certainly encountered his fair share of if it when it became clear that a Black ballplayer was about to bypass the Sultan of Swat for the title of home run king. Alternatively, one might argue, Bonds is being targeted because of his suspected (a word which teeters on the line of getting quotation marks) steroids use. Or, of course, it could be a mixture of both.

The trouble is disentangling the legitimate anger that a baseball fan might have over cheating, and the illegitimate resentment that is engendered by Bonds' race. In today's society, few people are overtly racist, or would admit to racist motivations. This does not mean racism is "over", only that it has been driven underground.

Belle asks:
You have to wonder though--do white players get as much heat for their alleged steroid use? Do new fathers get short-shrifted at work as much as new mothers? How much do stereotypes about gender or race affect how the employee's performance is perceived? Do we have different expectations for members of certain races or genders, such that when the members do not perform to our expectations we treat them differently than other groups? If a woman handles a client with professionalism and courtesy but lacking a demure manner, is she evaluated based on such stereotypical expectations? Is a man allowed to be more abrasive or outspoken? Is any transgression by a black or latino employee treated more harshly than someone in the good ol' boys network?

Where racism is not made overt, the only way to discover it is to look comparatively. To take one example, while one would not expect to find an elementary school teacher openly professing white supremacy, if a given school system more frequently fails black students than white students of similar backgrounds, that would be suggestive that there is still something racially wrong in the system: a problem with the pedagogy, or the metrics, or any number of factors which are having a racially disparate effect.

What's important to note here is that this can still be operative even where the baseball fan (or school system) has perfectly plausible explanations for its individual actions. It is, after all, quite legitimate to dislike Bonds for using steroids. But it is indicative to see how he is treated compared to White athletes in similar positions. This is what I am calling the McGwire paradox. McGwire also was pursuing a beloved home run record while under the shadow of steroid allegations. And let's be clear: he got his fair share of negative press. But my recollection includes nothing comparable to what Bonds has endured: a universally hostile media, booing fans, consistent deriding. This is anecdotal and based entirely off my recollections, but I simply don't recall the same level of vitriol then compared to now. So I'd submit that while there are non-racial reasons to praise or disparage both Bonds and McGwire, there are precious few non-racial reasons to treat McGwire with at least respect while slamming Bonds.

This dovetails off my adored Gaertner and Dovidio study (summarized by me here), which says that racism is primarily operative when people can attach it to a superficially non-racial reason. In other words, if Bonds was a perfect human being, we'd respect him even though he's Black. But as a deeply flawed man, we cast scorn upon him--more than we'd give to a similarly situated White athlete.

1 comment:

Randomscrub said...

Two other factors contributing to the anti-Bonds attitude you may be neglecting:

1) He's historically been fairly hostile to the media (and somewhat to the fans), so it shouldn't be surprising that he gets bad press.

2) He's not that great a player (can he get any slower?) and is starting to be a liability in the field, while his bat's been cold all season. Of course the sports writers are going to be on his case about it. A big name player who may be hurting his team while surrounded by the steroid controversy? How could the media vultures stay away?