On race, Rocker's hardly alone

While Major League Baseball has chosen to send Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker to the psychiatrist's couch to help him deal with his apparent bigotry, what Mr. Rocker suffers from will never be found in a psychiatric text.

Rather, it is an abiding mentality peculiar to white Americans who seem unable to see beyond the color of a minority American's skin.

This state of mind is never triggered when whites see other whites, whom they relate to simply as individuals - as people with virtues and flaws, beauty and blemishes, strengths and weaknesses.

But when whites see minorities, especially African-Americans, they almost reflexively apply broad-brush stereotypes and negative associations.

In a color-blind society, skin color should be descriptive rather than defining, incidental rather than influential. But in America, that equation is turned on its head.

Most troubling about the Rocker controversy is that we mistake the bald and unvarnished symptoms for the actual problem, when in fact much of white America suffers from it in varying degrees.

The problem could be manifested the way it did with Rocker - raw racism. But it also could be manifested more quietly, as in the widespread presumption among whites that blacks are less competent on the job, less likely to perform well in school, more likely to shoplift, or less motivated to work.

Rocker may have larded his now notorious comments with a variety of insulting images - insinuating that minorities are criminals, lazy, or welfare-dependent.

But he's simply more transparent than a significant majority of white Americans who privately view blacks and Hispanics as less intelligent, lazier, and more prone to violence than whites, according to general social surveys conducted two times in the 1990s by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center.

To be sure, many whites denounced Rocker, which to them validates that they don't share the same mentality. Are they simply better at controlling its outward manifestations?

Among Rocker's more odious statements in his Sports Illustrated interview is his description of a black teammate as "a fat monkey." To ascribe simian features to blacks is the worst form of racism, a deeply dehumanizing form of bigotry.

But as much as we'd like to believe that Rocker's insult is an isolated instance particular to him, in reality the monkey image is standard fare in white descriptions of blacks as it has been throughout American history.

It showed up in the Rodney King case, when Los Angeles police officers described dealing with blacks as "monkey-slapping time" or "gorillas in the mist."

The outspoken New York talk-radio host Bob Grant rants about the "millions of subhumanoids, savages" in the US, uncivilized people who would "feel more at home careening along the sands of the Kalahari" in Africa.

A picture of former New York Mayor David Dinkins with gorilla lips once circulated among white New York officers.

Often the association is more innocent and genteel, from folks who would never think of themselves as extremists or bigots. This makes it even more powerful - as when an AT&T newsletter cartoon showed people on every continent talking by phone, except in Africa it wasn't a person but a gorilla.

Or when a Bush administration mental- health official thought it scientifically valid to study the link between "hyperaggressive monkeys who kill each other" and inner-city youth violence. Or when a well-liked basketball announcer called a black player a "tough monkey." Or when the liberal president of Rutgers University, in New Jersey, attributed low test scores of blacks to their "genetic, hereditary background." Or when social scientists write books like "The Bell Curve," which try to link race and intelligence.

How many whites can honestly say they have never once heard a black person referred to as a jungle bunny, monkey, gorilla, or ape - or heard questions about the intelligence of blacks? Is John Rocker the exception or the rule?

Today, middle-class blacks living in predominantly white neighborhoods are advised to hide family photos and mementos if they ever want to sell their homes to whites. Is such polite and hushed bigotry any different from Rocker's overt racism?

Today's racial problems grew out of white America's inability to reconcile the ideals of freedom and equality with the brutal reality of enslavement, segregation, and discrimination.

Whites dealt with this contradiction by simply eliminating it, by dehumanizing "the others," and justifying their second-class treatment.

"I'm not a racist or prejudiced person," Rocker told Sports Illustrated. "But certain people bother me." Do we really think Rocker is the only one who thinks this way?

*Leonard Steinhorn, a professor of communication at American University, is co-author of the book 'By the Color of Our Skin: The Illusion of Integration and The Reality of Race' (Dutton, 1999).

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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