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The [Race] Papers

Neil Steinberg, a white guy, recently complained that "Black people prefer to be the sole arbiters of all things racial." (See No. 4)

But it's really white people who want to control the dialogue on race.

For example, the Rev. James Meeks was recently in the news for his use of the "N" word. The white media demanded an explanation - and an apology. The mayor was also offended and weighed in. The same mayor who once reportedly said that Chicago needed a white mayor (aides later clarified that he meant a "wet mayor," though they couldn't explain what that would entail or how it would improve the city).

Maybe people of color should be the sole arbiters of how the "N" word is used. Maybe us white people should stay out of that one; like Germans who aren't allowed to legally form neo-Nazi parties, our ancestors have forfeited certain privileges for us, regardless of our technical lack of responsibility for historic abuses. Maybe the best way for us white people to recognize and repudiate those abuses is by accepting such sacrifices as having little or no say in who, what, when, and where using the "N" word is acceptable.

But then, neither should white people bow out of discussions of race. A few cases in the last week show just how complicated that can be - and how crucial it is that racial dialogue with enlightened understanding take place.

Doctoring Dusty
The recent revelation in USA Today that Cubs manager Dusty Baker has apparently been receiving racist hate mail has been met with a fair amount of skepticism among the local press. (The latest entry is today's column by the Sun-Times's Jay Mariotti, "Baker's Copout Casts An Unfair Cloak On Cubs.")

The truth is, the local press doesn't seem to know how to handle Baker's frequent - and often misguided - forays into race.

For example, in a follow-up to the USA Today story, the Sun-Times's Carol Slezak wrote in "If These Walls Could Talk . . . " on Sunday, "But contrast the lack of furor about the Cubs' hate mail with the harsh criticism Baker received after remarking three years ago that black and Latino players could withstand high temperatures and hot sun better than white players."

As I wrote in 2003 when Baker made those comments - this is the best link I can provide; nearly three years of Press Box columns for Chicago magazine no longer exist online or in the archives on the magazine's website because, frankly, they just don't care - the local press hardly cared at all. I reviewed the press coverage nationally of Baker's remarks, and if you lived in Chicago you pretty read the least about them, though the Tribune's sports editor, Dan McGrath, reportedly a close friend of Baker's, did write a piece in which he asked, "Whom, exactly, did Baker insult?"

Well, the white McGrath wasn't insulted, though if he was on the team at the time he might have wondered if he received less playing time during heat waves, or if he, as a Tribune Company manager, could have survived making similar remarks about his staff. Of course, anyone aware of the particular physical qualities ascribed to people of color in order to portray them as brutes or rationalize slavery might have been less nonchalant than McGrath. After all, Baker did say "Weren't we brought over because we could take the heat?"

I think that may have offended a few folks.

In any case, just days after the recent hate mail story, Baker pulled another racial boner, as reported by Slezak (after days of discussion on sports talk radio, I'm told). "During a discussion about pitch counts with reporters last week, Baker noted a young Greg Maddux once threw 167 pitches in a game," Slezak wrote.

"If I left somebody out there 167 pitches, you guys would have lynched me," Baker said.

Whether Baker simply chose his words poorly or feels perpetually racially aggrieved, the Tribune committed the bigger error.

"Interestingly, you couldn't find Baker's quote about being lynched in the Tribune Co.'s newspaper because editors substituted the word 'criticized' for the word 'lynched.'"

Elliott Harris also addressed the Tribune's editing, in his Quick Hits column today: "As part of the Fox Cubs-Cardinals telecast Saturday, racism was mentioned in discussing manager Dusty Baker, who has brought the topic to the fore in recent days. Interesting, as pointed out by Dan Bernstein and Terry Boers on their WSCR show Friday, how the Tribune chose to alter a Baker comment to read: 'If I left somebody out there for 167 pitches, you'd [criticize] me' rather than 'you'd lynch me' as he actually stated. Let the record show ran the quote unedited. As did the Sun-Times in a story in Sunday's editions. Choosing words is one thing. Choosing words for someone else is quite another."

My guess is the Tribune doesn't know why it edited the word out except out of avoidance of a racial reference, rather than some more sophisticated rationale. Better to play it safe and avoid race than face it head-on.

But given Baker's frequent and recent invocation of race, the Tribune was dullheaded and wrong to make the change. Instead, somebody should have asked Baker about it.

And given the racial ramblings that have come out of Ozzie Guillen's mouth, too, maybe race should be discussed more in the sports (and news) pages, not washed away out of convenience or fear.

Bogus Baker?
The Tribune did follow up the USA Today story with its own examination of Baker's hate mail and the racial environment of the Cubs.

Today, the Tribune came back to the story by way of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

"The issue of race was also brought up after Baker told the Post-Dispatch he had been told 'certain people' in Chicago said a USA Today report that he had received racist mail had been 'fabricated,' apparently referring to WSCR-AM," Paul Sullivan wrote.

"'You don't fabricate stuff like that,' Baker said Sunday.

"Baker was then asked if he'd like to show the letters to prove they were legitimate.

"I have,' he said. 'I've shown people. I don't show most of them. Every once in a while. I show some of them.'

"Baker also told the Post-Dispatch his father had once received calls from people alleging they were with the Ku Klux Klan, threatening to burn a cross on his front lawn the day Baker signed his first pro contract.

"Baker said Sunday he has no 'animosity' toward anyone. But is he tired of the race issue?

"'Yeah, but I'm not the one who brought it up,' he replied. 'I've tried to downplay it as much as I could. Other people won't leave it alone."

It's not at all clear that Baker isn't the one bringing it up. Chicago freelancer Bob Cook writes today on that "This is not the first time Baker has shared with reporters that he gets racist letters - that, in fact, Baker has a knack for doing this when it appears his Cubs career is in trouble."

And Baker has acknowledged that he got hate mail in San Francisco, too, just as every manager everywhere gets mail from wackos.

Given, then, Baker's history and the swirling hate-mail controversy, it's probably not a good idea to scrub the word "lynching" from a Baker quote.

You get the feeling that the Tribune would just as soon not address race and Dusty Baker. And yet, there it sits, beneath the surface, and occasionally, above the surface too.

Land of Oz
"Guillen called it ''a shame' that Cubs manager Dusty Baker has received racial hate-mail, admitting that he has gotten similar e-mails at times."

- Sun-Times

"Guillen said he doesn't read his mail but does look at his e-mail and occasionally gets nasty notes, though he did not characterize them as racist."

- Tribune

White Columnist Club
John Kass, a co-member with Neil Steinberg in the Aggrieved White Man's Club, wrote on Sunday about the new season of Survivor, which will pit four racial groups against each other.

"Civil rights leaders and others who've made careers defining Americans by race are angry over CBS' upcoming Survivor shows. But I can't figure out why," Kass writes at the top of his Sunday column.

I'm sure the white folks who ran the diners, bars, banks, and political organizations in the white South Side neighborhood where Kass grew up never defined Americans by race when he was growing up - and surely still don't.

Neil Neal
Neil Steinberg follows up on his "Black people prefer to be the sole arbiters of all things racial" performance with a weird kowtow to Barack Obama. Obama is right, but that doesn't make it any prettier to watch. It shouldn't be a surprise either, given a previous Steinberg account (as memory serves, I couldn't find it online) of being reduced to a drooling idiot in the accidental presence of Obama at his health club.

On Sunday, Steinberg showed once again that he finds it easier to take shots at people as long as he doesn't have to talk to them. Sort of the Jay Mariotti School of Journalism, though truthfully that's about the least of things I find bothersome about Mariotti.

Steinberg explains that it's dangerous to know your targets, because if you like them you won't rip them.

Well, if you spend time with them you might find they aren't caricatures, but real human beings. You might find, for example, that Jesse Jackson Jr. is a pretty sharp guy, not a bozo as Steinberg once supposed, for example.

But you still have to be able to question and criticize public figures. Knowing them is not befriending them. It's what journalists do. (For example, I would enjoy few things more than a beer with Kass, whom I know a smidgen and always enjoy talking to, even if I think he sometimes warrants criticism; less so Steinberg, but hey, I'm still game.)

Instead, as Steinberg says in the opening to his column on Sunday, he wishes could master the skill of the late Steve Neal, who apparently was able to disappear when an angry pol was looking for him.

(Steinberg's admiration of Neal lacks any awareness or acknowledgement of Neal's reputation among political insiders for pursuing agendas both hidden and obvious; his admiration for Neal's attacks on Sen. Richard Durbin lacks awareness or acknowledgement of just how bizarre, mysterious, generally unwarranted and often false those attacks were. Then again, Steinberg describe how he is now "pals" with Durbin, and has thus put down the Neal attack mantle he once felt compelled to uphold.)

In this case, the pol looking for Steinberg was Barack Obama, unhappy that the columnist had accused the senator of exploiting the African-American portion of his racial heritage for political gain.

By Steinberg's telling, Obama brought him to his knees.

"He knows politics, [Obama] says, he knows the give and take. But we're friends, and this is over the line.

"'I'm sorry,' I say, surrendering. 'How can I make it up to you?'"

By kissing my ass in your next column?

After all, we're friends.

Profile in Courage
Finally, some sense talking: Why (mostly white) people who support racial profiling are wrong.


Posted on August 31, 2006

MUSIC - They Flirted With Disaster.
TV - A Quincy Top 10.
POLITICS - The Traitor Who Is A Great Patriot.
SPORTS - Gambling At The Grate.

BOOKS - Scientists Gone Rogue.

PEOPLE PLACES & THINGS - A People's History Of Uptown.

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