Two weeks ago, Adam Jones was the recipient of some uncouth behavior from Red Sox fans at Fenway Park. One fan threw peanuts at him while others directed racist remarks at him. The incident received national media attention. Both the Red Sox and Major League Baseball apologized to Jones for having to endure the ugliness, but many people were upset at Jones for speaking up. Some thought Jones made the whole thing up.
Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports caught up with Jones and talked about the incident, race issues in baseball and America, and why Jones chooses to speak up about these issues. The whole thing is worth a read, and to prevent myself from excerpting the whole thing, I’ll discuss two items from Passan’s piece that stood out to me.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter, Jones says, “has taught me more about African-American baseball players than the game has taught me.” Jones mentioned that Showalter encourages players to visit the Negro Leagues museum in Kansas City, and sometimes makes it mandatory for younger players.
Showalter has shown in the past that he’s sensitive to issues of race in society. When the Jones incident occurred last month, Showalter said, “I can’t sit here and profess how Adam feels. Like I’ve said before, I’ve never been black, so I’m not going to sit here and try to act like I know. But I can tell you how it makes me feel.” Showalter expressed a similar sentiment two years ago shortly after Freddie Gray died in police custody and protests erupted in Baltimore.
The most important thing a person in a position of societal power (e.g. a white man) can do when people without that power talk about their lived experiences is listen. Often, because those experiences contradict some people’s worldviews, they get defensive and try to negate that (see: Schilling, Curt). Showalter is wise enough to know when he should listen.
The other thing that stood out to me from Passan’s piece is Jones’ explanation for baseball’s lack of popularity among young African Americans. He says, “Baseball always has been a father-son game.” He went on, saying, “The last 30 years, especially in California with the three-strike policy that Reagan and Bush – the three-strike policy in general – there aren’t as many black fathers out there to play catch. The mother is turned into a single mother. She doesn’t have the time, the energy, because she just worked a double. The availability of the parent is not there to play with the kid.”
Jones’ comment is on point. As this graph from Wikipedia shows, the incarceration rate in the U.S. began to skyrocket under Reagan and continued on from there under George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than half of federal prisoners were incarcerated for drug crimes in 2010. Black Americans are between three and four times more likely to be arrested for drug crimes, even though they use drugs at comparable rates to white people. Black Americans are also about nine times more likely to go to a state prison for a drug offense. And as Gary Webb of the San Jose Mercury News showed in his controversial Dark Alliance series in 1996, the U.S. government had some involvement bringing drugs into poor (mostly black) neighborhoods in the first place in the 1980’s. All of this, plus other factors like mandatory minimum sentencing, has devastated poor communities, especially those of color.
Jones didn’t have to speak up about any of this, but he chose to because hardly anyone else is willing to rock the boat for a wide variety of reasons. Jones is putting himself out there, at risk for even more ugliness, to try to make a difference. We should listen even as he speaks some uncomfortable truths.