By Lee A. Daniels
Hank Aaron, the major leaguer who 40 years ago broke Babe Ruth’s titanic home-run record, recently spoke the truth about the source of some of the opposition to President Obama the politician and the man – and in doing so, illuminated a blazing truth about American society as a whole.
That is that some Americans are still motivated by the ‘acting White’ syndrome. No, I’m not referring to that tricked-up version of the “culture-of poverty” theory that assigns the myriad difficulties many poor Black children encounter in the segregated public schools they attend to a “flaw” within Black culture itself that denigrates traditional scholastic achievement.
I’m talking about the old acting-White syndrome that held sway among most Whites in this country until the civil rights victories of the mid-1960s. That notion declared that any Black American who thought they had a right, for example, to pursue any job they were qualified for, or sit anywhere they chose on any mode of public transportation, or buy a home in any neighborhood they could afford were violating the code of White Supremacy. In other words, those “uppity” Blacks were trying, to “act White.”
Hank Aaron knows that acting-White syndrome well, and not just because he grew up in the 1930s and 1940s Mobile, Ala. He knows it because of the most important thing he and another baseball Hall of Famer, Jackie Robinson, and President Obama share: Each of them broke deeply-rooted racial barriers to achieve three of the most cherished – indeed, mythic – positions in American society.
Robinson broke the color barrier that had kept Blacks from Major League Baseball for 50 years. Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home-run record, which had stood for half a century. And Barack Obama was elected president of the United States – twice. Each of these men drew worldwide acclaim and an heroic stature in the pages of history and the eyes of millions of Americans.
But to some White Americans, their achievements were, literally, a Black mark against the White supremacy they believe America should continue to stand for. And so, even as Robinson’s and Aaron’s and Obama’s individual displays of determination and competence and grace under pressure enabled more and more Whites to support them and thereby escape the prison of White supremacy, these retrograde Whites clung even tighter to the old attitudes.
During Jackie Robinson’s first year, 1947, as he compiled the statistics that would gain him Rookie-of-the-Year honors, the hate mail, including death threats, poured in to Brooklyn Dodgers’ headquarters. In 1974, as Hank Aaron began to close in on Ruth’s record, the hate mail, including death threats, poured in to Atlanta Braves’ headquarters. Once President Obama took office in 2009, the available evidence indicates that the volume of hate mail directed toward him, including death threats, surged to extraordinary levels.
So, when Hank Aaron was asked earlier this month by USA Today sports reporter Bob Nightingale why he still keeps the racist hate mail he got during his record home-run quest, he said it was to “remind myself that we are not that far removed from when I was chasing the record. If you think that, you are fooling yourself. A lot of things have happened in this country,” Aaron continued, “but we have far to go. … Sure, this country has a black president, but … President Obama is left with his foot stuck in the mud from all the Republicans with the way he’s treated. We have moved in the right direction, and there have been improvements, but we still have a long ways to go. The bigger difference is back then they had hoods. Now they have neckties and starched shorts.”
News reports indicate that the hate mail poured into the Atlanta Braves’ offices – just like in the old days; and, in keeping with our modern era, splashed across the Internet, too, underscoring one of the points we should take from this episode.
That is that now, as in the past, we should be grateful for these outbursts of racist venom at a Jackie Robinson, a Hank Aaron, a Barack Obama or the many other Black men and women who’ve made the breakthroughs that have helped redeem the American Ideal. For it’s motivated by the racists’ knowing that, while these individuals are exceptional people, they’re not exceptions among Black Americans and that there are millions of others walking down those paths the Obamas, Aarons, Robinsons and others have blazed to their rightful places in American society.
Not because they want to “act White,” but simply because they’re acting human.
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America. Lee A. Daniels is a columnist for the National Newspaper Publishers Association. His most recent book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.