Baseball Commentator’s Words Put Racism in the Spotlight

When a culture focuses on slips of the tongue, it invites everyday racism to play out with total impunity.

Commercial sports media have long sought to be a model for tolerance and racial justice. Whenever a commentator says something that could be perceived as politically incorrect, humiliation and punishment will ensue.

The standard form of punishment is no less than being fired. That turned out not to be the case for half-Chinese baseball commentator Ron Darling, after he used the traditional metaphor “chink in the armor” when speaking about the struggles of a valiant Japanese pitcher in a Major League Baseball game. According to Yahoo, “Several Twitter users immediately noted Darling’s comment, with some expressing outrage and others believing it to be an unfortunate slip of the tongue.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Slip of the tongue:

Any syllable or combination of syllables that remind highly judgmental people, who believe they are anti-racist (but who tend to be bigots of another kind), of sounds that, according to their informal rulebook and their personal lack of culture, brand the speaker as an unworthy human being

Contextual note

Incidents such as this one reveal as much about US media as they do about the moral fault they claim to be reporting on. MSN insultingly called Darling’s metaphor a “boneheaded comment.” It went on to complain that, “Darling did not appear to realize that he had used the slur in reference to Tanaka, who is Asian.” MSN apparently knows what most literate people ignore: that the expression “chink in the armor” is — despite its centuries-old pedigree — a disguised “slur.” In MSN’s eyes, Darling is twice guilty, first of using the incriminating term and then appearing not “to realize that he had used” it. A clear moral failing, typical of “boneheaded” people.

The absurdity is compounded by the fact that while Yahoo (but not MSN) mentions that Darling is “partially of Chinese descent,” the pitcher in question is Japanese. The slur, “chink,” refers only to the Chinese. To deprecate the Japanese, Americans say “jap” or“nip.” Had Darling said something like, Tanaka’s perfect game has been nipped in the bud, the criticism would — at least theoretically — have been more understandable, for slipping “nip” into his sentence. In fact, the critics’ facile conflation of Japanese and Chinese reflects a degree of racism and cultural insensitivity (“all Asians are alike”) that far surpasses anything the Mandarin-speaking Darling might be accused of.

In contrast to US media, the UK’s Daily Mail — hardly the most highbrow of British newspapers — took the trouble to inform its readers that, “‘Chink in the armor’ is a term whose original meaning has no racial connotation.” It also reminds us that “In February 2012, a headline writer for ESPN.com was fired after posting the headline ‘chink in the armor’ next to a photo of New York Knicks star Jeremy Lin,” a basketball player of Taiwanese origin.

Historical note

Racism is alive and well in the United States. The founders wrote it into the Constitution and it remained over time the bedrock of American expansion, interrupted only by specific events that required reframing the terms and conditions of acceptable racism. The 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery (whose repeal Kanye West is now promoting), gave way to Jim Crow, or American apartheid, enhanced by everyday terrorism (lynching, torture, threats, burning).

The civil rights movement and the subsequent political canonization of Martin Luther King Jr. (once he had been silenced by assassination) produced an officially anti-racist national ideology that focused on language as a means of ignoring the continuing practice of racism, which could play be exercised freely so long as any mention or analysis of how it played out could be suppressed (as in the case of Colin Kaepernick, who silently protested police brutality and not the US flag)

In the age of Donald Trump, Steve Bannon and Brett Kavanaugh, US culture has pushed racism one step further by becoming deliberately and consciously aligned around the values of white male privilege, even while vehemently denying its existence. That of course is the unstated meaning of Trump’s MAGA slogan (Make America Great Again). Because US culture has racism grafted into its DNA, it requires a simple, legalistic means to deny its existence in the culture, offering that as proof that it has surpassed its shameful past. Political correctness (PC) emerged as a kind of theatrical fiction to ensure that the culture can never be accused of racism.

PC provides a stick to beat individuals, thereby diverting attention from the racist character of the culture itself. Since only individuals can be racist, self-proclaimed anti-racists feel justified in tracking the linguistic faults of their peers to out the racists. PC thus succeeds in mobilizing the energy of antiracist indignation against innocent individuals, diverting attention from the system that perpetuates it and making things objectively worse for the victims of racism.

The 1999 case of David Howard illustrates this phenomenon. A top aide was forced to resign from the city council of Washington, DC, for having correctly used the word “niggardly” with regard to the budget. Not only did this reflect and validate a high level of linguistic ignorance, but it even taught the perpetrator — Howard himself, after being rehired — the perverse lesson that language was more important than reality. Howard described his “enlightenment” in these terms: “[A] white person can’t afford to be colorblind. They don’t have to think about race every day. An African American does.” That is true, but in practical it translates as: If you’re white, watch your language, but not necessarily your actions.

Neither Darling nor Howard was guilty of a “slip,” even less of a “slur.” But in every case, the accused will be forced to apologize, admit their shame and promise to follow the PC code with a new level of awareness. In the meantime, racist acts continue with increasing frequency and white supremacy has become an acknowledged political movement.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.] 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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Author: Peter Isackson