Snow covers most of the house now, the front door, the mailbox, the circular driveway. From the outside, it is just another suburban home, a place where children might build a snowman on the front lawn. But there are no children here, no snow man. The doors and windows are shut tight. People whisper and point when they pass. Here is why: Beneath the snow, the word “NIGGER” is written in the grass. Someone took weed killer one night and burned it in giant letters.
This is not Mississippi. This is not Alabama. This is Michigan — worse, this is my neighborhood, Farmington Hills. The home belongs to a black family who, as far as anybody knows, never bothered anyone. They went away on a trip this summer, and when they came home, here was a message from one of their neighbors.
I used to drive past this place almost every day, the way children go past a haunted house. I stared at the letters, which could be read from across the street. How could someone write that, under the sky, out in the open? What’s that saying: “It can’t happen here”?
It can happen anywhere. We are about to begin a new year, but in many ways, this snow-covered house is still a reflection of America, white on top with a hatred burning underneath. I work in sports, where the races meet every day — black man tackles white man, white man pours champagne on black man — and, of all places, you would figure, racism could not survive here.
Yet this year alone we had the Shoal Creek controversy. We had Arizona and the Super Bowl. We had a high school basketball game here in Michigan, in which white kids taunted a player by yelling, “Nice shot, black boy!”
Disturbing? Sure. But what is more disturbing is this: Lately, when these issues arise, there seems to be impatience, even annoyance. “Does everything have to be racism?” people moan. “They’re always complaining. It’s just a little thing.”
No, it’s not. A little is a lot
Sadly, there is no such thing as a little prejudice. It’s like being a little pregnant. Remember that once, in the South, it was considered a little prejudice that blacks had to sit in the back of the bus. Yet this summer, an elderly man named Louis Willie, who once rode those buses, became the first black member of Shoal Creek Country Club in Alabama — only because the club, as host of the PGA championship, was embarrassed into accepting him. Even up to a few weeks before Willie’s admission, the founder of the club insisted:
“We will not be pressured into accepting blacks. . . . ”
A little prejudice.
Rodney Peete is one of the most intelligent and personable athletes I know. He is also black. A few years ago, while attending Southern Cal, he played a baseball game in Alabama. Peete hit a single. He danced off the bag, threatening to steal second. Suddenly, a woman rose from the stands and yelled, “Get that black boy off the bases! Put the chains on him! Put the chains on him!”
A little prejudice.
This summer, a young white Tigers player said to me: “The Latin ballplayer does not understand fundamentals. He is only interested in being flashy. We all know that.” He did not smile. He was serious.
A little prejudice. Never too much of a fuss
It is nothing new. Think about the number of black athletes versus the number of black managers, coaches or owners. Think about the racial remarks you hear all the time at sporting events. “He’s fast — for a white guy.”
“He’s hot-tempered, like all Latinos.” In truth, these are hateful things to say.
The problem is, as whites, in the majority, we don’t always realize it. And now, it seems, we want to grow weary of racism complaints. “OK,” we sigh,
“we get the point.” But we don’t always get the point. Try to imagine it from the other side. White fans routinely mob black athletes for autographs. They say, “We love you!” Yet, as Peete observes, “How many would let us date their daughters?”
Think about it.
Now. I am not saying no progress has been made. Nor am I saying that no athlete has ever used racism as an excuse. But I do feel that when you’re in the majority, you have to guard against insensitivity. Prejudice is not some boulder you can drag most of the way up the hill, then abandon. It will roll back down.
On the day before Christmas, I returned to the house in Farmington Hills. I knocked on the door; no one answered. So I stood there, on the lawn, and thought about Shoal Creek, and the Super Bowl, and how many of us shook our heads and said “Such a fuss over nothing.”
Then I looked down, at the snow, and thought about what was beneath it, the message spelled out in weed killer. And I wondered, as I do today, if you can ever make enough of a fuss over anything.