America’s racial divide was thrown into sharp relief by the visit of the baseball world champion Boston Red Sox to the White House on May 9. In line with the refusal of some or all members of recent championship teams to make the trip, somewhat more than half of the Sox showed up for a photo op with President Trump. But it was the composition of the delegation to Washington that raised eyebrows — all except one of the attendees was white; all of the team members absent were persons of color. (The lone player of color at the White House soiree was designated hitter-outfielder J. D. Martinez, who is of Cuban descent). Among those who stayed away was manager Alex Cora, who cited the Trump administration’s insulting lack of concern for his native Puerto Rico in its effort to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Maria.
One would think that this racial split down the middle of the team couldn’t have been good for its chemistry, although as Trump himself tweeted, the team went on a short winning streak after the meeting and Trump himself took credit for the surge. Nevertheless, the incident was emblematic of racial differences in American society that sometimes have burst through efforts to paper them over. In the District, a practice as innocuous as the playing of go-go music outside a cellphone store in Shaw escalated into a culture clash between long-time residents of a historically black neighborhood and mostly white newcomers with little regard for Shaw’s history and heritage.
The Obama presidency was an extended exercise in racial happy talk, an eight-year swoon reminiscent of the run of “The Cosby Show” between 1984 and 1992, long before Cosby himself fell into disgrace. White America congratulated itself on having, if not exactly having expunged racism, at least having moved past the bad old days — say, from 1619 to sometime in the 1960s.
But the Obama period only drove racism and racists into the shadows, and only briefly. Racial resentment emerged in the Tea Party, which billed itself as a small-government movement but whose grassroots ranks were heavy with people driven and united explicitly by their unwillingness to accept an African American as president. Then Trump — before, during and after the presidential campaign — traded the old racial dog whistle for a bugle and brought open racism into the public square, from his flogging of the “birther” conspiracy against President Obama to calling the neo-Nazi murderers of Charlottesville “very fine people,” not to mention his scapegoating of Latinx immigrants and Muslims.
The Red Sox visit/nonvisit to the White House should further dispel the notion that sports are somehow insulated from the real world. As far back as 1865, President Andrew Johnson celebrated the end of the Civil War by inviting Union soldiers to play baseball on the White House lawn while he was making making statements such as “This is a country for white men, and by God, so long as I am president, it shall be a government for white men.” All the players Johnson watched trotting around the bases were, unsurprisingly, white.
In the first half of the 20th century, racial segregation mirrored society at large, and Jackie Robinson’s entry into major league baseball in 1947 was less the breaking of the color line than the beginning of a slow unraveling. Not until 1959 were all major league teams integrated — the last one being, once again, the Red Sox. In football, our own hometown team was the last to integrate, and not until 1962, when openly racist team owner George Preston Marshall was strong-armed by the Kennedy administration. It’s anyone’s guess when the team will follow a growing national trend and change its racist name.
Once the major sports were integrated, one could be lulled into thinking the athletic arena was immune from politics, a fantasy shaken on rare occasions by incidents such as the moment Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists while standing on the podium at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. But then Trump ascended to the presidency, and controversy took the field.
Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback with the San Francisco 49ers before he was blacklisted from football for his activism, began his kneel-downs during the National Anthem to protest racial injustice before Trump was elected president — just before, as the 2016 general election campaign was heating up and Trump’s racist message was well-established. Once Trump was elected, whether to visit the White House became a quandary for invited athletes. Past presidents generally avoided politics at such ceremonial occasions, and even the most divisive chief executives — Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush — received athletes without much controversy. Since Trump took office, most championship teams have opted to accept a White House invitation, often with a number of players staying away. One exception was the National Basketball Association’s Golden State Warriors — a predominately African-American team, like most in the NBA —whose players were pointedly not invited to celebrate their 2017 and 2018 titles after star guard Stephen Curry said he wouldn’t attend if asked. Trump invited the National Football League champion Philadelphia Eagles to visit in 2018, but later rescinded the invite when it became apparent few players would attend. Trump claimed he disinvited the players over the “take a knee” controversy, although no Eagle players had actually kneeled during the anthem over the course of the season.
One factor repelling athletes from White House visits is Trump’s deliberately tearing down the wall between the dual roles of the president: ceremonial head of state and partisan political leader. Trump has frequently turned what should have been apolitical White House photo ops into rallies for his pet causes, using his innocent visitors as props. He unleashed a diatribe against immigrants at a May 15 gathering of police officers who had come to Washington to pay tribute to their fallen comrades. Then on May 23 he used an announcement of farm subsidies, with a clutch of farmers as backdrop, to air his grievances against “crazy” Nancy Pelosi. In his receptions for sports teams Trump has kept politics out mostly, although when the championship Clemson University football team visited in January he made a point of noting that the government shutdown, which he blamed on the Democrats’ refusal to negotiate on border security, was the reason he served the players fast-food hamburgers and pizza instead of having the furloughed White House chef prepare a meal.
In an op-ed in the Washington Post, former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent opined that the Red Sox “got confused and failed to make the essential distinction between the person who is the head of state in our nation and at the same time the head of the current government.” But Vincent got it backwards: It is Trump himself who tore down the barrier between the two roles of his office.
Once Trump is out of office, preferably well before 2021, his successors might restore the “head of state” role to the presidency. Or has Trump fully politicized the office of the president for all time?
The country can live without athletes hobnobbing in the Rose Garden. What will be harder, though, is repairing the damage that Trump’s toxic racism unleashed on the nation. A necessary part of overcoming his baleful legacy will be to look at America’s racial divisions squarely in the face and talk about them across racial lines. Reparations will need to be part of the discussion; visions about what reparations would entail differ, but acknowledging and addressing the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow must be part of lasting racial justice. As for the MAGA-hat wearers, the Tiki-torch marchers, and other purveyors of intolerance, they must be confronted at every turn — with hopes that they fade away with the passing of their generation.