Fans View Bonds Via Racial Prism

By Ted Miller
Updated: May 8, 2007

SEATTLE — A poll by ABC News and ESPN shows that black and white Americans view Barry Bonds and his assault on Hank Aaron’s home run record differently.

The results will annoy a lot of white people, a predictable response to which some black folks will respond: Good.

According to the poll, black baseball fans are nearly three times as likely as white fans to root for Bonds to break Aaron’s record (74% to 28%). Only 37% of blacks believe Bonds used steroids, while 76% of whites think he did.

46% of blacks say Bonds has been treated unfairly versus just 25% of whites. Of those fans of both races who think Bonds has been treated unfairly, only one percent of whites attribute that unfairness to race compared to 27% of blacks.

There has to be something we can learn from this, even if we prefer to stubbornly sit inside our impenetrable worldview bailiwicks, where opposing opinions are only the products of stupidity, immorality or greed.

So what do these poll results mean?

They say less about Bonds than they do about us. As a subject who illustrates racial divides, Bonds is largely incidental, much like O.J. Simpson was in 1995. These poll results reveal more about how differently whites and blacks view the context of an unfolding historical event with a controversial black man as the main character.

First off, few blacks really believe Bonds never took steroids, despite 36% saying so in the poll (call it an overwhelming, though unscientific, impression gathered from various conversations). Savvy poll respondents often don’t say what they think. They break down the question and answer in a way intended to support their agenda.

If a magical being suddenly appeared and announced he would produce irrefutable proof of whether Bonds did or didn’t take performance-enhancing drugs, how many of that 36% would rush their opinion to a Vegas bookie? Please.

This isn’t to say the 36% is stupid or full of it. Their intention isn’t to answer the question. It’s to protest the process by which Bonds became a pariah. By announcing that, in effect, they won’t believe Bonds took steroids until they see a needle sticking out of his rear end with their own two eyes, they are sending a message — one of racial solidarity, one that asserts their belief in the continuing prevalence of institutionalized racism and one of stubborn resistance to a system that has railroaded so many in the past.

And if that tweaks some white people, so be it.

Remember how the Simpson verdict revealed a similar opinion divide based on race? The post-trial celebration in the black community was far more about Simpson beating an oppressive system than guilt or innocence.

To those who believe that perspective irrational, watch the HBO documentary “The Trials of Darryl Hunt,” about a young black man wrongfully convicted of rape and murder in 1984 who spent 19 years in jail, 10 of which came after he had been cleared by DNA evidence. It will make you cry.

When many white people see a mountain of evidence against Bonds, they say “guilty” without reservation. Then they consider how much steroids bother them, factor in Bonds’ loutish personality and decide their feelings toward his home run chase. When black people see the same thing, they question the messenger and can’t help but notice another black guy has been singled out for ostracism.

They see a lone black man, even if he is the star of stars, being forced in his greatest moment of glory to shoulder nearly all the outrage for baseball’s massive steroids problem. That racial component defines the context for them when they fill out their questionnaire.

Again, people know what’s up with opinion polls, and they certainly are not above using their vote to manipulate the results in order to voice their dissenting worldview.

White people also do this. Here’s an example: A 2000 Mason-Dixon poll found 66% of whites believe the Confederate flag symbolizes Southern heritage and just 21% describe it as a symbol of racism, while 77% of blacks believe the flag is a symbol of racism, and nine percent characterize it as a symbol of Southern heritage.

As a child of the South, I will tell you — without an iota of doubt — the vast majority of white folks who celebrate and support the display of the Confederate flag are racists. They use the politically safe “Southern heritage” defense to hide their primary motivation: to intimidate and aggrieve black folks.

Clearly, black and white folks still have a lot to work out.

As for Bonds, it’s nearly impossible to find a kind word written or said about him. He’s probably the greatest hitter of all time, but to many (including me) his homer record will be tainted.

Still, instead of merely smirking over these poll results, it might be meaningful for white people to shake off their bad feelings about Bonds and, if only for a moment, entertain an alternative view of the entire, awkward spectacle.

Who knows? Once outside our impenetrable worldview bailiwicks, we might learn something.