View On Bonds A Simple Black And White Issue

By David J. Neal
Updated: May 15, 2007

MIAMI – We don’t trust us. And black light casts different shadows than white light.

That’s the intersection I keep crossing as I think about last week’s ESPN/ABC News poll on Barry Bonds and the career home run record chase. ”We” are black Americans and ”us” stands for the media.

The poll’s racial divide across four questions snagged all the attention. A huge majority of black fans, 74%, hope he breaks Hank Aaron’s record as opposed to 28% of whites. Only 37% of blacks believe Bonds knowingly took steroids while 76% think Bonds did wrong and knows it.

Just 34% of blacks think he has been treated fairly, as opposed to 61% of whites. Among those who believe Bonds has been treated unfairly, 66% of whites and 41 % of blacks believe it’s because of steroids. Only one percent of whites believe it’s because of race while 27% of blacks cite race as a factor.

Are black folks seeing something white folks aren’t? Of course.

They’re seeing a black man who is arrogant, but also smart, talented and aware of exactly how little he needs broad approval for success and riches. And they see one whose image has been projected onto our screens and pages through the prism of an overwhelmingly white sports media.

Taking that second part first, here’s a snapshot from Sunday’s ESPN program, The Sports Reporters: Two white men and one white woman discussing, in part, what the poll says about black attitudes. The only black person on the set, John Saunders, had to play the host’s role of track switchman on the conversational railroad.

Blacks see how that overwhelmingly white sports media continuously links Bonds and steroids/growth hormone/this year’s concoction while it generally looked the other way as Mark McGwire homered his way far past Roger Maris’ single-season record in 1998. Never mind that was more laziness in the face of the story that was hoisting baseball off the deck from the 1994 strike.

They see that same media try to justify their earlier laissez-faire reporting by counting McGwire’s first-ballot Hall of Fame rejection as full penalty. That presumes he’s Hall worthy, a big presumption. McGwire’s home run production buys his Cooperstown ticket, but a fat 23.2 percent of his career home runs came in 1998 and 1999.

As far as Bonds himself, he’s the current version of ”uppity.” He refuses to do any dances for that Cotton Club crowd of an American team sports audience. That kind of athlete always has a place in some black American hearts, especially in a DSL world with little time for faux toe scuffing humility that insults everyone.


Bonds is just the latest in a line that began a century ago (an era chronologically closer to legal slavery than illegal segregation) with world heavyweight champion Jack Johnson. At the time, Johnson reveled in being a big dark middle finger to white America. Blacks loved Johnson’s taunting dismantling of white opponents and lead-footed driving of newfangled automobiles most whites didn’t even own.

Blacks weren’t too crazy about Johnson sleeping with white women.

Just past the midpoint between Johnson and Bonds came Sonny Liston. Like Bonds, he was deeply suspicious of the media. They failed to believe the ex-con’s claims of police harassment, grasp his subtle street wit, and characterized him as subhuman (literally).

Like Bonds, he pursued a title some were hoping he would elude him, the heavyweight crown. With the civil rights movement raging, many blacks were happy that the most visible black man in the world was heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson, an introspective man who showed little animosity in or out of the ring and moved easily among liberal, educated whites.

But part of black America found Liston cool, an unsettling reminder to whites of where so many blacks had been, were at the time and the violent anger over it all. George Lois knew when he shot the famous December 1963 Esquire cover of a glowering Liston in a Santa Claus suit that he was presenting ”what white America feared the most,” he told in 2005.


Liston would have fared better as a rap-praised antihero of the late 1980s and early 1990s, as a cynical nihilism reclaimed a black working class that would champion Mike Tyson.

For the record I think Bonds used performance-enhancing drugs. I have never met Bonds. I wish the record would remain with Aaron because of what he went through early in his career as a young black prospect in Dixie-humming Jacksonville, and for what he went through as a fading star getting death threats as he closed on Babe Ruth’s home run mark.

Interesting how in all but Johnson’s case, it didn’t matter how much mainstream America despised these men or how much black America appreciated them. The scoreboard, the 10-count and the record book declared their rise and fall — in black and white.