There are people in this country who will tell you that in 2014, we live in a post-racial America. We have a black president, the thinking goes, so therefore racism can't exist anymore.
Tell that to Hank Aaron, who is the subject of a new wave of racist hate mail this month, 40 years after he received floods of racist mail when he broke Babe Ruth's home-run record in 1974. The calendar may have a different year on it, and methods of sending racist prose might have changed — it can be emailed now — but the sentiment is unfortunately the same.
"Hank Aaron is a scumbag piece of (expletive) (racial slur)'' a man named Edward says in an e-mail to the Braves front office and obtained by USA TODAY Sports.
Edward invokes the epithet five times in four sentences, closing with, "My old man instilled in my mind from a young age, the only good (racial slur) is a dead (racial slur)."
The Braves have been besieged by hundreds of letters, e-mails and phone calls deriding Aaron for his comments made to USA TODAY Sports.
Marion calls Aaron a "racist scumbag.'' Ronald won't attend another Braves' game until Aaron is fired. Mark calls Aaron a "classless, racist.'' David says that he will burn Aaron's I Had A Hammer autobiography.
All this happens within the context of baseball's current struggle to bring more black players into the game and Aaron's own personal history with racism in baseball. Baseball has just 67 black players on MLB teams, according to USA Today, that's 7.8% of the league, down from a high of 18.7% in 1981. The league has worked recently to increase those numbers, yet they haven't jumped by much.
Aaron, meanwhile, isn't baseball's foremost civil rights icon, that's Jackie Robinson. But when Aaron broke Babe Ruth's home-run record in 1974, it was such a divisive moment that were snipers at the stadium, armed and ready in case someone tried to harm Aaron. That's the sort of history he brings into baseball conversations about race.
So what did Aaron do recently to revive the ire of 40 years ago? Well, on the eve of the 40th anniversary of his historic homer, he told Nightengale that he still holds on to the racist letters he got back in 1974 to remind him what the world was like then. Aaron, 80, says he looks around today and it's not as different as people might think. This is what Aaron said earlier in the month:
"We are not that far removed from when I was chasing the record. If you think that, you are fooling yourself. A lot of things have happened in this country, but we have so far to go. There's not a whole lot that has changed. We can talk about baseball. Talk about politics. Sure, this country has a black president, but when you look at a black president, President Obama is left with his foot stuck in the mud from all of the Republicans with the way he's treated.
"We have moved in the right direction, and there have been improvements, but we still have a long ways to go in the country. The bigger difference is that back then they had hoods. Now they have neckties and starched shirts."
If you boil it down, Aaron's basic point was that racism still exists in America. And people who were upset about that figured the best way to respond was to send racist email directed at him and/or call him a racist?
That's sad, though not all that surprising, because Hank Aaron is right. This, obviously, is not a post-racial America.
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