An ex-South Sider friend of mine tells the story about his uncle, who found out he'd gotten a bookie and started gambling on football. At a family party he called the kid over, and whispered into his ear one piece of friendly advice.
"Never bet on a nigger quarterback."
Startled, all the young man could think to ask was, "Is it okay to bet against one?"
"No," the uncle shook his head solemnly. "He'll fuck ya either way."
That story has always struck me as emblematic of a certain kind of racism, the northern kind, the urban kind--the Chicago kind: "I don't hate blacks, I hate niggers. And I know the difference." The kind that knows it's racist, but that thinks it's just being realistic, for survival's sake.
Tuesday I thought of this kind of racism when I heard the politically circumspect Tiger Woods make a rare political comment. Asked on CNBC about the election of Obama, he said, "I think it's absolutely incredible. He represents America. He's multiracial. I was hoping it would happen in my lifetime. My father was hoping it would happen in his lifetime, but he didn't get to see it. I'm lucky enough to have seen a person of color in the White House."
How would his father Earl have felt about Obama's election? "He would have cried," Woods said. "Absolutely. No doubt about it."
More interesting was the way he said it. He said it all realquick, as if he was breaking a seal of some kind and he wanted to reseal it before all the air got out. And he didn't reveal whether he cried, maybe because he might have had to break that seal for good, and say why (or why not).
I also noted that as he made the comments his face betrayed no sense of his own part, however small, in the phenomenon of Obama's election. There was no sign that he considers that he might have made a contribution to making American society more receptive to the idea of a black man towering unapologetically over a white man's world, might have convinced some Americans that a black man could attain massive power, wealth and prestige and not throw it in white Americans' face.
Of course you can argue that Obama could have gotten elected Woods or no Woods.
You can say Michael Jordan was a racially non-threatening mega-star before Woods. But then, you can say Sammy Davis, Jr. was a racially non-threatening mega-star before Woods, and you know Obama wouldn't have gotten elected in the 1960s. Jordan was a lot of things, but in their their own native jock-speak, Woods clearly "took it to the next level."
You can say that lots of Americans still begrudge Woods his single-minded, murderous intensity, predicting every time he makes a life change like getting married or having a child--any time he does something normal and human--his dominance will dissipate. Yes, but over the years lots of these haters have been transformed into Tiger-mad fans.
You can say that Woods pissed off as may people as he pleased when he refused to take Golf Channel's bubble head announcer Kelly Tilghman to task when her cultural ignorance led her to joke that Woods' hapless competition ought to "lynch him in a back alley." And yes, some blacks criticized Woods for not speaking out against what they deemed to be hate speech. But I think he made a hell of a lot more powerful impression on whites, who saw Woods with a white woman's fate in the palm of his black hand. And they saw him act generously and, to their minds, fairly, dismissing her comments as a non-issue and saving her career.
It's impossible to know for sure what Woods has done over the last decade to soften up white America for a black presidential candidate with similar qualities: calm, confidence, intelligence, good looks, a brilliant smile and an unmistakable and sometimes awesome air of confidence about him.
But it's hard not to wonder about the effect of Tiger Woods--let alone the future effect of Barack Obama--on South Side uncles, and the quarterbacks they bet on.