THE BLOG

Birthers, Racism, Barack Obama and Hank Aaron

04/29/2011 05:17 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2011

The election of Barack Hussein Obama as the 44th President of the United States marked the first time in history that we voted an African American into the highest office in the land. History. Progress. America!

Since that epic night, we've learned that the historical nature of the last presidential election was not what we thought it was. Instead, what made that November day one for the ages is that it was the first time Americans would select a non-American as its commander in chief. In a race that pitted Panamanian John McCain against Kenyan Barack Obama, history would be made. Hail to the other!

What's wrong with this picture? It may be time for a national time out. Can we stop the madness now? Please.

The history of humankind is littered with attacks on "the other." You know who I'm talking about, the guy who's not from around here. He looks different and has a funny name. Never in our history has a president's claim to legitimacy been challenged in such an odd and persistent manner. And please, leave your evidence at home. We won't need any legal documents and other distractions to decide this one. Common sense? Nope. We won't need any of that either. Since when can a process based on logic and reason, with its obvious but boring conclusions, compete with a good old fashioned conspiracy theory that provides endless hours of 24/7 cable gabfest fun? Of course, it can't, so why bother.

Really? Is this any way to run "the world's greatest democracy?" We look more like The Greatest Show on Earth, which is of course the famous tagline for a circus!

Let's face it, in the spirit of hard ball politics there are those who will exploit any situation that will help further their political agendas. That doesn't necessarily make them racists, even if you find such crass tactics objectionable. So beyond politics at its most cynical, what is driving Birthermania? Could it possibly be that, gasp, the president is a black man? Many critics of Mr. Obama will be taking me to task for even suggesting such a thing. And in most cases those who doubt the president's place of birth may have no conscious connection to subconscious racist impulses that may be feeding their doubts. But all the denial in the world doesn't make reality go away.

Last summer my family visited the Baseball Hall of Fame in beautiful Cooperstown, New York. My 11-year-old daughter and I stood before the exhibit that chronicled Hank Aaron's quest to become the sport's home run king. Part of the exhibit is comprised of letters received by Hammerin' Hank as he moved closer to replacing Babe Ruth in the record books. Some of the letters are racially motivated death threats and other venom directed at a black man for the simple act of challenging a white man's record. Here's what Sports Illustrated said in a piece written in anticipation of the record being broken:

Is this to be the year in which Aaron, at the age of thirty-nine, takes a moon walk above one of the most hallowed individual records in American sport? Or will it be remembered as the season in which Aaron, the most dignified of athletes, was besieged with hate mail and trapped by the cobwebs and goblins that lurk in baseball's attic?

As my daughter stood slack-jawed in response to what she was reading, I attempted to provide historical context. No matter what I said, she found it hard to believe that someone would threaten to kill a man for the crime of hitting more home runs than the next guy. The notion completely assaulted her sense of empathy, fairness and reality. Such is the vile, monstrous and inhuman nature of racism laid bare. She took great comfort in her belief that we have progressed far beyond those times.

My reaction was somewhat different. I was glued to the TV on that magical night in 1974 when Aaron slugged his way to sole possession of the hallowed home run record. I still get goose bumps when I think of it. But last summer in Cooperstown, I was struck by the realization that if I'm still around to look back on that night, so too are the authors of the death threats that rocked my little girl's world.

Is it possible that those who once threatened Hank Aaron's life have seen the light? Could some of them have actually voted for Barack Obama? People change, don't they? But is it also possible that beliefs so strongly held and felt that they motivated a person to write of murder still persist today? And if so, might they drive a person to believe that an African American man is unfit to be president of the United States? If hitting home runs is a crime in the eyes of a racist, becoming leader of the free world must be off the charts as an offense.

Let me be as clear as possible when I say that I do not believe all birthers are racists.

Let me be equally clear when I say that objecting to the president's policy positions or his handling of the job is a racist activity. It is not.

But what is also crystal clear to me is that racism is a factor in the birther movement.

Let the angry denials commence. But as I suggested earlier, all the denials in the world can't make reality go away. And if we can't challenge each other to speak candidly about racism, that won't be going away any time soon either.