Can anyone still recall the hazy afterglow following the presidential election -- that orgy of premature self-congratulation about suddenly becoming a "post racial" society?
That prematurity was on full display the other night in the women's semifinal match at the U.S. Open between Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters. Clijsters's thrilling return to the women's circuit was overshadowed by an intemperate outburst by Williams, who menacingly gestured to the line judge, who had just called a foot fault on a second serve which brought the game to match point. Williams exploded in a profanity laced-tirade. You don't have to be a lip reader to see she yelled that she was going to shove that bright yellow tennis ball up the line judge's butt.
Okay, let's acknowledge that this was not Serena's greatest moment, that she lost her temper -- it was match point in the semi-finals, after all -- and became both unhinged and enraged. And Serena is one big, strong woman. And a big strong black woman.
Those two last points, though, seem crucial. Serena's outburst -- and the rule-based, draconian penalty that cost her the match -- were both racial and gendered. Let me be clear: I am not saying that the call was overtly, intentionally, racist or sexist. But the context for both the line judge's reaction and the chair umpire's call depended on Serena being a strong black woman.
Ask yourself this: would the line judge have felt so threatened had she been yelled at by perky, pretty little Melanie Oudin, all 5 foot 6 of her bouncy teenage self?
How about a white man? White men can express anger and outrage -- indeed, they're supposed to. It's one of the few emotional men are allowed to express -- and we express it often, and often without penalty. And sometimes we go even further. Don't get mad, the saying goes, get even.
Hey, don't take my word for it. See for yourself. One of the pleasures of the rainouts and rain delays that marred the end of the tournament schedule was that CBS and ESPN rebroadcast some "classic" matches from earlier eras, matches in which the ever-bratty Jimmy Connors' rants and the once-bratty now elder statesman and superb TV commentator John McEnroe's outbursts were greeted with whopping rallying cries and often supportive crowd reactions. Check it out here and here.
Line judges didn't typically feel threatened by Marat Safin -- and he's 6 foot 4! (Safin broke 48 tennis racquets in 1999 alone.)
And watch Jimmy Connors in his famous 4th round match at the 1991 Open, when he twice explodes at the chair umpire (who seemed more bemused than afraid).
Note that Connors was not assessed any penalty, and went on to win the match. The crowd went wild.
Yes, Serena lost her temper, yelled and cursed at the line judge. Bad sportsmanship. Very bad. But the line judge said she felt her life had been threatened. (A charge Serena instantly and vehemently denied.)
Let's face it: it's different when black people get angry. Even black men. Being a 58-year-old Harvard professor with a cane didn't protect Henry Louis Gates when he lost his cool. And Joe Wilson sure felt entitled to express his outrage at that uppity black guy -- except that uppity black guy lecturing him happened to be the President. Being the Commander in Chief of the world's most powerful military didn't protect President Obama either.
Nor did being arguably the best female tennis player in the world protect Serena. She was a furious black woman with a weapon. Serena was neither ladylike nor did she "act white" and keep her cool.
The fans booed Serena, as they surely would have if President Obama had ever taken the bait and replied to relentless race-baiting in anything but an even-tempered, even-cadenced, tone. But make no mistake: those same fans found John McEnroe's antics "cute" and Jimmy Connors' constant tirades energizing, and plenty of other white male players just too tightly wound.
Memo to Gael Monfils, Jo-Wilifred Tsonga and James Blake: do not ever lose your temper. Ever. Memo to Venus Williams: double ditto.
America's post-racialist glow only lasts as long as you stay more serene than Serena.