It’s hard to know how to react to the recent events in Boston (or more specifically, in the bleachers at Fenway Park). While Adam Jones nor anyone else should ever be subjected to the type of derogatory remarks that he heard the other night, there is a statistical reality that in any random group of thirty or forty thousand people there are certain to be a few assholes, and that such folks are more likely to feel unencumbered by decency when alcohol and the excessive passion attached to sporting events are added to the mix. So we should pause a moment before saying that this incident is indicative of a pervasive problem. 

Still, we have several other African-American players corroborating that they have also been subject to this sort of treatment in Boston – enough, in fact, that they consider it unique among cities in which they play. We also have history; the most virulent protests against school busing for the purposes of integration in the ’70s occurred not in the deep South, but in Boston, Massachusetts. There are those who will tell you that those protests were in favor of neighborhood schools and against an intrusive federal government, but if you look at the archived news coverage or are old enough to remember, you see a lot of people who appear to be protesting simply because they don’t like black people. In Bill Russell’s autobiography, he talks about not being able to buy a house in several Boston neighborhoods at a time when he was the best player on a team that won 11 NBA championships. 

Again, we need to be vividly clear, Boston is a city of 700,000 people and a regional population of over eight million, so it would take an unrealistically cheery view of human nature to assume that there are no racists.  I have lived in Cleveland and Pittsburgh and have heard similar language from people in those cities – actually from people who I considered to be genuinely nice folks.  I have a late grandfather from the hills of West Virginia who told me when I was a little boy that he had a high opinion of black people – in fact, he told me, everyone should own one. 

We have evolved as a society to where saying things like that is simply unacceptable. So why did Adam Jones experience what he did the other night? Therein may lie the difference between Boston and other cities, and why Boston should subject itself to some soul-searching. While an entire city should not be condemned for the thoughts of, say one or two per cent of its residents, the harsh reality is that the man who used the slur against Jones did so in a social setting. 

For most of us, a social setting imposes a different filter on what we say and do than sitting at home on the sofa with our families or with friends we have known for long enough to be completely unguarded with. If you are with people that engender a high level of comfort, you are much more likely to share an unvarnished opinion on politics, race, sex, or religion than you are when you are with people whose reactions are more difficult to gauge. In the latter situation, you are more likely to assess whether your opinions will elicit a positive reaction before you share them. 

I have, on occasion, heckled major league baseball players and been part of groups where other people have heckled them. Nothing obscene or racist, just having fun and trying to get distract them from beating the team I was rooting for. Reggie Jackson once got so tired of hearing from I guy I was sitting with at the old stadium in Cleveland that he came over to the screen behind home plate and told the guy to suck on something that was not a popsicle. We didn’t heckle Reggie Jackson or anyone else because we hated them, or even because we really thought it would impact the outcome of the game. Rather, we did it because we thought the people around us would enjoy it; because when you make people laugh it enhances their opinion of you.

This is what should be so disturbing about the incident in Boston. Assuming that the guy who used the slur is a normal human being, we have to assume that he believed that the people with whom he was attending the game, as well as the dozens of people within hearing range, would respond positively to the slur, or at the very least that none of them would be offended enough to report him to security. We have to assume that he was completely comfortable exposing himself as a hateful racist to do it in a social setting among people that he had probably never met before. In fact, unless he was a sociopath, we can assume that he looked at the folks around him and figured that they would be cool with it. 

It turns out he was wrong, at least to some extent. A fan who threw a bag of peanuts, who may or may not have been the person who used the racial slur, was ejected from the stadium. Maybe he deluded himself about the sensitivities of his fellow bleacher occupants.  Maybe he was too drunk or too excited about the game to be thinking clearly about his actions or how they would be perceived. The following night Jones received a warm ovation from the fans at Fenway, which demonstrates that they wanted him to understand that they did not share the feelings that led to the incident the previous night. All of this is good, and the exposure of the incident should lead to some degree of reconciliation. But it should also encourage everyone in Boston, perhaps especially those who are not explicitly racist, to ask themselves if by not condemning racism when they see it they are in fact encouraging it.