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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Jayne: DeSantis adopts racist trope

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Page Editor
Published: June 24, 2023, 6:02am

As dog whistles go, this was a siren.

Florida governor and presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis was interviewed recently by Christian Broadcasting Network, and in the course of a discussion about baseball, he managed to embrace racist tropes that long have been lobbed at Black athletes.

“So I think that there’s kind of a place for everybody on a baseball team if you’re willing to work hard, if you’re willing to practice, and if you’re willing to hone your skills,” DeSantis said. “I kind of thought it was always a very democratic game, a very meritocratic game.

“Whereas I kind of viewed basketball as like these guys are just freaks of nature. They’re just incredible athletes. In baseball, you know, you have some guys that might not necessarily be the best athletes, but maybe they’ve got, you know, that slider that nobody can hit, or they have the skills that allow them to compete at the highest level.”

Now, there’s nothing blatantly racist about that. Race isn’t even mentioned. But if you are familiar with the history and the sociology of sports, you recognize the tropes that have been common since long before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line.

In throwing a wink and a nod at hard work and meritocracy and “freaks of nature,” DeSantis echoes the sentiments long used to keep Blacks out of the major leagues and prevent Blacks from being professional quarterbacks and denigrate athletes of color.

And it reminded me of my own experience. Going to watch my local high school basketball team for the first time as an 11-year-old, I remember being impressed with a small, quick guard during warmups. “He must be the best player,” I thought. But then the kid didn’t even get into the game.

The reason I thought he must be good? He was the only Black on the team. Even at that age, growing up in white suburbia, I had reached the conclusion that Blacks were superior athletes, rather than judging competitors as individuals.

Some 46 years later, I have outgrown that. But it took a while to recognize that we all have preconceived biases — and we all are damaged by politicians and commentators who are willing to feast on those biases for their personal gain.

Which is what DeSantis is doing. By drawing a contrast between baseball and basketball, DeSantis is talking about a professional league that is primarily white and Latino vs. one that is primarily Black. And he is blowing dog whistles that will perk up the ears of the supporters he is trying to court.

DeSantis is saying that those in Major League Baseball are there because they worked hard but those in the National Basketball Association are simply “freaks of nature.” For generations, critics have attempted to dismiss Black athletes as only athletes, while white athletes are more likely to earn praise for being a “smart player” or a “hard worker.”

But does any athlete work harder than LeBron James, who at the age of 38 is still one of the best players in the world? Has any athlete been more driven than Michael Jordan, who is called “homicidally competitive” by basketball historian Bill Simmons? Has any athlete been smarter or more team-oriented than Bill Russell, who won an Olympic gold medal, two national championships in college and 11 NBA titles as a player — including two as a player-coach?

It is an ancient trope, playing off the “shiftless Black” meme of yore. And it extends well beyond the world of sports.

If we can convince Americans that successful whites have worked hard and are smart, while successful Blacks simply won the genetic lottery (or benefited from government largesse), we can build policies around that stereotype. And we can foster resentment among those whites who are working hard but aren’t getting ahead.

Donald Trump, a trust fund baby who said he built his company off a “small loan of a million dollars” from his father, is a master at fostering this resentment. Now Trump Lite is trying the same approach.

And it isn’t difficult to hear the dog whistle.