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As a Red Sox fan, what happened to Adam Jones sickens me

Face the truth, we don’t live in postracial America

You can never fully put yourself in someone else’s shoes. But every so often, a moment comes along that allows you to temporarily slip them on for size. This week, I have a slightly better idea of what it must be like to be ashamed, depressed and fearful that an entire people will be labeled a certain way, even though it’s a tiny percentage who give everyone a bad name.

It’s far from the perfect analogy, but it’s how I’m feeling as a white guy and a lifelong Boston Red Sox fan. Checking my phone Tuesday morning, I got sick to my stomach reading that Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones, one of the dwindling number of African-American players in major league baseball, was subjected to racist taunts and other indignities from some folks in the stands at my beloved Fenway Park.

Hurled at Jones on Monday night were several N-words and a bag of peanuts. The white guy who tossed the peanuts was ejected. There is video showing him aiming for Jones. But no one is sure whether the racist loudmouth(s) who shouted the epithet was also tossed out of the park.

Before last night’s game, Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts tweeted to the Sox faithful. “Fact: I’m black too. Literally stand up for @SimplyAJ10 tonight and say no to racism.” So when Jones stepped up to the plate in the top of the first inning, fans’ clapping built into a standing ovation, Red Sox pitcher Chris Sale stepped off the mound to let Jones savor the moment, and Jones acknowledged the kindness of the crowd.

But Jones said before the game that it’s not a standing ovation he desires. He just wants to be treated as normal. “Just keep the racial stuff out of it,” he said. “Boo me. Tell me I suck … but be respectful of where you’re at. You’ve got little kids here. You hear this kind of thing. I’ve got two little boys. How do I explain this thing to them?”

Only last September, Jones called baseball “a white man’s game” when he defended San Francisco Giants quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem.

The Boston Red Sox apologized to Jones and the entire Orioles organization, saying the team has “zero tolerance for such inexcusable behavior, and our entire organization and our fans are sickened by the conduct of an ignorant few … any spectator behaving in this manner forfeits his/her right to remain in the ballpark and may be subject to further action.”

There’s an acute sensitivity in Boston about racism. Ask former major league first baseman Tony Clark. Like many other African-American players, Clark experienced his share of racial taunts when he played for the Red Sox and other teams. He’s now executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association.

“It should go without saying that the type of behavior displayed toward Adam Jones at Fenway Park is unacceptable, unfortunate and should not be tolerated on any level,” said Clark. “Sadly, however, racist acts and behavior continue to plague our society, and our ballparks are certainly not immune. We must continue to work together to deter this type of behavior and get serious about educating people about its deleterious impact. …”

Only a night after the Jones incident, a white Red Sox fan in the stands at Fenway summoned team security when a nearby fan, also white, reportedly directed a variant of the N-word toward a Kenyan woman who had sung the National Anthem.

The Red Sox identified the man, ejected him and banned him for life from Fenway.

“I’m here to send a message, loud and clear, that the behavior, the language, the treatment of others that you’ve heard about and read about is not acceptable,” said Red Sox president Sam Kennedy.

I’ve been a Red Sox fan since I first caught the bug in the early 1960s, witnessing my grandfather with a transistor radio fixed to his ear and listening to Curt Gowdy call the games. But it took me a while to become fully aware of the team’s checkered racial history. In 1959, the Red Sox were the last of the original franchises to integrate, 12 years after Jackie Robinson broke into the majors, although they held what some called a sham tryout in 1945 for three Negro League stars, including Robinson. In 1949, the Red Sox declined the opportunity to sign a guy named Willie Mays.

In 1986, former Red Sox outfielder Tommy Harper, then a Red Sox coach, sued the team after getting fired for criticizing the Yawkey family ownership for adopting a whites-only Elks Club in the team’s former spring training venue of Winter Haven, Florida, as its unofficial watering hole. Harper, an African-American, alleged that as far back as 1967, the team was distributing passes to the segregated social club to only white players. The suit was settled out of court, and the Yawkey Family Trust sold the team in 2002. Two years later, under new ownership, the Sox won their first World Series championship in 86 years.

Beyond Red Sox history, it’s fair to say Boston has had a turbulent racial past. On my first day as a summer intern at the hometown public radio station in the mid-1970s, I was given audiotape to edit of the hearings on racial unrest in the city that followed a judge’s mandate to bus students in order to achieve racial balance in schools. It was a tense time.

Forty-odd years later, racism has hardly been extinguished in Boston, or any other corner of the country. We don’t live in postracial America. Far from it. As Renee Graham, an African-American columnist for The Boston Globe wrote about the Jones incident, “It speaks to the layers-deep racism that has become as much a part of the city’s national image as clam chowder and winning sports teams. What happened to Jones does not surprise people of color, but it breaks our hearts.”

Your mind immediately goes back to the taunts and indignities Robinson suffered as the first black player to integrate the major leagues. Seventy years later, why must we still endure this?

It’s a question that Adam Jones, for one, must be asking. As he said before Tuesday night’s game, “Walk in my shoes, you’ll understand.”

Richard L. Harris spent 19 years as Senior Producer of NIGHTLINE with Ted Koppel. Harris also served on NPR's diversity committee as Director of Afternoon Programming.