The ‘comma effect’ on bias and Black lives
That grammatical pause helps explain how racism thrives
he comma effect.
It shapes the nuance of bias in America. A person is described and we look at the qualifiers that follow the comma: The victim of vigilante justice, who smoked weed in junior high. The man who shot up a movie theater, but was an altar boy at his church.
That comma wields great power. It can humanize, it can demonize, and although it takes a short breath to bring it to life, it can make a life lost seem inevitable or, most cruelly, a necessity. It is justice working in hindsight, hinting to us in code whether that grave outcome is deserved or if we should be sympathetic. Yet what comes after that comma often drips with bias in explaining what happened or what should happen.
That grammatical pause helps explain how racism can grow, even thrive, generations after slavery ended. It is the jump ball where the referee throws the ball slightly to one side, sometimes intentionally. It is the fastball on the edge of the strike zone where the right call is blurred so completely that bias is all that is left to decide whether it is a ball or strike.
But in this game of race in America, the stakes are truly life and death. The rules state that three strikes and you are out, but power is the true determinant of how those rules are enforced. And power is selective. Some get more than three strikes, others strike out before they even get up to the plate. And maybe worst of all, some get up to bat and every pitch is called a strike no matter where it crosses the zone.
In that case, you better start swinging. Assuming you even have a bat.
Consider Doug Glanville, comma, the ballplayer.
Draft day changed my status in 1991 from a 20-year-old college baseball player to a professional. “Ballplayer” now carried weight and elevated my station in life. Once that comma pointed to becoming a professional, it might as well have been an exclamation point.
The phone rang only 15 minutes after the draft started. This was a good sign. The earlier the phone rings on draft day, the higher you are on the draft board. I picked up the receiver in my parents’ home in Teaneck, New Jersey, and in glancing at the clock on the wall, I knew I had to be the top selection for the team on the other line. The Chicago Cubs had chosen me 12th overall. My stock had risen even with the ballplayer label about to adorn my placard. Now I had become:
Doug Glanville, the first-round pick.
As a Black man in America, despite the ennobling narrative that is often told, Major League Baseball wasn’t saving me. In fact, part of the ensuing negotiation emphasized my return to college after the baseball season on their dime so I could complete my senior year at the University of Pennsylvania. My parents, both first-generation college graduates, insisted on this outcome, and so did I. I wanted to honor the sacrifices they made to make it possible, and I was only one semester away from an engineering degree that had required significant work. I also hoped that a new comma could save me from certain indignities in life:
Doug Glanville, Ivy League engineering graduate.
But I was already suspicious of these labels. They can stoke elitism. They were still only a veneer when it came to color, even if someone holding the cards decided certain achievements made me a better person, that I was one of the “good” ones. But assessing the character of anyone, without that first impression in which race and all of the biases that come with it is front and center, is a tall order. An Ivy League degree doesn’t help us know the core of a person. But in the American game, checking certain boxes is sold as a grant of immunity or equal access, pushing the content of our character or at least the accouterments of achievement to the front of the discussion so that no racial identity comma would be needed.
Despite growing up in a town that voluntarily desegregated in the mid-’60s, I had enough experiences before the phone call on draft day to know my college degree would not be enough to counter the first adjective that the world sees when I enter the room:
Doug Glanville, Black man.
My parents made this a source of pride. My mother was our in-house activist. Setting up cottage parties and opening up Saturday schools to teach Black history and SAT prep. She was a unifier too, bringing people in our diverse town together to forge understanding, while always whispering to me about the subtleties of racism. As a young boy, I knew about unfairness well before I connected the dots to race. I remember being detained on a field trip while in New York City after getting separated from my class and being accused of breaking into the museum we were visiting. I remember a summer camp coach nastily kicking me off of the tennis court for wearing jeans, while the next day he let a blond-haired girl play in jeans right in front of me. It was less painful to chalk these up as favoritism, or security concerns, and much harder to dig deeper and see how race is always in play.
Still, I quickly learned about the explicit acts of racism that eliminated all ambiguity about intent. Walking home from elementary school in my idyllic hometown, I went by a house that I passed every single day. But this time, a young white man was outside on the porch. He flipped open his switchblade and dared me, the “N-word,” to come over to him. I kept walking and thankfully, he never got out of his chair. Would this guy have killed me, a fourth grader, because I was Black?
Even with knowledge and awareness, I still hoped that my baseball comma would make me less threatening or less at risk in my own life. Maybe my fame would grant me more bandwidth. My parents knew better. They were skeptical from the first day pro scouts came calling. My mom’s aunts and uncles mostly settled in Philadelphia. They were big baseball fans, but also held a long-standing grudge against the Phillies for how they treated Jackie Robinson. My family was happy on draft day, but they also issued a number of warnings about the “good ol’ boy” system that props up baseball. I understood that, but I also loved the game and hoped that would be enough to endure whatever came my way.
We negotiated with the Cubs for weeks and finally, after I signed and reported to minor league baseball, my career began in earnest. I did not get the royal first-round treatment, maybe because of my tough negotiations. Instead of heading to Chicago to meet the city, I was sent to Niagara Falls, New York, to meet the minor league team on the road. Not long after the road trip ended, I was called into the office.
I could feel the strangeness in the air as I sat down.
There were four baseballs lined up on my coach’s desk. And the conversation went something like this …
“Are these your baseballs?”
“Well we don’t appreciate you stealing our baseballs.”
“We found them in your locker and all baseballs are property of this team and the Chicago Cubs.”
My mind was racing. Why are they talking about “stealing”? Why would I steal these baseballs and then leave them in my locker in plain view? I guess they had a problem with people taking baseballs home — in the minors there is a limited supply — but why the dramatic tribunal?
I had to figure out a way to call them out while respecting my coaches and not fully embarrassing them or expressing my pure outrage. So I played detective.
“Once again, those are my baseballs, and if I were stealing them, why would I leave them on the top shelf of my locker so that you could see that I was stealing them?”
That did not go over well.
Then I got specific.
“Let’s look at the labels on these baseballs.”
None were from this minor league or the Cubs. There was an NCAA ball, a Cape Cod ball, a ball from home and a typical one you would buy in a store. All with my initials on them. Their first reaction was that I “could have just written my initials on their baseballs, too.”
The comma effect exacerbates the doubt that comes with being Black in America. It is reinforced in the faux gray area that is still black and white under scrutiny. The kind of scrutiny that reveals that this neutral zone is never truly neutral. That for a Black person, it can turn a simple issue around a shortage of baseballs into a hearing, not a conversation.
Well, cross off Doug Glanville, the ballplayer, as a way to get the benefit of the doubt during a criminal inquiry. That was clearly not enough. Maybe when I become a big leaguer …
Off the field, being Black is a form of omnipresence, the inability to be invisible. It is the inability to just focus on your job, the inability to just “stick to sports” because you still have to play them in a black uniform, one that does not come off when you put the grass-stained uniform in the laundry. It is also a source of pride and unity, a shared experience in the world that can create solidarity. But this comes with a simplistic way to be categorized, perpetually and dangerously fitting the generic “description” of a suspect or the worst-case imaginations of white society.
It took me time in my professional path to know how to embrace the Black man after that comma. It required patience to be able to celebrate being both individual and part of a collective body, even when your American individuality is always absorbed into the collective with or without your consent. A reminder of the constant fight to define yourself beyond the racialization of society’s scapegoating. I found I did have some say in what came next.
One of the biggest commas ever written in the Black experience was added in the codification of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. On the heels of the Emancipation Proclamation, which strategically abolished slavery in only the Southern states in rebellion, President Abraham Lincoln and Congress sought a pragmatic approach to end slavery and unite the nation after the bitter Civil War. The comma was part of the compromise.
The amendment reads:
Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
That comma before “except” was used to rebuild the white South, a concession for the inconvenience of stripping them of their unpaid labor force. It sat in the hands of the enforcers of the law who decide what was a crime and what was not. We know enforcement of the law was used to essentially reenslave Black people with impunity, through Black codes and inescapable cycles of sharecropping.
We see this in the retroactive justification in a whole host of situations. We were jogging, renting, walking, mowing the lawn, shoveling snow or getting a cab. But we were “suspicious.” And that suspicion introduces the most powerful comma of all. The post-mortem comma, used to justify a deadly use of force. This punctuation is weaponized, unleashed retroactively to avoid introspection and accountability. It has the effect of making our deaths appear like an afterthought, or even mandatory out of a need for law and order.
And death is only one result. For the living, it fans indignity and invites other forms of nonlethal subjugation and pain.
But Doug Glanville, the major leaguer, would change that, right?
My professional baseball career worked out pretty well. I added all kinds of commas that in theory would place me in a bubble of racial bliss: 1,100 hits, millionaire, nice neighborhood. I played almost 15 seasons until I retired in 2005. There were many examples of moments when that comma absorbed entire communities under the same banner — Phillies and Cubs fans, Ivy League alumni and baseball lovers, entire cities in playoff moments. I saw the beauty of sport and its potential to unify and teach society about the power of team.
In the right circumstances, that pinstripe uniform was a refuge, even as I knew it couldn’t protect me from all racial animus. It couldn’t explain what life was like when I headed home and wasn’t recognized as a big leaguer, facing the Lexus dealer who would not let me test-drive a car because he had “lost the keys.”
When I retired on June 25, 2005, I was already engaged to be married and unsure of what was next in my professional life. Philadelphia offered a lot from my baseball career and my alma mater was nearby. But I was not sure how the world would view me when I took off that uniform. Now, I was:
Doug Glanville, the retired ballplayer.
But still I had some sway, some insulation, right? An ability to get the benefit of the doubt?
On a snowy day, I went out to shovel my driveway. The temperature was hovering around zero degrees, notable because in these circumstances I know I am zero degrees of separation from the Black man in the mug shot, the man embedded in America’s fear of itself.
I look up and see a police SUV pull up across the street. It is from the bordering town, not the city where I live, an unusual phenomenon in an area that is so provincial. The officer gets out of his cruiser. He’s a young white man, and he strolls across the street toward me as I stand up tall in my driveway. I tensely await the engagement. Is he lost? I have no ID, I haven’t shaved in days, so concern is rising, but I would find out as soon as he finishes crossing the street. Without introduction or explanation, his first words were …
“So, trying to make a few extra bucks shoveling people’s driveways around here?”
Of course. Still Doug Glanville, Black man.
Retirement is over. Now I’m adding a new comma.
Doug Glanville, writer.