This photo is here because its colours incidentally match our header--not because Johnny Oduya is in it.
A month ago, I wrote an article discussing the Atlanta Thrashers' acquisition of black players over the past year and a half. I argued that, not only had they built a roster with the largest percentage of black players in the NHL, but they had done so intentionally, with marketing in mind. Needless to say, it was a contentious thesis, and I got some heat.
I expected heat. Race is a topic that makes people oversensitive, accusatory, defensive, unreasonable, and blind, among other adjectives. Many people don't engage it near enough to talk about it reasonably. For example: people don't understand that perfect equality is a little harder to accomplish when one group is trying to claw its way up from years of oppression and the other is reluctantly ceding ground when it wants to. People don't realize that active, blatant racism--segregation, racial epithets, full-on hatred--is still very much alive in some parts of North America, because they don't live there. Some people don't even understand how the racial lines are drawn. Commenters told me the Thrashers' black players aren't even black--they're half-black. "Unfortunately, they have white moms," one said. Please. Good luck telling that to the doorman at a segregated nightclub. I'm only half-black. Why can't I go halfway in?
Furthermore, far too many conversations about race end with one person being labeled a racist. People are so afraid of this dangerous accusation that they avoid the subject altogether. Previous attempts to point out the Thrashers' strategy fizzled in silly accusations of racism simply for noticing, because that's unfortunately how racism works now. Color blindness is the recommended policy, and while it's not a good one (ignorance is never the cure), those who don't adhere to it are often run out of town for seemingly adhering to its presumed opposite: super duper racism to the max. It's a false dichotomy. Is it really so difficult to notice, and then not hate?
Apparently, yes. As such, race is a thorny issue. The Thrashers' story is fascinating and engaging, but it's difficult to discuss without using conversation-ending buzzwords like "exploit," as Thrashers GM Rick Dudley did in denying everything. I felt that mainstream writers and hockey people would have a hard time even broaching the subject unless they were responding to somebody that had already made the necessary explicit claims. Then you're just reacting, not noticing. If it sounds stupid, that's because it is. But consider the title of Jeff Klein's article: Thrashers Don't See Race, Just Opportunity. How did they see opportunity if they didn't see race? The line the race conversation forces people to toe is not only ridiculous, it's outside the realm of common sense.
Sidenote: Klein called us "the blogosphere," but don't feel bad we didn't get named. Feel bad for the other bloggers who thought they were part of the blogosphere. Sorry, guys, it's only us now.
This is the way the Thrashers have to play it. I never claimed that they were getting black players without considering their talent or their fit in the lineup. That would be "ludicrous," another word Dudley used. But, if a player happens to be black, and they just happened to acquire him, and this just happens to happen more frequently than at any other time in the history of the NHL in one of the blackest cities in America and the soulless marketing department just happens to notice, well, that's just happenstance. No racism here. Just a happy coincidence. Right? The nature and prevalence of the colour blindness argument forces the Thrashers to feign ignorance at the same time they're so conveniently savvy to start advertising on urban radio stations and magazines. Are you going to tell me the Thrashers just found out about their Atlantan African-American media? No, they knew about it beforehand, and they also knew they didn't have the personnel to utilize that stream of marketing. Incidentally, they acquired 20% of the black players in the NHL.
I don't mind Dudley's refutation. More than anything, it's unfortunate that what he said was what he had to say. I got heat and I'm nobody. Imagine the heat he'd get. The Thrashers would be finished if somebody inside their camp were to admit that, as seems apparent to me, this plan was hatched shortly after they realized they were going to draft Evander Kane. Their social awareness would be misconstrued as racial "exploitation" at a time when colour blindness is policy, and suddenly, they'd be alienated by the very community they're trying so hard to reach. Rick Dudley did the right thing in denying everything.
But forgive me if I think he just winked.
Other notes: you should really be following us on Twitter; and thanks to Puck Daddy for actually naming us in his piece on the subject.