The photographer's eye

April, 16, 2007
04/16/07
9:57
AM ET
If you grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood and played sports, the differences between the races were never more distinctly pronounced than on picture day.

Well, actually, those differences were most visible on the day the pictures were printed.

On almost all predominantly white basketball teams, the lone black player can never be seen well in the team photographs. You see eyes, you see teeth. You don't get much of a peek into his soul. I can't judge the team photographer. I can't remember who took the picture. But I'm betting it wasn't a racist act. It's just that the photographer in the nearly all-white school district wasn't used to taking pictures of anyone except white players. He didn't have much experience in lighting a black player for a photograph.

That's the view, anyway, from a white kid, years after the fact.

To the parents of the black kid, the picture in the school annual might not have been dismissed so easily.

It might have seemed as though their kid didn't count. Even at 20 points per game. He may as well have been listed as "not pictured."

It's one minor example of how blacks and whites might look at the same situation and see it from entirely different lights.

Lighting.

There was supposed to have been perfect lighting last week for the Jackie Robinson celebration. Sixty years to the day a white man, Branch Rickey, found the resolve to defy the bigots and let a black man play the nation's game, we would gather as one and celebrate how far we've come.

But first we had to take a few steps back. And then some people stepped sideways, and tripped all over themselves trying to be on the right side, the correct side.

Don Imus said what he said. And then he said he apologized for it. Remember, he's the same guy who decried racism during the campaign for the Tennessee senate seat in which Rep. Harold Ford was the victim of a negative television campaign ad. Imus has generally been an equal-opportunity offender when it comes to slinging insults. The context in which he said what he said (a political satire radio show) was largely lost because this time the insult got too personal. And the targets were not the high and mighty in the political world but young women. And not just any young women.

Journalist Gwen Ifill straightened that out for me on Sunday when she was interviewed by NBC's Tim Russert.

It wasn't so much what she said but how she said it. The look in her eyes.

Those of us inclined to think little of the botched high school basketball photo didn't understand how many blacks felt that it was their charge to be extremely protective of the Rutgers players. These are exemplary students and athletes and a personal insult directed toward them hurt like a knife to the heart. It was like protecting one's children.

But as a country we saw the episode in entirely different lighting.

The inability to see it from the other side cut both ways. I heard it countless times. A black person on television spoke of how upsetting it was that "white people see us all as pimps, hos and drug dealers." Which white people? Those people? You people? I don't see all black people that way and don't know any white people who do. And just as Don Imus doesn't speak for all white people, it's fair to say Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton don't speak for all black people. Me? I'm ready to hear from Chris Rock on the subject. At least he will be funny. Which is where it started. A joke. But as my friend (a black one, no less) Jesse Jones told me, "I think Imus should have just been fired for not being funny."

I nominate Frank Rich of the New York Times to speak for the white people.

The lighting problem may take a long while to correct. This is a country that was built on the backs of black slaves, a country that didn't allow blacks to have full voting rights until the 1960s. Imagine that -- black citizens could play baseball before they could vote. But even 1947 seems too late, particularly in the eyes of a child. I tried to tell my daughter Riley the Jackie Robinson story. She is 7 years old. As I related how "back then" a lot of white people didn't want the black players to play, Riley just stared at me in disbelief. In her mind, I was telling her an absolutely ridiculous story. How could it be that in the same time as her grandparents' lives, there existed a system I was describing? Finally, she just said, "That doesn't make any sense. Wouldn't they have just let the best players play? What kind of stupid rule was that?"

Riley has no lighting issues.

She does have one young black girl in her class. I like the girl. She's polite and funny. And I'm really pulling for her in one respect. A couple weeks ago the photographer came in to take school pictures. This guy has a great reputation. We've seen his work before. When the pictures come back it's like you can look right into the child's soul.

Black-and-white photos are his specialty.

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