Race is again proving to be the sharpest dividing line of the Trump era.
This week, President Trump and conservatives went after ESPN, the cable sports network, for comments made by Jemele Hill, who hosts one of the flagship SportsCenter shows.
It all started on Monday when Hill, who is black, tweeted in reply to someone else: "Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/ other white supremacists."
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called Hill's comment a "fireable offense."
Then, Trump himself weighed in on Twitter, calling on ESPN to "apologize for untruth" and claiming the network "is paying a really big price for its politics (and bad programming). People are dumping it in RECORD numbers."
There's evidence that ESPN is not losing subscribers because of its politics. And it is very unusual for a White House to use the bully pulpit to call for the firing of someone at a private company because that person said something it didn't like. (An anti-Trump superPAC has brought an ethics complaint against Sanders, citing federal law that states executive branch employees cannot act "with the intent to influence, solely on the basis of partisan political affiliation, an employment decision or employment practice of any private entity.")
But conservatives and some journalists even within the network have been unsettled by what they see as an increasingly liberal bent from the network's commentators without balancing their perspectives.
The network said Hill's comments were inappropriate and that it had talked to her. Hill put out a statement via Twitter apologizing — not for the content of the tweets but for their being seen as a reflection of ESPN.
The network's public editor, Jim Brady, wrote Friday that he thought the tweets were ill-considered. For those who believe Twitter and the broadcast are separate, Brady points out that ESPN doesn't view it that way. As at other networks, public-facing employees' Twitter feeds are considered reflective of the company they work for. And plenty of people have been fired for inflammatory comments on the medium.
The irony isn't lost that the president is one person who hasn't been punished for his own incendiary tweets.
Lacking "diversity of thought"?
Brady sees what happened as a bigger problem at ESPN. "If you consume as much of ESPN's content as I have for the past 22 months, it seems clear the company leans left," he added. "I don't think anyone ever made an executive decision to go that route as much as the personalities the network has promoted into high-profile positions tend to be more liberal, and as their voices are amplified, the overall voice has shifted with it."
ESPN veteran Bob Ley, host of the vaunted Outside the Lines program, told Brady in December, when Brady was exploring how ESPN was trying to adapt to current social and political upheaval, "We've done a great job of diversity. But the one place we have miles to go is diversity of thought."
Not too long ago, ESPN was facing criticism for its lack of diversity. There weren't very many female anchors or people of color in front of the camera. And there certainly weren't many black women on the air in prominent positions.
So the network set out to change that. Hill's show, SC6, also known on the network as The Six, was part of that change. She hosts the show with Michael Smith, a former Boston Globe reporter, who is also black.
The show is different — intentionally so. It's not the standard SportsCenter of highlights mixed in with anchor quips. Smith and Hill have a natural chemistry, express their opinions and mix in pop culture. That's what ESPN wanted, and it knew what it was getting with Hill. She's not someone in the traditional journalism mold; she has opinions, writes about them and expresses them on-air sometimes while questioning professional athletes on her program or reacting to what she just heard.
She has never shied away from sharing her perspectives. And, yes, that includes on race. That has also gotten her in trouble before. ESPN suspended her in 2008 for writing that "rooting for the Celtics is like saying Hitler was a victim. It's like hoping Gorbachev would get to the blinking red button before Reagan."
Hill, a Detroit native, wrote of her hatred of Boston: "Admittedly, to some degree it was about race. Detroit is 80 percent African-American, and as my colleague J.A. Adande stated in a fantastic piece on the Celtics earlier this season, the mostly white Celtics teams of the past had a tough time being accepted by black audiences. Boston was viewed by African-Americans as a racially intolerant city."
She apologized then, writing, "I let you down. Just because I'm a black woman doesn't mean I've got an automatic sensitivity chip for cultures outside of my own. Just because I've written extensively about race doesn't render me incapable of making the same mistakes as the people I've written about."
Almost a decade later, Hill is in hot water again for expressing a view felt by others, especially African-Americans.
Conservatives, though, see the seeming slap on the wrist for Hill in this latest controversy as a double standard. They point to, as one example of ESPN's inconsistency, Curt Schilling. The former Red Sox pitcher was fired last year as an analyst at ESPN for social media comments he made against transgender people.
"A man is a man no matter what they call themselves," Schilling wrote. "I don't care what they are, who they sleep with, the men's room was designed for penis, women's not so much. Now you need laws telling us differently? Pathetic."
That was accompanied by a meme showing an overweight man dressed in women's clothing, a wig and a shirt that showed his chest with the words: "LET HIM IN! to the restroom with your daughter or else you're a narrow-minded, judgmental, unloving racist bigot who needs to die."
ESPN responded in that case by saying it was an "inclusive company" and fired Schilling.
"Let's be very clear about something: Jemele Hill has always been a racist," Schilling said Wednesday on Sean Hannity's radio show, "the things that she says, the things that she does. I don't have a problem with the fact that Jemele Hill is racist, that Bomani Jones is racist, and Colin Kaepernick knelt for a lie, and that Disney and ESPN, who they own, supports liberal racism."
Smith, Hill's co-host, sees a different double standard — that he feels there's a higher bar for a show like theirs that is unafraid to be black, as compared with other white colleagues who have also tried to break the mold in different ways.
"When Bill Simmons does it, he's celebrated for it," Smith told The Ringer. "When [Scott] Van Pelt does it, he's awesome; he's everyman; we relate to him. When Barstool does it, they're anti-establishment; they're new; they're fresh; they're the anti-ESPN. When we do it? 'Get this black s*** out of here!' That's what it feels like."
"Stick to sports"
A common refrain from sports fans is that they'd wish the sports people would stick to sports. Hill rejects that idea.
"When you're under the leadership of a president that refuses to condemn Nazis and racism, how am I supposed to function the rest of the day and pretend as if I give a s*** about Blake Bortles losing his job?" Hill said during a Sports Illustrated media panel. "That's the conversation I'm having with myself on a daily basis. I know there are sports fans looking for me to provide them with an 'escape,' but as a woman and person of color, I have no escape from the fact that there are people in charge who seem to be either sickened by my existence or are intent on erasing my dignity in every possible way. So today, my [Twitter] feed is probably a little edgier than it was. It's reflective of all the emotion and conflict I feel. I think others feel the same way."
She also points to coaches, like the San Antonio Spurs' Gregg Popovich, who is white and has been open about his antipathy for Trump, as well as black athletes, who have used their prominence to protest — from LeBron James and Colin Kaepernick to Muhammad Ali.
"This idea that sports has always been devoid of politics is a lie," Hill says in a video on The Root. "The same person that will tell me to 'stick to sports' will also say Muhammad Ali was a great sports figure. What's the difference? The difference is now you know Muhammad Ali is right."
Support for Hill in the Trump era
There's been significant backlash, but believing she's "right" is one reason Hill has gotten so much support on social media. Here are just a few tweets, for example, compiled by black-interest magazine Vibe:
The controversy has spurred supportive columns, tooom:
The Guardian: "Is it wrong to call Trump a white supremacist?"
Cosmopolitan: "Jemele Hill Called Donald Trump a White Supremacist. Where's the Lie?"
The Chicago Tribune: "As Trump seethes over ESPN anchor's tweet, a movement breathes to life."
Erik Wemple at The Washington Post ran down a list of "just a few of the examples of our president's refusal to apologize when confronted with his racism and bigotry."
And Trump himself stepped back into controversy on race this week by doubling down on his Charlottesville comments.
"I think especially in light of the advent of antifa, if you look at what's going on there, you know, you have some pretty bad dudes on the other side also," Trump told reporters on Air Force One of an anti-fascist movement that has at times resorted to violent tactics against white supremacists. "And essentially that's what I said."
Trump added this defense: "Now because of what's happened since then, with antifa, you look at, you know, really what's happened since Charlottesville — a lot of people are saying — in fact, a lot of people have actually written, 'Gee, Trump might have a point.' I said, 'You got some very bad people on the other side also,' which is true."
While Trump has condemned white supremacists and the KKK, he has also been criticized for attempting to create a moral equivalency between white-power groups and protest groups on the left.
Remarkably, Trump's latest comments came in response to a question about his meeting with Tim Scott, the only black Republican in the U.S. Senate. Scott had been hotly critical of Trump's Charlottesville response and had requested a meeting hoping a one-on-one appeal could bridge a divide with Trump.
That's where the U.S. is right now – a country split when it comes to perceptions of race and usually along racial and, increasingly, political lines. An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found a majority didn't think Trump's response to Charlottesville was strong enough, but there was a sharp political divide — almost three-quarters of Democrats thought Trump's response was not strong enough, while a strong majority of Republicans thought it was strong enough.
That partisan divide was equally pronounced when it came to views of race relations more broadly. Again, nearly three-quarters of Democrats thought race relations had worsened in the past year while just a third of Republicans thought so.
The "post-racial America" some touted when Obama was elected was always a myth. To become the first black president — and to be re-elected — Obama had to walk a delicate line on race. Some black thinkers and writers weren't always happy with him because of that, and conservatives were rankled by his responses to the spate of police shootings of black men in his latter years.
In a country changing demographically, race relations moved to the front burner during the Obama era — and the pot boiled over with Trump's election.
Jemele Hill is just the latest example. Expect more of it during the rest of the Trump years.