Maybe it isn't a sign of pessimism to have low expectations for a measured discussion on race as much as it is a sign of intelligence. Recent forays into that difficult space usually end poorly, following a traditional, unsatisfying arc.
The Ozzie Guillen saga is the latest important opportunity for dialogue on the nation's two most vexing dilemmas -- race and class -- to disintegrate. Once again, nuance was smothered by noise and defensiveness trumped grievance, leaving nothing but a popularity referendum on the messenger in the place of a useful analysis of the validity of the message.
Over the past month, the national conversation on race has stalled badly. Some of the recent discussions regarding race have been derailed because class, not race, stood at the core of the matter, and few are willing to confront the combination. The Shirley Sherrod case was at its heart a story about class: African-Americans and whites from disparate geographical backgrounds suffering from the same financial issues revealed to her an opportunity for understanding. It became a racial issue because of a disgraceful right-wing attack, political opportunism and a cowardly overreaction on the part of the White House that led to her firing (and subsequent offer of another job by way of apology) at the Department of Agriculture.
A year ago, in the White House "Beer Summit" among President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates and James Crowley (the white policeman who arrested Gates for breaking into his own home), the roiling class animosities between the "real Cambridge" and the "Harvard Cambridge" could not be underestimated.
Last month, the Rev. Jesse Jackson accused Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert of having a "slave master" mentality in his dealing with LeBron James. It was a clumsy, ill-advised metaphor. The larger truths available in the situation -- the paternalistic attitude of team owners toward the newfound individualism, independence and economic power of superstar athletes -- were obscured and largely forgotten, suffocated by the usual racial cacophony.
Guillen wasn't exactly smeared for approaching the third rail of American life, but the initial reflex to his comments that Latin-American ballplayers receive worse treatment than Asian players was reduced to the impossible simplicity of whether Guillen is "right or wrong" and whether Guillen is racist, crazy or a crazy racist.
Following the predictable boilerplate, the conversation attempted to mute him with suggestions that he might have been correct in his sentiments but not absolutely correct (an impossible standard for any argument).
He was subtly ridiculed in news stories as a hothead, evidenced by the repeated use of the word "rant" both in wire stories and headlines, turning him into the crazy Latin stereotype and undermining the seriousness of his positions. Many of those media reactions suggested that Guillen was unlettered because he somehow failed to take every single factor of every single angle into consideration.
Next came the inevitable corporate distancing from the racial kryptonite. During a pennant race no less, his employers, the Chicago White Sox, released a statement disagreeing with him, apparently fearful their sponsors might run for cover and/or the franchise might run into greater difficulty penetrating the Asian talent and ticket-buying markets. Unfortunately, Guillen, under pressure no doubt, has already begun to soften his comments.
If you don't have a vested interest in the topic or your faith in America is not easily shaken, what Guillen said is neither new nor particularly remarkable. He merely sparked gunpowder that has been circling baseball -- and the country as a whole -- for years.
Latinos, like the black players before them and the Italian immigrants before them, have been the least expensive, most plentiful resource of talent. They have few financial protections and fewer economic prospects should they fail to succeed in baseball.
Japanese players have virtually unlimited leverage in coming to play in the major leagues that Latinos aren't able to employ. Japan is a developed, industrial nation, giving its best players chips and controls Latin-American players do not have. The signature Japanese players who have arrived to the big leagues were not choosing between playing ball or slashing sugarcane with a machete. They were already professionals in their own thriving leagues, already rich, already stars. Coming to America for Ichiro Suzuki was a professional choice, not a question of economic life and death.
Japanese players represent huge financial investments for clubs, while Latinos are a low-risk, high-reward investment. The Oakland A's signed Miguel Tejada for $2,000. The Boston Red Sox paid $102 million for Daisuke Matsuzaka, $52 million of it as a posting fee to Matsuzaka's former club.
None of this is news. The problem is few people have the patience for the pain or the stamina to recognize that discussing race and class means deconstructing the daily myths we cling to in order for life to make sense: In America, everyone is created equal, with the same opportunities for success and failure; the past has no bearing on the future. These concepts are naturally ridiculous -- few people in the world begin at the same starting line -- but we need these prevarications, lest we finally acknowledge that in a capitalist society, for the overwhelming majority of us, the fix has been in from the start.
Guillen's greatest crime was to approach two subjects, race and class, at a simmering time in the country's history, with implications far beyond the baseball diamond. As the nation moves inevitably closer toward a nonwhite majority, the racial conversation in this country is moving away from its traditional white/black dynamic. The result is a cultural war being fought along immigration lines and language lines that have threatened the way Americans generally view themselves.
Guillen is on the front line of the most lucrative industry in America for Latino workers. He sees the assault being played out in real time, as much of the American population provides a cultural backlash, retrenching and embittered that so many of the millions of Latinos who come to the U.S. do not speak English and often refuse to do so.
When tensions roil, language is often at the center. In 2002, when the Yankees had tired of the mercurial Orlando Hernandez, management stripped him of his translator, saying that El Duque had been in America long enough to speak English.
Meanwhile, Japanese players who speak fluent English -- such as Ichiro -- have had translators for a decade. Japanese players in general haven't been held responsible as clubhouse leaders who are obligated to speak out before or after games, and they haven't been chastised for seeming to take little interest in cultivating the language. Their responsibility has been to play for their teams.
Hideo Nomo played 12 years in the major leagues, was afforded a translator on each of his seven teams and was never implored to assimilate.
The reason is because Spanish, not Japanese, is the real-time language threat to many Americans. In Arizona, Utah and beyond, laws are being enacted that are aimed directly at Latinos. On both coasts, generations of Asian families -- Chinese as well as Japanese -- have lived here and never learned English, yet the United States is not building a fence to keep out Asians. The fence along our southern border is meant to keep out Latino immigrants, an effort that is perhaps as much class-based as it is racial.
This country does not recognize dual citizenship; with the exception of Miami, it has been resistant to accepting dual languages. To the grudging acceptance of many and the anger of others, national respect (manifested in learning English) lies at the core. After all, the product description on a box of detergent at Target isn't printed in Japanese these days, but in Spanish as well as English.
It is interesting, though not surprising, that during this week's analyses of Guillen's thoughts, few of his critics have noted that he conducted the entire interview in English, which happens to be his second language.
The political backlash manifests itself in the millionaire world of big league baseball. The press is guilty in this conversation, as it has been since the days of Roberto Clemente. We all know the numbers: More than 30 percent of major leaguers are Latino and only a tiny handful of reporters speak Spanish.
Inside the clubhouse, the elders of the Latino baseball community -- Mariano Rivera of the Yankees, Carlos Delgado of the Mets, among others -- have for years implored the new generation of Latino players to assimilate into American culture, to speak the language.
"I tell them," Rivera once told me, "to learn English and learn it well. I don't want anyone speaking for me, and you shouldn't want anyone speaking for you. It is better for you. If Americans were playing in Panama or the Dominican, it would be on them to learn Spanish. But we're here in America. You have to speak English.
"But not everyone listens."
Japanese players may suffer the same language limitations but are not part of this explosive cultural battleground. The question, then, is not whether Guillen is right or wrong or whether Asians or Latinos should or shouldn't have translators. The question is whether the will exists to accept and confront these changing dynamics when the topic arises, as it surely will again -- and soon.
Guillen knows this, and so do we.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power, and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42.