Once upon a time, back before we were so darned enlightened as a country, Jackie Robinson shattered the color barrier.
And, eventually, the world grew up.
It was back on April 15, 1947, when Robinson crossed a white line on his way to first base, and once again, African-Americans could play major-league baseball. Yes, there were a lot of rough spots to follow, and a great many personal indignities suffered by Robinson and others, but as a sporting nation, that was the day that a nation became more wise, more fair, more reasonable.
At least, that's what we liked to tell ourselves.
Last week, some numbskulls in Brooklyn painted swastikas and epithets all over a Jackie Robinson statue. It is a fine statue, one of Robinson posing with Pee Wee Reese, with Reese's arm around Robinson in a symbol of tolerance and support. And on that statue, the vandals left the vilest racial slurs you could imagine. Sixty-six years after Robinson took the first steps to lift up a nation, and they set it back to, oh, 1946 or so.
For crying out loud, aren't we better than this?
Haven't we traveled further?
Not to come across as preachy, but wouldn't you have thought — hoped — that we would be beyond discussions such as the ones about skin color? After all, it is 2013, and the America outside your window is one of a great many faces and a great many colors. Don't we tell ourselves that sports is the great equalizer, where speed matters and strength matters and smarts matter, but a man's skin does not?
For most of our lives, through the acts of Robinson and Kenny Washington and Earl Lloyd, through the history lessons of Jesse Owens and Joe Louis and Arthur Ashe, we have been taught that. When Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl, and when Tony Dungy became the first black coach to do so, we applauded until, in the echo of the cheers, we forgot that racism still exists.
And then Riley Cooper happens, and things don't feel quite so harmonious anymore.
You remember Cooper. It was only a couple of weeks ago that Cooper, a wide receiver with the Eagles, shouted racial slurs into a video while at a Kenny Chesney concert. It was stunning, because after years of playing with black receivers, and with black quarterbacks, you would think that Cooper had done a better job of evolving. After all, Cooper was born four years after Art Shell became the first black head coach in modern-day football.
Cooper was fined, and he was censured, and he has apologized repeatedly. And still, the controversy will not fade. Why should it?
Sunday, there was another incident in San Francisco, when Baltimore outfielder Adam Jones says a Giants fan hurled a banana at him shortly after Jones hit a three-run homer. Jones was infuriated.
And so it goes. When it comes to race relations, we cannot get out of our own way. Every few weeks, like a solar flare igniting a burst of stupidity, some knuckle-dragger goes out of his way to show that we haven't progressed nearly as much as most of us would like to believe.
Even now, race still matters. And to some out there, it matters more than anything else.
Why is this? How can so many years have passed, and still, the same lessons are lost on some people? Do people hate that fiercely, or in a social media world, do they merely express themselves that clumsily?
Oh, I would still like to believe that most of us judge a man by his play and by his character. But the more examples there are of the cavemen among us, the harder it is to get away from it. If you are Jones today, don't you wonder just how many people side with the banana tosser? Let's face it: A little stupidity goes a long way in lessening the rest of us.
Look around. One day, it is Sergio Garcia talking about serving fried chicken to Tiger Woods. Another, it is Hugh Douglas insulting fellow ESPN analyst Michael Smith. Another, it is eight Czech fans being punished for "racially abusing'' Flyers wing Wayne Simmonds during the NHL lockout.
It is a policeman being fired for uttering a derogatory slur at Carl Crawford. It is Nationwide Series driver Jeremy Clements being suspended for using a racial slur in an interview. It is ESPN analyst Rob Parker questioning the blackness of Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III.
And no, it isn't just sports. It's Paula Deen. It's Mel Gibson. It's Michael Richards.
Look, we aren't talking about Al Campanis anymore, or Jimmy Snyder, or Cap Anson. This isn't dated history of how divided America was. This is now, and this is sad that a division still exists.
The tragic thing is that there is a segment of our country that still cannot see beyond color. It is so angry, so bitter, so small that it cannot stop itself from lashing out and trying to injure.
That's a shame. If nothing else, the Robinson statue should remind onlookers of how much a man has to offer once the opportunity is presented to him. It should remind all of us of how much different races have to offer each other.
In 2013, that shouldn't be such a grand notion.
As for the statue painters and the banana throwers, sadly, they're going to need a lot more time.