Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Power Dynamics: Foucault and the NLBM

In his chapter on torture in Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault writes of the body as enmeshed in a societal "system of subjugation." He seeks to describe the "micro-physics of power," his term for complicated, dynamic power relations that are always in tension, never fixed. There is indubitably a dominant class, in his view, but its power is "excercised rather than possessed."

Reading this, I couldn't help but think of my recent visit to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. The NLBM tells the story of how the dominant white society systematically kept African Americans off of white professional teams for roughly half a century. The exclusion ran from the mid-1890s (around the time of the Supreme Court's infamous "separate but equal" decision in Plessy v. Ferguson) until 1947 and beyond. Many teams did not add black players until well into the 1950s (around the time the Supreme Court overruled Plessy in Brown v. Board of Education).

The most fascinating exhibit at the museum for me was a video documenting how the black/white power relations differed between the American League and the National League. Following Jackie Robinson's debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, National League owners were much quicker to integrate black players into their teams. American League owners, particularly those of the Yankees and the Red Sox, were much slower. Amazingly, the Red Sox did not even field a black player until 1959, and the Yankees were not much better.

The result of the American League's foot-dragging was an undeniable talent differential between the leagues that continued into the 1970s. Watching video of Willie Ways, Henry Aaron, Frank Robinson, Lou Brock and others transforming the style of play in the NL, I suddenly realized that the National League's dominance in the All-Star Game for over a decade was completely understandable. Growing up a Twins fan in the 70s, the American League's futility in those games had always been inexpliable to me. Now I realize that it had something to do with Foucauldian power dynamics.

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