Opinion: HBO Tiger Woods doc explores the ‘Great American myth’ of a non-racist country

It was after Tiger Woods' historic 1997 Masters win that in many corners of the country, particularly the conservative ones, Woods' accomplishment was presented as proof that America wasn't racist.

There were many striking aspects of part one of the new HBO documentary Tiger, which premiered on Sunday night (part two debuts Jan. 17). One of the most powerful was the documentary's reminder that at the time some believed Woods' win signaled racism in America was in its dying stages. 

Woods, following that Masters, was used as a bludgeon to the notion that the country was hostile to people of color. Conservative politicians and media bathed in this. Some of the reason why was tactical. At the time, prominent Republicans like Newt Gingrich pushed back against some national policies and belief systems like affirmative action, feeling that racism had waned to such low levels, these type of policies were no longer needed.

If racism didn't exist, or was minimal, the argument went, why would you need affirmative action? If a Black golfer could dominate a white sport, wasn't this proof that race-based policies were no longer needed?

Of course, this idea is comical, both then and now. The news that year was full of horrific acts of racial vigilantism and abuse of power by police against Black people. In Fayetteville, N.C., a Black man and woman walking down the street were shot and killed by white supremacists. A Black teenager in Maryland was forced by police to remove his shirt because he couldn't prove he didn't steal it. This was also just six years after Rodney King was beaten by police.

"Welcome to the enlightened 1990's, an era in which many people, most of them white, have declared that racism and discrimination are no longer much of a problem," wrote New York Times columnist Bob Herbert in June of 1997. "That noise you hear is college doors being slammed in the faces of black and brown applicants in states where affirmative action is being destroyed. The only discrimination worth worrying about, we are told by the politicians and commentators in the nation's sociopolitical comfort zones, is discrimination against white men."

Woods was a way for some to say: see, how bad could racism be? A Black dude just won the Masters.

The documentary quotes conservative commentator Brit Hume, speaking about how America embraced Woods after his Masters win: "The reaction to him says something about this country, often accused still of a pervasive racism. America was thrilled by, and for, Tiger Woods, glad that such a young man could reach such heights. Glader still, if anything, that a Black man could."

This moment felt similar (though on a smaller scale) to when Barack Obama won the presidency and there was a childlike belief that America was suddenly post-racial.

Says Gary Smith, senior writer for Sports Illustrated, in the doc and speaking about Woods' Masters win: "It was like white America almost patting itself on the back. Like, 'Look, this is the promise that America makes. That anyone can use the tools that this country offers and make it to the highest levels. Regardless of race, color creed.'

"We like to believe we're this place without racism, but that's a great American myth."

Broadcaster Bryant Gumbel puts it even more bluntly: "It's a racial society."

Again, as people then were trying to utilize Woods as proof that America had a Black friend, Gumbel, like many others, knew better. Gumbel in the documentary told a poignant story about how he felt when Woods first publicly referred to himself as "Cablinasian."

"People of color had so much invested in him," Gumbel said. "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed. You know my grandkids are biracial. And somebody asked me, they said, 'Well, what do you tell them?' And I tell them, 'They're Black. They're African American.' They said, 'Why?' And I said that's how America is going to look at them."

We knew then how silly the notion of Woods as a racial healer was, and we particularly know it now, considering what's happening in the country at this moment. What the documentary also shows is how the pressure on Woods to not just be an outstanding golfer, but to also be some type of unifying figure, was instigated by his father, Earl Woods.

(It should be noted the documentary absolutely savages Earl. He's portrayed as uber-controlling – and that's a nice way to put it. It also details how Earl was allegedly unfaithful to his wife Kultida Woods and Tiger was fully aware of it. Tiger wasn't interviewed for the documentary.)

Earl believed his son could flip the great American myth of a non-racist country on its head and transform it from myth to reality. He spoke about Woods after his Masters win like Woods was an Avenger.

"Other people now know what I knew all along," Earl said in the documentary. "They were just too stubborn to see it. He is just getting aware that he has this power. When he is in full control of that power, he can then make a difference in the world."

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