Posted on June 30, 2020

The ‘Comma Effect’ on Bias and Black Lives

Doug Glanville, The Undefeated, June 29, 2020

The comma effect.

It shapes the nuance of bias in America. A person is described and we look at the qualifiers that follow the comma: The victim of vigilante justice, who smoked weed in junior high. The man who shot up a movie theater, but was an altar boy at his church.

That comma wields great power. It can humanize, it can demonize, and although it takes a short breath to bring it to life, it can make a life lost seem inevitable or, most cruelly, a necessity. It is justice working in hindsight, hinting to us in code whether that grave outcome is deserved or if we should be sympathetic. Yet what comes after that comma often drips with bias in explaining what happened or what should happen.

That grammatical pause helps explain how racism can grow, even thrive, generations after slavery ended. It is the jump ball where the referee throws the ball slightly to one side, sometimes intentionally. It is the fastball on the edge of the strike zone where the right call is blurred so completely that bias is all that is left to decide whether it is a ball or strike.

But in this game of race in America, the stakes are truly life and death. The rules state that three strikes and you are out, but power is the true determinant of how those rules are enforced. And power is selective. Some get more than three strikes, others strike out before they even get up to the plate. And maybe worst of all, some get up to bat and every pitch is called a strike no matter where it crosses the zone.

In that case, you better start swinging. Assuming you even have a bat.

Consider Doug Glanville, comma, the ballplayer.

Draft day changed my status in 1991 from a 20-year-old college baseball player to a professional. “Ballplayer” now carried weight and elevated my station in life. Once that comma pointed to becoming a professional, it might as well have been an exclamation point.


Doug Glanville, the first-round pick.

As a Black man in America, despite the ennobling narrative that is often told, Major League Baseball wasn’t saving me. In fact, part of the ensuing negotiation emphasized my return to college after the baseball season on their dime so I could complete my senior year at the University of Pennsylvania. My parents, both first-generation college graduates, insisted on this outcome, and so did I. I wanted to honor the sacrifices they made to make it possible, and I was only one semester away from an engineering degree that had required significant work. I also hoped that a new comma could save me from certain indignities in life:

Doug Glanville, Ivy League engineering graduate.

But I was already suspicious of these labels. They can stoke elitism. They were still only a veneer when it came to color, even if someone holding the cards decided certain achievements made me a better person, that I was one of the “good” ones. {snip}

Despite growing up in a town that voluntarily desegregated in the mid-’60s, I had enough experiences before the phone call on draft day to know my college degree would not be enough to counter the first adjective that the world sees when I enter the room:

Doug Glanville, Black man.


Even with knowledge and awareness, I still hoped that my baseball comma would make me less threatening or less at risk in my own life. {snip}


The comma effect exacerbates the doubt that comes with being Black in America. It is reinforced in the faux gray area that is still black and white under scrutiny. The kind of scrutiny that reveals that this neutral zone is never truly neutral. That for a Black person, it can turn a simple issue around a shortage of baseballs into a hearing, not a conversation.


Off the field, being Black is a form of omnipresence, the inability to be invisible. It is the inability to just focus on your job, the inability to just “stick to sports” because you still have to play them in a black uniform, one that does not come off when you put the grass-stained uniform in the laundry. {snip}

It took me time in my professional path to know how to embrace the Black man after that comma. {snip}

One of the biggest commas ever written in the Black experience was added in the codification of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. On the heels of the Emancipation Proclamation, which strategically abolished slavery in only the Southern states in rebellion, President Abraham Lincoln and Congress sought a pragmatic approach to end slavery and unite the nation after the bitter Civil War. The comma was part of the compromise.

The amendment reads:

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

That comma before “except” was used to rebuild the white South, a concession for the inconvenience of stripping them of their unpaid labor force. It sat in the hands of the enforcers of the law who decide what was a crime and what was not. We know enforcement of the law was used to essentially reenslave Black people with impunity, through Black codes and inescapable cycles of sharecropping.


When I retired on June 25, 2005, I was already engaged to be married and unsure of what was next in my professional life. Philadelphia offered a lot from my baseball career and my alma mater was nearby. But I was not sure how the world would view me when I took off that uniform. Now, I was:

Doug Glanville, the retired ballplayer.

But still I had some sway, some insulation, right? An ability to get the benefit of the doubt?

On a snowy day, I went out to shovel my driveway. The temperature was hovering around zero degrees, notable because in these circumstances I know I am zero degrees of separation from the Black man in the mug shot, the man embedded in America’s fear of itself.

I look up and see a police SUV pull up across the street. It is from the bordering town, not the city where I live, an unusual phenomenon in an area that is so provincial. The officer gets out of his cruiser. He’s a young white man, and he strolls across the street toward me as I stand up tall in my driveway. I tensely await the engagement. Is he lost? I have no ID, I haven’t shaved in days, so concern is rising, but I would find out as soon as he finishes crossing the street. Without introduction or explanation, his first words were …

“So, trying to make a few extra bucks shoveling people’s driveways around here?”

Of course. Still Doug Glanville, Black man.

Retirement is over. Now I’m adding a new comma.

Doug Glanville, writer.