Jackie Robinson

Another Lesson We Can Learn From Jackie Robinson

A central theme in the 2016 Ken Burns documentary on Jackie Robinson is that Robinson would have to suppress his anger in his early years in the major leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He did it so well that he actually became the second most admired person in America behind Bing Crosby. He finished ahead of Frank Sinatra, Eleanor Roosevelt and General Dwight Eisenhower.

After two years of Robinson diligently turning the other cheek, Dodger General Manager Branch Rickey gave Robinson permission to be more of himself; to object to umpires and other players when he felt that he was being dealt with unjustly.

Robinson had been a strong advocate for himself and for African-Americans before he entered professional baseball and afterwards. Rickey felt that after two years Robinson had established himself as an outstanding player and the issue of integrating the major leagues was no longer an experiment.

As might be expected, when Robinson began standing up for himself and expressing anger, a lot of people felt that he was being an “uppity (n-word).” He was no longer an engaging novelty who endeared himself to all fans. Sports fans almost universally do not like argumentative players on opposing teams. For Robinson, this was obviously compounded by the fact that he was black.

In the documentary, several sports writers familiar with the time (most particularly ESPN’s Howard Bryant) as well as university professors of African-American Studies pointed out that when people see that someone is angry, their first response is to be critical of the person because they “blew their cool.” They consider the person to be a hot-head, and if a member of a minority, an ingrate. With Jackie Robinson, many felt that he was not grateful for all that major league baseball had done for him. They were not asking the obvious question in reverse, what had Jackie Robinson done for baseball.

Rarely does someone really ask the question of whether the angry person has good cause to be so. Even less frequent is an examination of the root causes of what angered someone.

Most fair-minded people would be very understanding of Robinson’s anger. He was despised by many players on opposing teams, and even some on his own. There were umpires who were prejudiced and would intentionally make incorrect calls to punish Robinson. Fans berated him with racial slurs.

When the Dodgers were playing away games, Robinson could not stay in the same hotels or eat in the same restaurants as him teammates. The accommodations were hardly separate and equal. Even when the Dodgers were home, there was ongoing discrimination against Robinson and his family, particularly with regard to housing.

Who would not be angry if they had to endure such indignities on a consistent basis?

While Jackie Robinson lost favor with many Americans because he vigorously stood up for himself, there were others who saw him through a new lens which included more awareness of the lives of African-Americans. Because Robinson did not stay quiet and rather let the world know about the discrimination that he faced, he raised awareness of the plight of blacks. He did not express his anger or disappointment in the form of a victim, crying “poor me.” Rather he spoke as a participant-observer of the plight of African-Americans. He spoke about the need for fairness in public accommodations, housing, schools, voting and in the military.

Robinson was sometimes accused of being an “angry black man.” That is a disparaging term that many whites use to describe black men, particularly those who are physically strong. Most of these white people did not think about why some black men and women would be angry, and whether they and others in the dominant white culture had in any way contributed to that anger.

We are currently wrapped in the controversy of teaching Critical Race Theory. Let’s first abandon that confusing term and simply say teaching history in a racially inclusive manner. If so, it is important for whites to know that many blacks are angry because historically and presently, many blacks have been discriminated against.

At the same time, there are many angry white men, and women, now. Why are they angry?

As with anyone, there can be a myriad of reasons. Some have to do with external forces, others have to do with internal struggles. But many whites are angry at blacks because they feel that the civil rights movement, including affirmative action, has given blacks an unfair advantage over them. All of us tend to be suspicious of people who are different from us, so it is understandable why many whites are angry at minorities.

Recalling that during Jackie Robinson’s era there were some who advised that people focus less on Robinson’s anger and more on the root causes of his anger, it would be wise for all of us now in the body politic to try to bring the same understanding to our political opponents.