I’d like to comment on the irony of the place that Jackie Robinson holds in America’s history as the man who integrated baseball. I know I have to tread very carefully here because I don’t want to offend anyone or diminish Jackie Robinson’s accomplishments. After reading about him and then getting an opportunity to see just a portion of his struggle portrayed on film it is my hope that I can be just a fraction of the man that he was.
However, it is ironic to me because in the past I have written a series of articles on the difference between integration, desegregation, and assimilation. I have often used Major League Baseball as an example of some of the negative consequences of a certain type of integration.
Essentially my proposition is that the integration of Major League Baseball became the prevalent model for the integration of society after there was so much success with Jackie Robinson. In this model one “exceptional” black man was selected for not only his ability and talent in his field but also his unique ability to withstand the anger that would be directed his way as the individual who was brave enough to withstand the status quo. Even before Martin Luther King maybe it was Jackie Robinson who showed that moving in a nonviolent fashion had a unique ability to expose people to the inhumanity that is racism. The racism that Jackie Robinson endured was brutal and ignorant, and it still exists.
However, many of us who study race issues are less concerned with the outright racism that was displayed in 42 and have become much more concerned with institutional racism or the legacy of racism that continues to stifle opportunities for African Americans.
The question that always picks at the back of my consciousness when celebrating this American triumph is what happened to the Negro Leagues? More specifically what happened to the team managers and team owners who were put out of business by the integration of baseball? The answer is they simply went out of business. The first black manager in the major leagues didn’t come on the scene until 1975 and the first black owner in the major leagues didn’t happen until just last year.
By my lights, if we’re talking about integration then this doesn’t seem quite right does it? The talent got sucked out of the negro leagues, but the business structure that discovered them, trained them, and managed them, was allowed to fade into oblivion. A few talented or “exceptional” players got to play in the major leagues, however many black jobs and black employment networks were destroyed in the process. Indeed, some black wealth may have been destroyed in the process. This is the issue that picks at the back of my brain whenever I think of the triumph of integration from a purely African American perspective. There is no doubt that segregation was horrible, not only for Blacks, but for Whites and for America as a whole. However, during segregation the “Black Community” was a necessity. There were black owners of businesses and black people were creating the jobs that they could to service their communities. But when integration took place the individuals who were deemed talented enough and of the correct temperament to deal with racist attitudes were brought into white businesses. There were all manner of Jackie Robinsons if you will. There was probably a business Jackie Robinson, and a journalist Jackie Robinson, and an academic Jackie Robinson and a political Jackie Robinson. All of them coming in the times that were right for those industries to integrate. But what about the businesses and networks left behind?
This points to what I believe is a major factor in why Black unemployment rates remain stubbornly high in 2013. While integration was great for America as a whole it also had the consequence of breaking down Black social, political, and economic networks that could have helped to create jobs. Instead it created job loss in the form of lost businesses which was exacerbated by an equal loss in the networks that come with the existence of black owned businesses.
We should always celebrate when a movie like 42 comes out and we should always celebrate the accomplishments of a man like Jackie Robinson and by extension celebrate the fact that because of men like him a guy like me doesn’t have to endure the cruel inequality and separatism of racism. However, I believe we should also take some time to examine how integration, in the way that it was done with Major League baseball phased out some important financial networks that are only beginning to be addressed in 2013. It is a reminder that we’ve come a long way, but there is still a long way to go. It is also a reminder that since it is much more difficult to dramatize the kind of inequality that exists today, our strategies must change in order to meet the changing times.