To paraphrase bell hooks, the events of this summer show with bracing clarity that there are huge swaths of this country that love black culture and hate black people. It is difficult to not see this reality in the events of the last week: events that counterpose something as American as apple pie, the Little League World Series, and something else that is frankly also as American as apple pie: the killing of unarmed black men and women by police.
On the Little League side, Hollywood could not have painted a more soul-stirring tableau. We have the charming, charismatic champions of the United States, called Jackie Robinson West, hailing from the great metropolis of Chicago. JRW is a team consisting entirely of African-American kids. The fact that such a team has ascended to the finals of the Little League World Series is an astounding accomplishment both athletically as well as demographically. JRW is the first all African-American team to become US champions in over thirty years. During that same thirty-year stretch the number of African-Americans who play baseball has plummeted dramatically, their roster spots in Major League Baseball falling from 19 percent to 8 percent of all players. In college baseball, less than 6 percent of rosters have African-American players.
What else has happened over the last three decades in this country? We have seen the rise of neoliberal economics, the gutting of the social safety net, the explosion of economic inequality and the hollowing out of our cities. One casualty of the new urban-normal has been Little League programs, Boys & Girls Clubs and community centers: the very infrastructure baseball demands. This period of decimation has been followed more recently by an era of gentrification, as the wealthy have moved back into the cities, exploding property values, pushing poor disproportionately black residents to the margins and creating a twenty-first-century phenomenon: the suburbanization of poverty and dislocated ghetto sprawl. With these developments, baseball in urban communities has withered, likened by sports sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards to a corpse on life support.
Yet here is Jackie Robinson West. It beats the odds, and America is cheering on this fact without examining what made those odds so daunting in the first place. Instead, people are choosing to enjoy this dynamic, magnetic team named after the most universally praised of sports trailblazers, a man who has become a collective symbol of racial reconciliation.
Meanwhile thet same dislocation and suburbanization of poverty that has gutted urban baseball has also produced and created areas like Ferguson, Missouri, a place that has gone from majority white to majority black over the last generation, with the police seamlessly shifting its approach from Officer Friendly to occupying army. To judge by recent polls, white America doesn’t see poverty, police brutality and institutionalized racism in Ferguson or anywhere else. That era is considered long done, defeated by the individual heroism of people like Jackie Robinson. The logic goes, if racism was still throbbing in this country, then the kids from Jackie Robinson West, not to mention Mo’ne Davis, would never have stolen our hearts.