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.
If we choose to see racism as an awful memory, like smallpox, instead of as a living virus, then the killing of Michael Brown is the fault of Michael Brown. Officer Darren Wilson must be being railroaded by a “lynch mob” and the leaving of Michael Brown’s unarmed corpse on the streets of Ferguson for hours was just an unfortunate clerical error. By that logic, all the deaths of black men and women at the hands of the police is the deracialized expression of the system working as it should.
If the white majority can go to sleep at night content with the idea that Michael Brown is dead because of the individual choices of Michael Brown, then they don’t have to confront racism as a living, breathing virus, needing to be confronted, quarantined and destroyed. They can cheer for Jackie Robinson West, put on a copy of the movie 42 afterward for the whole family, and marvel at how far the American experiment has allowed us to travel from those dark days before people like Robinson and, of course, Dr. King emancipated us from our past. Anyone who says otherwise surely must be one of those “race hustlers,” otherwise known as—all together now—“the real racists.”
If only the real Jackie Robinson were still with us to speak for himself. If only the real Jackie Robinson could pop up as a public service announcement before Jackie Robinson West plays in the Little League World Series to repeat the words he said about police brutality fifty years ago: “One cannot expect [black] leaders to sell the non-violence cause when followers see violence erupting against them every day of their lives. Not even new civil rights bills or statesmanlike speeches can counteract this.”
If only the real Jackie Robinson were alive today, he would undoubtedly say that there is nothing post-racial about a world where two black people are killed on average by police every week. He would say, as he said in the 1960s, “All these guys who were saying that we’ve got it made through athletics, it’s just not so. You as an individual can make it, but I think we’ve got to concern ourselves with the masses of the people—not by what happens as an individual.”
If only the largely white Little League crowds cheering this electric team from Chicago could know as stone-cold fact that if Jackie Robinson were alive, there is no question he would be brimming with pride during the day at the play of the team that bears his name, but at night he’d be in Ferguson committed to the struggle for civil rights. He would also be challenging his white fans to care: to not isolate themselves from what Ferguson has exposed but to help confront it. He would repeat the same words he uttered fifty years ago: “There’s not an American in this country free until every one of us is free.”