Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Day After: Why 42 Still Matters

This photo is here bc research says you'll read more w pics.
April 15 is a bad day for a lot of reasons. It's Tax Day. Lincoln died. Boston was bombed. The Titanic sank. Harley Proctor introduced Ivory Soap. But it's also the day that Jackie Robinson first set foot on a Major League Baseball field.

I'm fortunate enough to have grown up in an age when the kind of attitudes held by Kennesaw Mountain Landis, baseball's first commissioner responsible for imposing the ban on people with greater amounts of melanin in their skin, were generally not allowed by law and societal progress. Yet, as a suburban youth from Southwest Ohio, I was largely unexposed to other races. I had a black friend in elementary school; when we reached junior high, she made friends with other black kids and I with other white kids and we never talked after that. In high school, black and white kids didn't mix too much. Miami University had a 4% minority rate when I went there. I had an Asian friend. An. One. When I was a junior in Europe, the French and Germans were "exotic" until I got used to them. They became "Europeans," which were distinct from "Americans." "The West" only referred to the block of countries that had opposed the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

After college I enlisted in the Army to travel and learn a language and be a peacekeeper as expressed in the Army's stated mission during the Clinton years. The Army had far more African-Americans than I had ever been exposed to, appropriate given that the Army had really been the first institution to integrate. I was sent to the rather elite Defense Language Institute and put into Arabic classes with mostly white students. Yet I was exposed to another race for the first time - Arabs - a group of people who would become a big part of my life. In 2003 I moved to Washington, a city that at the time had a majority black population (it has since evened out), as well as a sizeable Latino population. That never stopped me from saying, "No one is from Washington," and "DC is a transient city," because in my white world, people had come to our nation's capital from all over. I was 26 at the time, probably too old to be so naive but young enough not to be molded into one way of thinking. Fortunately, I realized that my naive assessments of the "transient city" were incorrect.

I took a job in the Middle East department at an international development organization, a place where I was happy until I was denied a promotion by my third boss in four years. During the happy time, we had a core of happy hour goers consisting of the following: a Russian, a Czech, an Iraqi-American, an African-American, an Uzbek, and a couple of us white mutt type Americans. I lived in the historically black Shaw neighborhood, a block from where Josh Gibson had hit monster homers with the Grays at Griffith Stadium. I learned about "Black Broadway," Duke Ellington, and the riots that wrecked DC after Dr. King was killed. The ghosts were still in the neighborhood; as I watched the gentrification of the area I felt the history and soul fleeing with little attempt to stop it. After I had been denied the promotion, I decided to leave the job, my neighborhood, and DC, and spend some time traveling. I didn't have too much money saved, so I chose to spend time in a poor (read: cheap) country, Bulgaria, where, in addition to Bulgarians, I hung out with an English ecologist who was walking from the UK to Palestine and a Japanese guy who was hired by the local university to teach Japanese to Bulgarian students.

Eventually I was hired by a Lebanon-oriented organization and got to live in Beirut during a few years of relative stability. Beirut became my adopted home. There I witnessed firsthand the psychological and social scars of a people in perpetual conflict. Though a decade earlier I'd had an internship at a peace and reconciliation center in Ireland, the Irish conflict had largely abated, and people were actively going through the healing process. In Lebanon, people avoid talking about their conflict, unless politicians pay it lip service, politicians who are nothing more than tribal chieftains leading their flocks astray. The start of the Syrian war and the threat of eventual spillover into Lebanon ended my residence there, and I returned to DC changed by my experiences. I've been floating ever since. 

But that's the key, you see. Experience. Walking a mile in another person's shoes. Americans looked at me like I was crazy for wanting to be in Beirut, unable to fathom that with the exception of being on the Mediterranean Sea and having Roman ruins and a few bullet-riddled buildings, Beirut wasn't any different than your average American city of two million people. I mean, seriously, people, I don't know what you think other places in the world look like. I ate Subway, drank Caribou Coffee, and bought H&M clothes in my neighborhood of Hamra in Beirut.

You may wonder why I am writing about myself here when I should be writing about Jackie. Well, I can't write anything about Jackie that someone else hasn't written, and this is not about me, anyway. It's about the way we are programmed to think one way or another and we believe that's just the way things are and how, by virtue of experience, we can overcome our biases. The people who yelled nasty, racist things at Jackie probably weren't evil people, though their actions were evil. They didn't know any better. They'd grown up in a white-dominated world where black people were seen as inferior and had no business doing anything but serving their white masters, and they never thought to question it. Jackie Robinson invaded their world and showed them they were wrong, but instead of marveling at the athleticism of a great man and appreciating his baseball feats, they embraced their ingrained ideas of "the other." People cling to their trivial, artificial differences, be it religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, etc., purporting to be superior to groups that don't conform to their own tribal notions. Fear of difference used to be a survival tactic; now, it's a symptom of a diseased mind.

We left that vile world for awhile, drove the KKK into hiding, shamed racists and bigots and gave people equal voting rights and MLK his own holiday and patted ourselves on the backs for doing so, but it never went away. It festered beneath the surface and grew in small towns and suburbs and affluent city neighborhoods and in our justice system and our education system and it slinked and slid its way back into our political system, led by pundits and politicians whose ideologies are so putrid that they are now trying to deny voting rights to people and they've made laws that say you can shoot people if you are scared of them. You even have people who think celebrating Jackie Robinson Day is having "civil rights shoved down our throats" and complaints run rampant about the tradition of wearing Jackie's 42, some wondering why we don't also wear the numbers of Nomo or Clemente to commemorate their debuts.

We celebrate Jackie exactly because ignorance like this persists.

Do you think that because you clap for Brandon Phillips' hits and listen to rap music that racism is over? Do you think that because America elected as POTUS a dark-skinned man with a funny name - twice - that racism is over? Can you not look at our prison populations and our inner city schools and our political discourse and not understand how bad things are right now?

More than ever we need to celebrate Jackie, to teach kids and to remind ourselves of who he was, what he did, and why it was significant. We live in an age of uncivil discourse, fueled by the anonymity and ease of the internet, cable news and talk radio, rampant narcissism, and an appalling lack of empathy for other human beings. If we don't like what we hear, we can just block it or change the channel, ensuring that people stay in a bubble. Americans don't travel and have no exposure to other cultures. We reside in largely segregated neighborhoods, go to segregated schools, buy segregated music, live segregated lives. Ours is an unprecedented age of connectivity, yet we seem to be more disconnected than ever.

Atlanta celebrated the anniversary of Hank Aaron's 755 last week and USA Today published an interview after it. What happened next? A deluge of racist letters and death threats arrived, addressed to Aaron, just as they had when he was chasing Ruth's record. THIS WAS LAST WEEK. We don't have Hank Aaron Day, but what Hank did took as much courage as Jackie had. Why does he have to live it again? What's more, why did the leading talk radio host, who is greatly responsible for that hate mail, ignite a flame war in the first place? For ratings? Are ratings more important than human beings? Don't answer that.

The bottom line is we shouldn't have to celebrate Jackie Robinson. We shouldn't don 42 on our jerseys or hear players say, "If it weren't for Jackie, I wouldn't be here today." That we do is both a testament to both the greatness of our country and the tragedy of it. Jackie should have always been allowed to play ball. Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, Buck Leonard, Cool Papa Bell...they all should have played Major League Baseball. But the evils of fear and bigotry held our country hostage, and courageous Americans like Jackie, Branch Rickey, and Dr. King helped guide us through that shameful part of our nation's history. We overcame it; it's worth celebrating.

It's our world; we can change it, but only if we get off our couches and do something, experience life, pop those bubbles of ignorance in which too many people stay. I sure am glad I left mine.

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