Ken Burns’ Jackie Robinson doc underscores how little progress America has made in terms of race


Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947. And it has been built back nearly everywhere else in America since then.

By Andrew J. Pridgen

Barack and Michelle Obama’s segment as talking heads during the second hour of Ken Burns’ new Jackie Robinson doc (airing April 11 and 12 on PBS and streaming online) was about Robinson’s legacy as it specifically relates to his wife, Rachel. The homage was not as syrupy or self-referential as it was a very explicit—if you caught the tone just right—commentary on where we are today in terms of race.

And that is, we are worse off.

Forget for a minute whether you like Barack Obama or not. He wasn’t a perfect president. And his cult of personality did fade into the real-life image of an overworked and graying but still proud man. He also missed his mark on a few key targets—namely the prosecution of Wall Street and ending the endless imperialist wars.

But his real legacy will be based upon what he could not get done because of the GOP radically standing in his way like no single party has for any other president.

In his own words during the 2014 midterm election: “Their willingness to say no to everything—the fact that since 2007, they have filibustered about 500 pieces of legislation that would help the middle class just gives you a sense of how opposed they are to any progress—has actually led to an increase in cynicism and discouragement among the people who were counting on us to fight for them.”

Obama is not wrong. Beyond legislation, over the last seven years 82 of his nominees have been blocked by the GOP. All other presidents combined = 86.

Another good presidential quote also exemplifies the Obama legacy: “If history teaches anything, it teaches that self-delusion in the face of unpleasant facts is folly.”

That one is from Ronald Reagan.

While watching the Robinson doc, one can clearly identify the red-ass Southern-fried racists who tried to stand in his, and progresses, way. Men who were happily renting in the part of town on the wrong side of history.

Men like Dixie Walker, the Dodgers’ All-Star outfielder who demanded a trade rather than share the field with Robinson. Walker was also identified as an originator of a player petition opposing Robinson’s joining the Dodgers in 1947 to club president Branch Rickey. Men like the 14 owners who signed a petition that they would not field a team to play against the Dodgers and Robinson. Men who played for the Chicago Cubs, all of them, who privately voted to boycott playing against Robinson but took the field anyway—then proceeded to knock Robinson down whenever he came to the plate.

The men on the St. Louis Cardinals, all of them, who said they would strike when Brooklyn came to town which forced National League president Ford Frick to threaten any player who refused to play against Robinson with a lifetime ban from the game.

…The problem is racism didn’t go away in America overnight once teams agreed to play with Robinson. Racism just took new shape. And, learning from their failure to block Robinson, racists became smarter or at least more media savvy. The N word has been replaced with Thugs. The popular rhetoric no longer assails groups as much as it targets programs that have traditionally helped uplift specific communities.

Don’t think that Obama’s race wasn’t a motivator for the majority of the GOP to stand in his way every single mutherfuckin’ time? Think again. Don’t think every Trump rally isn’t underscored with racist tones? Think again. Don’t think prominent black players aren’t overly scrutinized—based on their race—in sport today?

Think again.

If there’s any nostalgia to be had about Robinson’s day, it was that racists didn’t feel the need to hide. Things were a lot more, pardon the term, black and white. Now it’s a game of deceit and deception and trying your damndest to push the conversation of equality and fair treatment out into the open while doing the exact opposite behind the curtain.

In the words of documentarian Ken Burns: “I think what’s happened and inevitably happens to even the most famous of people is they get smothered in mythology. They get smothered in myth. They get smothered in sentimentality. And the real Jackie Robinson is much more dynamic, much more interesting and resembles a human being—not like a statue in the park, collecting pigeon you-know-what.”

Burns is right. Revisiting the individual courage of Robinson should be a reminder about how very far still our society is from the completion of his work.


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