Sitting there with fingers buttery from the popcorn, I watched the new Jackie Robinson movie, “42,” and it struck me how many parallels his rise to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers mirrored Barack Obama’s rise to the White House.
We all know their stories: A black man works hard, fights the racism monster and breaks the color barrier to arrive at the major leagues.
That was not the part of “42” that resonated with me. It was the whispers in the subplots showing us the complex components of a country that was changing, growing, evolving. It’s a chapter in America’s past doing what history often does: repeats itself.
The buzz in the black community as Robinson went from Negro League baseball to play for the Montreal Royals was akin to Obama winning the Iowa primary in 2008. There were also similarities in the white people along the way who supported Robinson and those who backed Obama as well as the sentiments of others whose views on race evolved through time.
It didn’t seem like the film’s writer-director Brian Helgeland was trying to draw parallels between Robinson and Obama, he did an excellent job focusing the lens on Robinson’s story. (In fact, Oscar-winning Helgeland told the AP he felt “an enormous amount of pressure” to be very factual with the first-baseman’s story.)
So were the parallels all in my head? I had a healthy email exchange earlier this month with a philosophy professor at DePaul University, Jason Hill, to see what he thought about the similarities between Robinson’s and Obama’s paths.
He aptly pointed out that this is simply part of all social change.
Hill contends that breaking the color barrier comes in three parts. There’s the agitator, the implementer and the facilitator. The agitator is someone who disrupts the status quo, much like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. The implementer is someone who embodies that change, but in a manner that’s not alarming or off-putting to those in the majority, like Robinson and Obama. And then there’s the facilitator, the Branch Rickeys of the world. Rickey was the plucky Dodgers president who was determined to have a black player in major league baseball. (I must say that Harrison Ford played Rickey so deftly, I forgot I was watching Hans Solo.)
Hill then noted how we see this change trifecta today in the fight for equality for the LGBT community. An agitator? The drag queens of Stonewall. Implementers? People like NBA player Jason Collins, Ellen DeGeneres and Max Mutchnick, the creator of the TV show, “Will & Grace.” The Facilitators? President Obama as well as the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which is leading the federal court challenge in support of same-sex marriage.
One thing that really hit me while watching “42” was the role of white people. Namely white people who pushed for integration.
I liked how Rickey made it clear to the other players to get aboard the integration train or else. Also, how manager Leo Durocher said he didn’t care if Robinson had stripes like a zebra, he was going to play ball.
“42” didn’t whitewash the push for integration, but had a healthy balance of what professor Hill calls “ethical white people.”
“Ethical white people, operating from the standpoint of normality can speak a language of universality that has, I believe, more moral purchase on the sensibilities of other white people,” Hill said.
In short, when ethical white people talk to white people who are on the fence, those whites are more likely to listen.
Though we often hear of the Branch Rickeys, John Browns, and Lyndon B Johnsons throughout history, what about people who don’t have such gravitas? The people in the whispering subplots?
They’re also essential to social change. It’s in their conversations with their families, friends, coworkers that they, you, me, we can appeal to people’s sensibilities.
With all of this talk of having a post-racial society and racism being eradicated, I worry folks won’t see how they can make a difference through opening their own minds and others’ in their daily lives. Racism these days can often be subtle and/or institutionalized so much it’s hard for people to recognize it for what it is. Then it grows to be just as damaging as burning crosses on lawns or not serving someone lunch in a restaurant.
I wonder how many people see the need for our evolution.
Like the evolution that Dodgers’ broadcaster Red Barber, who grew up in the South, had when it came to integrating baseball. And Obama had the same public evolution when it came to gay marriage. Whose evolution can you be a part of?