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Robin DiAngelo’s best-selling book sells a misguided view of baseball integration to her readers and corporate clients.
In an error that aligns perfectly with her ideology, DiAngelo gets this episode of U.S. history all wrong.
In her book DiAngelo uses Jackie Robinson as an example of her point. Most are familiar with Robinson’s story: in 1947, at the age of twenty-eight, he became the first Black ballplayer to play in the modern major leagues. DiAngelo claims that “the story of Jackie Robinson is a classic example of how whiteness obscures racism by rendering whites, white privilege, and racist institutions invisible.” She continues:
While Robinson was certainly an amazing baseball player, [the] story line depicts him as racially special, a Black man who broke the color line himself. The subtext is that Robinson finally had what it took to play with whites, as if no black athlete before him was strong enough to compete at that level. Imagine if instead, the story went something like this: ‘Jackie Robinson, the first black man whites allowed to play major league baseball.’ This version makes a critical distinction because no matter how fantastic a player Robinson was, he simply could not play in the major leagues if whites—who controlled the institution—did not allow it.
Apparently DiAngelo is not a baseball fan, because, in an error that aligns perfectly with her ideology, she gets this episode of U.S. history all wrong.
Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey picked Robinson—who grew up in Pasadena and was a four-sport athlete at UCLA—because of his outstanding athleticism and his strong religious faith, college education, and experiences living and playing with white people outside of the South. But anyone with the slightest knowledge of baseball knows that there were Black ballplayers in the Negro Leagues who were as good or better than Robinson when he broke the sport’s color line.
Moreover, DiAngelo’s account entirely omits the protest movement which made it possible for Robinson, and then other Black players, to play in the majors. In DiAngelo’s telling, Robinson couldn’t play “before being granted permission by white owners.” This is like saying that women were “granted” the right to vote by men, instead of acknowledging that women “won” the vote after decades of movement activism—including lobbying, rallies, public awareness campaigns, and civil disobedience.
DiAngelo examines racism as a web of deeply-ingrained attitudes rather than as a system of power. Perhaps this is because discussing the redistribution of power, wealth, and income does not sit comfortably with DiAngelo’s corporate clients.
In White Fragility DiAngelo examines racism as a web of deeply-ingrained attitudes rather than as a system of power—what is often called institutional or systemic racism. Perhaps this is because discussing the redistribution of power, wealth, and income might not sit comfortably with DiAngelo’s corporate clients. She acknowledged as much in a New York Times interview. “I avoid critiquing capitalism,” she said. “I don’t need to give people reasons to dismiss me.”
• • •
In 1965 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., observed that after the Civil War and emancipation, Southern plantation owners worried that a mass protest movement among poor white farmers and poor Black sharecroppers could threaten their power and privilege. To hold onto their power, King said in a speech at the end of the Selma to Montgomery march, the Southern aristocracy “gave the poor white man Jim Crow,” which he described as “a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than a black man.” And, King added,
When his undernourished children cried out for the necessities that his low wages could not provide, he showed them the Jim Crow signs on the buses and in the stores, on the streets and in the public buildings. And his children, too, learned to feed upon Jim Crow, their last outpost of psychological oblivion.
King recognized that white racist beliefs uphold a system of unequal power that not only oppresses Black people, but also victimizes white people separate from the privileged elite. He also understood that Black Americans could not rely on white Southerners to dismantle Jim Crow laws. It took the civil rights movement to force Congress to enact voting rights and anti-discrimination laws and push the courts to outlaw unjust legislation.
But, of course, this racialized system of power still exists, as racism provides a convenient scapegoat for white Americans uneasy about their own problems (see: Donald Trump) and helps today’s aristocracy maintain their control and influence. For example, the CEOs of the nation’s largest banks may not explicitly harbor racist beliefs, but the banks they run still systematically engage in widespread forms of mortgage discrimination, such as redlining and predatory lending.
Contrary to DiAngelo’s retelling, Robinson’s success did not render "whites, white privilege, and racist institutions invisible." It blatantly exposed the baseball moguls’ racism.
Even if these CEOs participated in DiAngelo’s seminars to purge their racist attitudes, their racist practices would remain intact because these practices are profitable. Banks have reformed only in response to pressure from grassroots community organizing, civil rights groups, research that documents their discriminatory lending practices, media exposure, and enforcement of anti-discrimination laws (such as the Community Reinvestment Act, passed in 1977).
Racism today functions to preserve racialized power relations, not to obscure them. This was also the case in 1947. Contrary to DiAngelo’s retelling, Robinson’s success did not render “whites, white privilege, and racist institutions invisible.” It blatantly exposed the baseball moguls’ racism, further evidenced by the fact that many owners didn’t integrate their rosters for years after Robinson joined the Dodgers.
• • •
In February 1933—when Robinson was fourteen years old—Heywood Broun, a syndicated columnist at the New York World-Telegram, addressed the annual dinner of the all-white New York Baseball Writers Association. If Black athletes were good enough to represent the United States at the 1932 Olympic Games, Broun said, “it seems a little silly that they cannot participate in a game between the Chicago White Sox and St. Louis Browns.” There was no formal rule prohibiting Black players from the major leagues, he continued, but instead a “tacit agreement” among owners. “Why, in the name of fair play and gate receipts should professional baseball be so exclusive?”
Later that month, Chester Washington, sports editor of the influential Black newspaper the Pittsburgh Courier, coordinated a four-month series of articles reporting the views of major league owners, managers, and players about baseball segregation. It began with an interview with National League President John Heydler, who said, “I do not recall one instance where baseball has allowed either race, creed, or color to enter into the question of the selection of its players.” The paper quoted Philadelphia Phillies President Gerry Nugent: “Baseball caters to all races and creeds. . . . It is the national game and is played by all groups. Therefore, I see no objections to negro players in the big leagues.” Though Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the powerful baseball commissioner, refused to respond to the Courier, his assistant Leslie O’Connor said there was no rule against Black players—hiring decisions were made by owners, not the commissioner. An informal “gentlemen’s agreement” among the owners and backed by the commissioner kept baseball segregated.
In February 1933 there was no formal rule prohibiting Black players from the major leagues, but instead a 'tacit agreement' among owners.
The integration of baseball, as portrayed in many films and books, is typically told as a tale of two trailblazers—Robinson, the combative athlete, and Rickey, the shrewd strategist who battled baseball and society’s bigotry. Though it is true that Rickey had long wanted to hire Black players—both for moral reasons and because he believed it would boost ticket sales among the growing number of African Americans who lived in big cities—Rickey’s plan only came after more than a decade of efforts by civil rights and left-wing groups to desegregate the national pastime.
Robinson was a courageous man, a fierce competitor, and an outstanding athlete, but he recognized that he also owed his success to the broader civil rights struggle that had put pressure on politicians and the baseball establishment. He repaid that debt many times over through his participation in the struggle for civil rights both during and after his playing days.
In the 1930s and ’40s, civil rights activists fought against discrimination in housing and jobs, mobilized for a federal anti-lynching law, protested against segregation within the military, marched to open up defense jobs to African Americans during World War II, challenged police brutality and restrictive covenants that barred African Americans from certain neighborhoods, and boycotted stores that refused to hire African Americans. The movement accelerated after the war, when returning Black veterans expected that the United States would open up opportunities for Black citizens.
As part of that movement, the Negro Press, civil rights groups, progressive white activists, unions, the Communist Party (CP), and radical politicians waged a sustained campaign to integrate baseball. The coalition included unlikely allies who found common ground in challenging baseball’s Jim Crow system. They believed that if they could push the nation’s most popular sport to dismantle its color line, they could make inroads elsewhere in American society.
A handful of white journalists for mainstream papers joined the crusade. They and their Black counterparts reminded readers that two Black athletes—Jesse Owens and Mack Robinson (Jackie’s older brother)—had embarrassed Hitler in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin by defeating Germany’s white track stars, and that white and Black Americans alike cheered boxer Joe Louis after he knocked out German Max Schmeling (whom Hitler touted as evidence of white Aryan superiority) in the first round at Yankee Stadium in 1938.
With a few exceptions, sportswriters for white-owned newspapers ignored the Negro Leagues and the burgeoning protest movement against baseball’s color line. In contrast, readers of the nation’s Black papers were well-informed about these players and the protests.
The Negro Press, civil rights groups, progressive white activists, unions, the Communist Party, and radical politicians waged a sustained campaign to integrate baseball. They believed that if they could push the nation’s most popular sport to dismantle its color line, they could make inroads elsewhere in American society.
Their reporters—especially Wendell Smith and Chester Washington of the Pittsburgh Courier, Fay Young of the Chicago Defender, Joe Bostic of the People’s Voice in New York, Sam Lacy and Art Carter of the Baltimore Afro-American, Mabray “Doc” Kountze of Cleveland’s Call and Post, and Dan Burley of New York’s Amsterdam News—pushed baseball’s establishment to hire Black players. They were joined by Lester Rodney, sports editor of the Communist Daily Worker. They published open letters to owners, polled white managers and players, brought Black players to unscheduled tryouts at spring-training centers, and kept the issue in the public eye.
Thanks to Smith, the Courier became the leading voice against baseball’s racial divide. In his first column on the issue in May 1938, Smith criticized Black Americans for spending their hard-earned money on teams that prohibited Black players. “We know they don’t want us, but we keep giving them our money,” he wrote. He also criticized Black Americans for not sufficiently patronizing the Negro League teams, putting them in constant financial jeopardy. Smith echoed the civil rights movement’s demand to boycott businesses that refused to hire or respect Black Americans.
In 1939 Smith interviewed National League President Ford Frick, who claimed that major league teams didn’t employ Black athletes because white fans would not accept them. He also noted that Black players wouldn’t be allowed to travel with their teams during spring training or in certain major league cities because Southern hotels, restaurants, and trains would not accept them—a reality that would undermine team spirit, Frick stated.
Frick’s comments inspired Smith to publish interviews with eight managers and forty National League players in the series “What Big Leaguers Think of Negro League Baseball Players” between July and September 1939. Among the managers only the Giants’ Bill Terry said Black players should be barred from major league teams. Dodgers’ manager Leo Durocher told Smith: “I’ve seen plenty of colored boys who could make the grade in the majors. Hell, I’ve seen a million.” He added: “I certainly would use a Negro ball player if the bosses said it was all right.” Other managers and players agreed.
These papers extolled the talents of Black players as equal to their white counterparts, pointing to the many exhibition games in which Negro teams defeated white teams. In October 1934, for example, the Negro Leagues’ Kansas City Monarchs beat a team of major leaguers, which included the St. Louis Cardinals’ ace pitcher Dizzy Dean. A week later, Satchel Paige and the Pittsburgh Crawfords defeated the same contingent of major leaguers, including Dean. (“Satchel Outhurls Dizzy!” read the Courier headline). In 1938, Dean, who grew up in rural Arkansas, told the Courier that Paige was “the pitcher with the greatest stuff I’ve ever seen.” The following year, Dean told Smith that Paige, Josh Gibson, and Oscar Charleston, all Negro League stars, were among the best players he’d ever seen. “I have played against a Negro all-star team that was so good we didn’t think we had a chance,” he said. The Communist Party newspaper, the Daily Worker, echoed these views in its stories such as this 1942 headline: “Paige Beats Big Leaguers: Negro Team Wins 3-1 Before 30,000 Fans in Chicago.”
Reporters published open letters to owners, polled white managers and players, brought Black players to unscheduled tryouts at spring-training centers, and kept the issue in the public eye.
During the 1930s and ’40s, the CP took strong stands against racism. It sent organizers to the South to organize sharecroppers and tenant farmers and participated in campaigns against lynching, police brutality, and Jim Crow laws. In Northern cities it led campaigns to stop landlords from evicting tenants and to push for unemployment benefits. In Harlem it helped launch the “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaign, urging consumers to boycott stores that refused to hire Black employees. Prominent Black Americans, including Paul Robeson, Richard Wright, and Langston Hughes, were attracted to the CP.
In 1938 the American Youth Congress, a group led by CP activists, passed a resolution censuring baseball for excluding Black players. A year later New York State Senator Charles Perry, who represented Harlem, introduced a resolution that condemned baseball for discriminating against Black ballplayers. Sports editors from New York area college newspapers adopted a similar resolution in 1940. A story in the Daily Worker that year proclaimed:
The campaign for the admission of Negro players to the major leagues has now become a national issue. . . . There is now the Committee to End Jim Crow in Baseball, which is growing rapidly and which has just launched a campaign to end this evil. . . . The magnificent talents of the Negro would be a tonic to the game, enriching it beyond measure.
No white journalist played a more central role in baseball’s civil rights movement than the Daily Worker’s Lester Rodney. The paper’s first sports editor, he was one of the few white sportswriters to cover the Negro Leagues and to protest baseball segregation. Dodgers’ manager Leo Durocher once told Rodney, “For a fucking Communist, you sure know your baseball.”
Like Smith and other sympathetic reporters, Rodney dismissed the argument that most players and managers opposed baseball integration. A typical Rodney story from 1939, titled “Big Leaguers Rip Jim Crow,” quoted Cincinnati Reds manager Bill McKechnie, who said that “I’d use Negroes if I were given permission.” Reds star pitcher Bucky Walters declared them “some of the best players I’ve ever seen.” Johnny Vander Meer, another Reds pitching ace, said, “I don’t see why they’re barred.” Yankee slugger Joe DiMaggio said that Satchel Paige was the best pitcher he ever faced. Rodney also interviewed Black players, challenging the myth that they preferred playing in the Negro Leagues to breaking into the majors.
Rodney had great rapport with the players. Between 1937 and 1939, he even recruited two progressive players—the Yankees’ Red Rolfe and the Cubs’ Rip Collins—to write for the Daily Worker. They wrote about baseball, not politics. But, according to Irwin Silber, Rodney’s biographer, “the fact that a major league ballplayer would be willing to write for the Daily Worker signified a degree of legitimacy for the Communist Party—or at least its newspaper—that could hardly have been imagined a few years earlier.”
In 1941 sportswriters for Black newspapers sent telegrams to team owners asking them to give tryouts to Black players. These tryouts were either cancelled or led to nothing.
Unions played another important role in the integration crusade. In 1940 the New York Trade Union Athletic Association, a coalition of progressive unions, organized an “end Jim Crow in baseball” day of protest at the World’s Fair. Alongside civil rights groups, they picketed outside Yankee Stadium, the Polo Grounds, and Ebbets Field in New York, Comiskey Park and Wrigley Field in Chicago, and Wrigley Field in Los Angeles (home of the minor league Los Angeles Angels). The speakers included Congressman Vito Marcantonio of New York and Richard Moore of the left-wing National Negro Congress. Over several years these activists gathered more than a million signatures on petitions demanding that baseball tear down the color barrier.
In 1941 Rodney, Smith, and sportswriters for other Negro newspapers sent telegrams to team owners asking them to give tryouts to Black players. The following year the Chicago White Sox reluctantly invited the Negro League pitcher Nate Moreland and UCLA’s all-American sports star Jackie Robinson to attend a tryout camp in Pasadena. Manager Jimmy Dykes raved about Robinson. But the two ballplayers never heard from the White Sox again. The Pittsburgh Pirates invited Negro League players Roy Campanella, Sammy Hughes, and David Barnhill to a tryout, then quickly canceled it.
• • •
The movement to integrate baseball escalated after the United States entered World War II in December 1941. Many Black Americans were uneasy about supporting the war effort when they faced blatant discrimination at home. Activists carried picket signs at Yankee Stadium, asking, “If we are able to stop bullets, why not balls?”
When the United States entered World War II in December 1941, activists carried picket signs at Yankee Stadium, asking, 'If we are able to stop bullets, why not balls?'
A month after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, James Thompson, a cafeteria worker in Kansas, coined the phrase “Double Victory” in a letter to the Pittsburgh Courier. He wrote, “The first V for victory over our enemies from without, the second V for victory over our enemies from within.” Black leaders and newspapers embraced the “Double V” campaign. Cumberland “Cum” Posey, owner of the Negro League’s Homestead Grays, suggested, in his weekly Courier column, that every Negro League player wear a Double V symbol on his uniform.
An editorial in the New Negro World in May 1942 reflected similar frustrations: “If my nation cannot outlaw lynching, if the [Army] uniform will not bring me the respect of the people that I serve, if the freedom of America will not protect me as a human being when I cry in the wilderness of ingratitude, then I declare before both God and man. . . TO HELL WITH PEARL HARBOR.”
Throughout the war years, Smith, Rodney, and other progressive sportswriters voiced their outrage about the hypocrisy of baseball’s establishment. In an open letter to Landis published in the Daily Worker in May 1942, Rodney charged that the baseball commissioner was “the man responsible for keeping Jim Crow in our National Pastime.” Two months later, Smith wrote that “big league baseball is perpetuating the very things thousands of Americans are overseas fighting to end, namely racial discrimination and segregation.”
That same year, Bill Veeck, who owned the minor league Milwaukee Brewers and had voted several times for Norman Thomas, the Socialist Party candidate for president, learned that the Philadelphia Phillies were bankrupt and for sale. According to Veeck, he quietly found investors, including CIO unions, then made a deal with the Phillies’ owner, Gerry Nugent, to buy the team. But hours before leaving for Philadelphia, Veeck made the mistake of informing Landis about his intentions to integrate the team and hire Black players. Before he had even reached Nugent’s office the next day, Veeck said that he learned that Landis and Frick had orchestrated a quick sale of the Phillies to another buyer.
Besides left-wing and civil rights groups, unions, and friendly politicians, the movement gained other important allies, including Chicago’s Catholic bishop, Bernard Shiel, who in 1942 announced that he would urge Landis to support integration. But there were powerful figures in the way. For example, Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith was outspoken about his opposition to allowing Black players in the majors, insisting that they should focus on improving their own leagues. In print Smith, who knew that Griffith profited handsomely by renting his ballpark to Negro League teams, lambasted the baseball mogul.
In 1943 representatives of the Black community met directly with baseball’s establishment for the first time.
On several occasions, union leaders demanded a meeting with Landis and the baseball owners to discuss desegregating the sport. Each time, the titans refused. Then, in December 1943, Smith asked Landis to meet with the publishers of leading Black newspapers at the baseball owners’ annual meeting. Landis agreed, pressured by a resolution sponsored by a New York City Council member demanding that the major leagues recruit Black players. This was the first time that representatives of the Black community met directly with baseball’s establishment.
Smith brought seven newspapermen along, as well as Paul Robeson, the Black actor, singer, activist, and former All-American athlete at Rutgers. Landis began the meeting by insisting that he wanted it “clearly understood that there is no rule, nor to my knowledge, has there ever been, formal or informal, or any understanding, written or unwritten, subterranean or sub-anything, against the hiring of Negroes in the major leagues.”
Then Landis introduced Robeson, who gave an impassioned twenty-minute appeal, referencing his experience in college and professional football and his current work as an actor, dispelling the idea that desegregation creates chaos. “It is up to baseball to see that discrimination does not become an American pattern. And it should do this this year.”
The owners gave him a rousing applause, but Landis had instructed them to ask him no questions. Landis next introduced John Sengstacke, president of the Negro Newspaper Publishers Association and the owner of the Chicago Defender. Sengstacke called the ban against Black players “un-American” and “undemocratic.” Then Ira Lewis, president of the Courier, told the owners it was simply untrue that major league players would refuse to play against Black athletes, based on Smith’s many interviews. He also reminded the owners that Black teams had defeated teams of major leaguers in various exhibition games. None of the baseball owners and executives asked the Black publishers any questions. After the meeting ended, they issued an official statement repeating Landis’s claims.
• • •
In 1944 Black newspapers wrote several stories to help publicize the court-martial of a Black soldier at Fort Hood, Texas—a former UCLA athlete—for refusing to go to the back of a military bus. The soldier was Jackie Robinson.
Landis died in November of that same year, and the owners replaced him with Albert “Happy” Chandler. As governor and then senator from Kentucky, Chandler had echoed the segregationist views of most white Kentuckians. So when Pittsburgh Courier reporter Ric Roberts interviewed Chandler, he was surprised to hear the new commissioner say that he didn’t think it was fair to perpetuate segregated teams. They should hire players to win ballgames “whatever their origin or race,” Chandler said. Baseball’s integration crusaders believed that Chandler would be less of an obstacle than Landis had been.
With many progressive unions and civil rights groups, a large Black population, and three major league teams, New York City was the center of the movement to end Jim Crow in baseball. Several New York politicians were allies of the campaign to integrate baseball. Running for re-election as a Communist to the New York City Council in 1945, Ben Davis—a Black man who starred on the football field for Amherst College before earning a law degree at Harvard—distributed a leaflet with the photos of two Black men, a dead soldier and a baseball player. “Good enough to die for his country,” it said, “but not good enough for organized baseball.”
Feeling the heat from politicians, baseball owners reluctantly agreed to study the issue of discrimination to deflect the problem and avoid bad publicity, but the committee never met.
In March of 1945, the New York State Legislature passed, and Republican Governor Thomas E. Dewey signed, the Ives-Quinn Act, which banned discrimination in hiring, and soon formed committees to investigate discriminatory hiring practices, including one focused on baseball. In short order, New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia established a committee on baseball to push the Yankees, Giants, and Dodgers to sign Black players. Left-wing Congressman Vito Marcantonio called for the U.S. Commerce Department to investigate baseball’s racist practices.
The baseball establishment was feeling the heat. Sam Lacy, a reporter for Baltimore’s Afro-American newspaper, wrote to all of the owners suggesting that they set up an integration committee. The owners reluctantly agreed to study the issue of discrimination to deflect the problem and avoid bad publicity, but the committee never met.
In April 1945 Joe Bostic, a Black sportswriter for the People’s Voice, appeared unannounced at the Dodgers’ training camp in upstate New York with Negro League stars Terry McDuffie and Dave Thomas and pressured Rickey into giving them tryouts. Rickey was furious. He wanted to bring Black players into major league baseball, but he wanted to do it on his terms and his timetable. He didn’t want the public to think that he was being pressured into it. But the ploy made the news. The New York Times ran a story headlined: “Two Negroes Are Tried Out by the Dodgers But They Fail to Impress President Rickey.”
The Dodgers’ white scouts, unfamiliar with the Negro Leagues, couldn’t help Rickey find the Black player he wanted to be baseball’s trailblazer. So, Rickey subscribed to the major Black newspapers, which published Negro League box scores, statistics, and schedules, and whose sportswriters gave accounts of its best players.
In 1945 Rickey’s search for the right player was inadvertently aided by Isadore Muchnick, a progressive Jewish member of the Boston City Council who was determined to push the Boston Red Sox to hire Black players. Owner Tom Yawkey was among baseball’s strongest opponents of integration, but Muchnick threatened to deny the Red Sox a permit needed to play on Sundays unless the team considered hiring Black players. Working with Smith and white sportswriter Dave Egan of the Boston Record, Muchnick persuaded the Red Sox’s reluctant general manager Eddie Collins to give three Negro League players—Robinson, Sam Jethroe, and Marvin Williams—a tryout at Fenway Park on April 16. Robinson, the most impressive of the three, hit line drives to all fields. “What a ballplayer,” said Hugh Duffy, the Red Sox’ chief scout and onetime outstanding hitter. “Too bad he’s the wrong color.”
When Robinson tried out for the Red Sox in 1945, the team's chief scout said, "What a ballplayer. Too bad he's the wrong color." The Red Sox, Pirates, and White Sox had no intention of signing any of the Black players from the tryouts.
The Red Sox, Pirates, and White Sox had no intention of signing any of the Black players from the tryouts. But the public pressure and media publicity helped further the cause, in part by giving Rickey, who did want to hire Black players, a push to act quickly if he wanted to be baseball’s racial pioneer.
After the phony Fenway Park tryout, Smith headed to Brooklyn to tell Rickey about Robinson’s superlative performance. He gave Robinson his strongest endorsement. Rickey agreed. On October 23, 1945, Rickey announced that Robinson—then playing for the Negro Leagues’ Kansas City Monarchs—had signed a contract to play for the Montreal Royals of the International League, the Dodgers’ top minor league team. He spent the 1946 season in Montreal and then was promoted to the Dodgers at the start of the 1947 season.
Robinson spent his major league career (1947–1956) with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was chosen Rookie of the Year in 1947 and Most Valuable Player in 1949. An outstanding base runner, with a .311 lifetime batting average, he led the Dodgers to six pennants and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962.
Off the field, he was outspoken—in speeches, interviews, and his regular newspaper column—against racial injustice. He viewed his sports celebrity as a platform from which to challenge American racism. During his playing career, he was constantly criticized for being so frank about race relations in baseball and in society. Many sportswriters and most other players—including some of his fellow Black players, content simply to be playing in the majors—considered Robinson too angry and too vocal. But his success on the baseball diamond was a symbol of the promise of a racially integrated society. His actions on and off the diamond helped pave the way for the United States to confront its racial hypocrisy. The dignity with which Robinson handled his encounters with racism among fellow players and fans stirred the consciences of many white Americans and gave Black Americans a tremendous boost of pride. Martin Luther King, Jr., once told Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe, “You'll never know what you and Jackie and Roy [Campanella] did to make it possible to do my job.”
After he retired from baseball in 1956, Robinson was a constant presence on picket lines and at rallies on behalf of the civil rights movement. He traveled to the South to support civil rights activists and raised money for civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In 1968 he publicly supported Black track stars John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s fist-raising protest at the Mexico City Olympic Games. In 1970, he was one of three former ballplayers (among Hank Greenberg and Jim Brosnan) to testify in federal court in support of Curt Flood’s challenge to baseball’s reserve clause, which kept players in indentured servitude to their teams. Concerned about his activism and influence, the FBI kept a file on Robinson.
Robinson observed: "I can’t believe that I have it made while so many of my Black brothers and sisters are hungry, inadequately housed, insufficiently clothed, denied their dignity, live in slums or barely exist on welfare."
Robinson lent his name and prestige to several business ventures, including a construction company and a Black-owned bank in Harlem, primarily to help address the shortage of affordable housing and the persistent redlining by white-owned banks. Both the construction company and the Harlem bank later fell on hard times and may have dimmed Robinson's confidence in black capitalism as a strategy for racial advancement and integration. As he grew older, Robinson became more impatient with the slow progress against racism in sports and society.
It was not until 1959 that the last holdout, the Boston Red Sox, brought a Black man onto its roster. The Black players who followed Robinson shattered racists’ belief that there weren't many African Americans “qualified” to play at the major league level. Between 1949 and 1960, Black players won eight out of twelve Rookie of the Year awards, and nine out of twelve Most Valuable Player awards in the National League, which was much more integrated than the American League. Many former Negro League players—including Larry Doby, Roy Campanella, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Ernie Banks—were perennial All-Stars.
At his final public appearance, after throwing the ceremonial first pitch at the 1972 World Series, Robinson criticized Major League Baseball for not hiring Black managers and coaches.
In his 1972 autobiography, I Never Had It Made, Robinson observed: “I can’t believe that I have it made while so many of my Black brothers and sisters are hungry, inadequately housed, insufficiently clothed, denied their dignity, live in slums or barely exist on welfare.”
White Fragility distorts the Robinson story to fit DiAngelo's view of white supremacy. The history of baseball’s integration reveals a different conclusion from that which DiAngelo peddles to her readers and audiences.
In White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo distorts the Robinson story to fit her own view of white supremacy. It is ironic that the upsurge of protest against American racism by Black Lives Matter has elevated DiAngelo’s narrow perspective that the solution to white supremacy is to purge ourselves of racist brainwashing rather than challenge those at the top of the nation’s most powerful institutions who benefit from our apartheid system. The history of baseball’s integration reveals a very different conclusion from that which DiAngelo peddles to her readers and audiences.
… in May, COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on Black Americans—coupled with the police killing of George Floyd—sparked a moment of racial reckoning. Articles such as this one reflect Boston Review’s commitment to combatting racism—from publishing strategies to end police violence to amplifying Black voices. Long before mainstream publications focused on racial justice, Boston Review provided one of the major forums for these discussions with seriousness and subtlety. We remain committed to the belief that race has a central place in any discussion of justice, democracy, and citizenship. Join us in providing free, open spaces for these conversations by becoming a supporting reader of Boston Review today.
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