Tuesday, May 7, 2013

"42" - Jackie Robinson and hope for America



4 decades after the assassination of Martin Luther King, America has reached a new era, not just with the election and reelection of Barack Obama, but with a willingness to begin to look at its awful, segregated history (in the Los Angeles Times last week, there was a piece on separate "but equal" proms in rural Georgia - see here). The inspiring movie on Jackie Robinson, “42,” illustrates that.

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It is the story of how Branch Rickey, ably rendered by Harrison Ford, stared down the racism of managers and players and fans, how he supported Jack Roosevelt Robinson, first baseman when he broke in (I had not known that) and then second baseman for Brooklyn Dodgers (Robinson is played by Chadwick Boseman). Robinson himself is a kind of Christ-figure, a man of the greatest courage, someone who could take slurs and not fight back except as a baseball player. Rickey himself offers, in the movie's difficult scenes, this analogy about Robinson and it is right.

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Rickey's manager in Montreal resorts quickly to slurs until Rickey shuts him up by threatening to fire him. Robinson's teammates in Brooklyn resort to racism, a petition against a black ballplayer. Pee Wee Reese does not sign; he is from Kentucky which he thinks – in a scene that ends well though his being a racist fool about the South, perhaps accurate, is awful – was part of the Confederacy. But poor whites in Tennessee and Kentucky fought on behalf of the Union (see V.O. Key, Southern Politics, chapter one). Perhaps Reese came from more privileged people - though he refuses to sign the petition because he needs the money and won't put his job on the line for that - and there is a long and benighted overlay of segregation since the Civil War. Still, the movie has him offering these thoughts as typical of the white South – his family from Kentucky are racists and he makes it a point to hug Jackie.

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One white workman comes to Jackie who shies from him, protecting his wife, and just wishes him luck as a ball player. He speaks, he says, for many others. That is a moment of truth in the film, something that reveals the promise of America for the future and also a symbolic point about some defeats in the past though note: lots of poor whites fought to smash slavery; John Brown was a farmer’s son….

The movement against bondage and racism has been strong from below, as my book Black Patriots and Loyalists underlines for sailors who were leaders of the Boston Tea Party and other revolutionary crowds, white and black…

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Robinson went to UCLA, a (then slightly) integrated University, as an athlete. He had been an officer in World War II. He responded to segregation, as an educated man and a warrior – someone who had moral and intellectual contempt for it. It is the only refuge of miserable people who feel badly about themselves (and actually make everyone else feel badly about them because of their conduct…).

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This film shows us how fierce the fight was to change America. Robinson helped the Dodgers win the pennant in 1947 – and the Series in 1955, making the slogan of Brooklyn no longer “Wait till next year.” But of course, it can’t tell the full truth.

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Brooklyn was a center of the radical labor movement, especially among electrical workers. At Cornell, I taught as a junior professor with David Lyons in the philosophy department, one of the leading philosophers of law in the United States at the time, the main proponent of fair treatment of utilitarian argument as well as a brilliant writer on civil disobedience, and a great human being. At a dinner party, someone foolishly said that there wasn’t much repression in the United States. David looked at him. David then told the story of being a member of the Young Workers Liberation League when he was 18 and 19, being followed around to 15 jobs in New York by the FBI and fired from every one of them. During World War II and into the late 1940s in New York, led by Brooklyn contingents, there were May Day marches of over a million people. There was a campaign by radicals and other ordinary people, including Communists, before and during World War II, to push Mr. Rickey to integrate the Dodgers.

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That Rickey responded, finally, is a great thing. His lines about profits are real – drawn also from many white, especially Jewish fans from Brooklyn. When I was growing up, all of my Brooklyn relatives were fiercely for the Dodgers (and Campy and Newk - Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe are shown with Jackie in a photo at the end of the movie) and obviously, with love for equality and contempt for racism; it is a living part of being a Jew. The black-Jewish alliance, of which all of the leaders of the Civil Rights delegation I went on to Palestine were keenly aware, was and is a real and deep thing. The policies of Israel and of the AIPAC leadership have eroded this, but among ordinary Jews, anti-racism runs deep. With the exception of blacks, Jews voted for Barack more strongly than any other group; American Jews are about 80% opposed to bombing Iran despite Netanyahu, Romney and AIPAC – it is just the elite of politicians, hardly Jewish, which is influenced fiercely by the voices of the neo-con Right and AIPAC; the latter are also very influential among Democratic politicians, largely through threat of being attacked ferociously from the Right, as well (what I sometimes call the right-wing two step of American politics).

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There are many Mr. Rickeys in America, many people throughout the society who stand up now against racism. There is a hope – it is also an economic and even survival necessity – to make all aspects of American life inclusive and to put an end to the bitterness of competition and lack of particular success which breeds racism and sexism.

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That such a film could exist as a mainstream movie – starring Harrison Ford among others - testifies to a new era.

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But there is another side. It will take a large movement from below to consolidate these gains, transform America into a place where fairness and decency, not the shadows of status-starvation and money hunger (being a “white male,” being “rich”), are the preconditions of what we do.

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A Palestinian student of mine recently finished a brilliant thesis. In talking with me, he mentioned that a light-skinned Arab, one who had had trouble in the Ph.D. program, couldn’t believe someone of darker skin was succeeding. This kind of racism characterizes every oppressed group; fairer blacks versus blacks, light-skinned Jews (Ashkenazis) versus those from Spain and Africa (Sephardim), brahmans in India versus Dravidians; light skinned Arabs versus dark. Those who benefit from a society often use racism and sexism and claims of foreignness or otherness to divide people up. If these had no hold on some ordinary people, a strategy of divide and rule could not succeed. The possibility of curing one’s own feelings of weakness and inferiority by joining the elite and degrading others like oneself, is real in every group.

As my student suggested, it is the competition that brings out the racism (and the same goes for sexism and homophobia). But the younger generation is wonderfully losing much of this entirely; it has provoked the changes which are now penetrating far even into the Republican Party (see the New York Times here).

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Saturday Charles Blow in the New York Times gave a depiction of the middle class which is being ground down by the new economy in which the .00001% flourish and everyone else is a job, a child in college, a health care crisis away from falling out, joining those in misery. See here. This kind of fear could elect those committed to "restoring the past" through the use of military force abroad and greater repression at home; it is, before our eyes, a powerful countertendency to decency – and human survival – here. We can see this in Europe as well where austerity has done far more damage (see the Rogoff- Reinhart fraud here).

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The trend is compounded by a recent study of how inequality has grown, blacks and Chicanos have lost wealth, have not been reemployed or enabled to find another home in the depression (see here, here and here). Recent figures record that blacks have 1% of total wealth and Chicanos 2% (the bottom 70% of the American population owe more than they own...).

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But we now have a circumstance in America after the abolitionist movement in the revolution and Civil War, after the civil rigths movement and the defeat of segregation, and with the movement that has elected and reelected Obama to make a significant change. The world cannot afford US militarism, its contribution to global warming (oil addiction) and the waste of human lives. We need a strong movement from below to go forward. May number “42” and the transformation of baseball (now oddly a primarily white-Latin sport) be a symbol for the transformation of society which is yet fully to come.

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