Before he broke Major League Baseball’s race barrier in 1947, Jackie Robinson was summoned by Branch Rickey, a Brooklyn Dodgers team executive. According to Arnold Rampersad’s Robinson biography, Rickey told Robinson, “I know you’re a good ballplayer. What I don’t know is whether you have the guts."
What Rickey wanted was a black man who would remain stoic even as n-words poured from dugouts and bleachers, or when opposing white players slid into him, their sharpened cleats held high. “I’m looking for a ballplayer,” he said, “with guts enough not to fight back.”
Always, black people are expected to accommodate bigotry. To cure racism, we’re supposed to magically rise above it, instead of stripping it bare and calling out its practitioners and enablers. Just as foundational as racism itself is the corrosive belief that the burden of its eradication lays on the weary shoulders of those directly maligned by it.
Asking black people to stop racism is like asking women to stop sexism.
That’s been an undercurrent to the recent drama swirling around Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s decision to step back from their royal duties and split their time between England and North America. Even though Queen Elizabeth has endorsed the young couple’s plans, a primary question from Markle’s critics lingers: Yes, she’s treated with racist disdain by the British media, but does she have to make such a big deal out of it?
This was The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd’s terrible recent take: “Still, I think Meghan Markle should have wielded her wokeness where it is most needed — in Buckingham Palace,” she wrote. “She could have channeled the Obamas, who did a magnificent job of rising above racist taunts and working within the institution to imprint a new image of racial possibility in America.”
See, the racism that plagued Markle was her own fault because she refused to stiff-upper-lip her way through it. Also, white America reacted to the Obamas’ “new image of racial possibility” — whatever that nonsense means — by electing this nation’s most openly racist president.
In his January 2017 essay, “My President Was Black,” Ta-Nehisi Coates said of the outgoing chief executive, “For eight years, Barack Obama walked on ice and never fell.” Of course, Obama had no choice, even when he was deliberately pushed by racist GOP legislators or a future president. Had he put aside the noted Obama cool for a minute (as many of us wished he would), his presidency would have drowned in accusations that he was stirring racial unrest.
In a racist system, challenging racism is deemed worst than racism — that’s why the International Olympic Committee has banned specific protests at the 2020 Summer Olympics, such as kneeling on the medal stand. As if politics haven’t long played a prominent role in the Games. Athletes must learn to abide, although some are already resisting.
During his Hall of Fame career, Robinson did not resist Rickey’s demand. Sixteen years after he retired, he was dead, at 53. Officially, he died from a heart attack. Unofficially, the enormous weight of the racism he was forced to ignore probably helped kill him.
At the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama first spoke the line which has become her trademark: “When they go low, we go high.” As first lady, she certainly endured her share of racist ire and handled it publicly with the same pragmatism and poise as her husband.
Whatever is thrown at us, black people are charged with having guts enough not to fight back — to rise above, regardless of the emotional and psychological cost. While the racists sit comfortably, we’re chased higher into the thin, frigid air where we either find some temporary escape, like Meghan, or can no longer breathe at all, like Jackie.