This column originally appeared at Salon on February 24, 1997.
Fifty years ago this spring, Jackie Robinson broke the color bar in baseball. The events that followed provide a lesson for Black History Month — which ends this week — that many civil rights leaders seem to have forgotten. Following Robinson’s historic breakthrough, as everybody knows, other black athletes followed his example and professional basketball and football also became multiracial sports. Over the years, however, there were many doubters that these gains were possible or that the revolution would continue. The doubters said whites would never accept more than a few black players. There would always be quotas to limit the number of blacks. Whites, they said, would never allow blacks to become managers or quarterbacks or the owners of clubs. They said that if blacks became the majority of the players in professional basketball, for example, whites wouldn’t go to see the games.
But history has shown that on all counts the doubters were wrong. Blacks did become quarterbacks and managers and general managers. Superstars like Isiah Thomas and Magic Johnson even became owners. So thoroughly did blacks come to dominate sports that were once the exclusive province of whites that in basketball today almost 90 percent of the starting players are black. When the NBA All-Star Game was played last year, it was televised to 170 countries worldwide, and nine out of the 10 starting players were black multimillionaires, some with contracts totaling $50 million, $80 million and even $100 million. But despite this overwhelming tide of color in the sport, 80 percent of the paying customers are still white.
The most telling point in the history just summarized is the following neglected fact: This was all accomplished without government intervention and without affirmative action. There were no government policies or official guidelines laid down for owners of athletic teams, no EEOC investigators hovering around stadiums or summoning owners to court. No lawsuits were filed by NAACP lawyers, no consent decrees ordered by federal judges, no heavy government hand compelling owners to redress “past injustice.” Only two things were required to achieve this momentous change in America’s race relations: a single businessman with a vision, and a public to support him.
To begin the process toward equality, it was necessary that one man recognize the injustice and have the courage of his conviction. That man was Branch Rickey, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was Branch Rickey and Branch Rickey alone who decided to hire Jackie Robinson and make baseball a multiracial sport. But to complete the process another element was indispensable: the goodwill of the white fans. If whites had turned away from the game because of the presence of black players, Rickey’s efforts would have come to naught. But the crowds kept coming. Other owners, needing the best players to transform their clubs into winning teams, and seeing that the fans would accept players of any race, followed suit. And that was how the face of America’s sports industry was changed.
Sports club owners are not the most enlightened segments of the population, and neither perhaps are sports fans themselves. But they have shown over half a century that they are not racists either. Given the choice, they will accept black Americans, recognize their achievements and even worship them as popular icons and heroes, rewarding them like kings in the process.
So tolerant is the real America in 1997 that a black transvestite with orange and sometimes green hair can earn millions of dollars a year, be sought after for product endorsements and become an idol to white American youngsters. These are facts that need to be remembered at a time when so many civil rights leaders seem to want to dwell only on the negative aspects of our racial present and past.
The corrosive effect of affirmative action policies that insist on government-ordered racial preferences is to make America forget this history, and to convince black Americans that without government coercion and court decrees, they cannot get the justice they deserve. It is to convince them that whites are hopelessly racist and that black success depends on government agencies forcing whites to be fair. This is a perverse argument and I leave it to armchair psychologists to figure out why it is apparently so persuasive.
Jackie Robinson was able to break the color bar and enter the major leagues because he was better than most of the players at the time. The injustice of his exclusion was obvious first to one man and then, once Robinson had a chance to show what he could do, obvious to all. Americans are by and large a fair-minded people. As we commemorate Black History Month, it’s time for us all to acknowledge this fact.