Liberals simply don't take racism seriously enough. No, I DON'T upbraid them for failing to attack the overt Neanderthal racism of the wingnut right; here liberals are always ready--and rightly so--to jump into the breach. What I mean is the subtle but highly sinister effects a long history of racism can have in a nation--and not just on the target race, but on the lives of that nation's citizens, of any race whatever.
Before addressing my central topic--our picking the worst possible moment to experiment with a first black president--I need to illustrate my point about racism's sinister effects with an example. Liberals lack something in their basic makeup, perhaps best described as a "sense of original sin" or a "tragic sense of history," that cripples their imaginations for truly appreciating the subtle harm--I mean primarily the psychological harm--racism does. While some individuals show incredible, heroic resilience and emerge as solid citizens from the worst mistreatment, the simple fact is that being mistreated does most people lasting psychological harm. Just ask any victims of bullying. More pertinent here is the perfectly realistic cynicism afflicting large numbers of blacks even today--a cynicism that, however rightly grounded in historical (and continuing) injustice, is itself a cancer eating away at work ethic, political participation, and individual aspiration. And a cancer eating away at society as a whole, for any worthwhile society depends on widespread (and interracial) trust.
Yet many liberals will shriek "racism" at the mere suggestion black communities carry lasting psychological scars from their tragic history. And many conservatives, even more reprehensibly, readily see the crippling scars and simply blame the victims for having them. Only a tragic sense of human community--a sense that we're ALL to blame and need to reform--can move us beyond our racism-induced paralysis.
Lacking a tragic, psychologically astute sense of history, liberals were too ready to embrace the election of Barack Obama, our first black president, as a cloudless feel-good story and Obama himself as the stuff hagiographies are made of. But while politics is certainly hardball, it sure as hell ain't baseball, and perhaps too many liberals applied Jackie Robinson's stunning, courageous success in smashing the pro sports color barrier as likely model for Obama's presidency. Wrongo!--and a greater degree of wrongo is hard to imagine.
Of course, the almost incalculable stake the whole world has in just and sagacious policy-making by a U.S. president is the CRUCIAL difference. Had Jackie Robinson proved a Bush-league flop (couldn't resist the big-B pun!), the just cause of black athletes and the quality of professional sports would have been set back a few years, and overall racism perhaps mildly reinforced, but society would have remained substantially unchanged. While a hideously low Obama batting average--what we're in fact seeing--has grievous (and worldwide) consequences.
Although the Jackie Robinson baseball analogy has clear limits, based on the gravity of what's at stake, I think it can, if properly reworked, offer us some striking insight. Instead of imagining Jackie Robinson as the first black player, imagine him instead as the first black commissioner. And imagine this at a time when pro-baseball officialdom is totally controlled by whites, and when baseball has just been rocked by a scandal--let's say, the 1919 Black Sox game-fixing scandal on steroids--that threatens the very survival of pro baseball as a sport.
For those who didn't share my boyhood fetish for baseball history (my playing skill never transcended a nasty Whiffle ball sinker), the Black Sox scandal involved at least eight players on the American League champion Chicago White Sox who conspired with professional gamblers to lose the 1919 World Series, partly for money and partly for revenge on their reputed skinflint team owner. But let's now imagine an update of this scandal, where games "fixed" for gambling purposes don't occur just in the World Series but are a staple of regular-season play. And when I say the 1919 scandal is "on steroids," let's also imagine that certain favored players are selectively allowed by baseball officials to indulge in steroid use, while others are rigorously fined, suspended, or banned; let's imagine also that the shady betting and game-fixing involves not just a few American mobsters, but international crime rings ultimately connected to top oligarchs in Russia, India, China, and Japan. Finally, let's imagine that more than a whiff of this scandal has reached the American baseball public, and that many ardent fans, pining for the lost integrity of their beloved American pastime, are themselves bordering on "roid rage."
If we're allowed to play fast-and-loose with historical timing, it's easy to imagine the role Jackie Robinson, as first black commissioner of baseball, might face in such a scandal. If the scandal had been associated with exclusively white commissioners, it's easy to imagine fans, for the sake both of uprooting historical racism and bringing a fresh, uncorrupt, trusted face to baseball's top echelons, clamoring for Jackie Robinson as commissioner. And of course, Robinson's heroic, groundbreaking role as a player would have made him the perfect symbolic choice. And baseball management's top echelon, in the throes of their sport-shaking scandal, "grok" the value of Robinson's symbolic stature--AND his executive inexperience. So they're willing to rubber-stamp fan-dom's popular pick--on certain terms.
If Robinson triumphantly withstood daunting pressures as a color-barrier-bursting player, he would have faced utterly withering ones, in such circumstances, as neophyte black commissioner. For, unlike the sharp baseball skills, finely honed, he brought to his role as player, he would have little in his personal skill-set quite relevant to the commissioner's role. Moreover, while it had long since been understood blacks could hold their own and then some with whites as athletes, their inferiority to whites in the CEREBRAL skills needed for executive roles had long endured as a racist meme. Robinson would have felt potent pressure to seek advice from the corrupt but experienced white execs around him, and they also--whatever his allegiance to baseball fans--would have been the judges daily surrounding him to whom he would have felt obliged to prove his intellectual competence. It's pretty safe to say not real reform, but success at providing the APPEARANCE of reform, is the competence test they would have applied. And lastly, for successfully providing this mere appearance, they would have whispered to Robinson of riches far exceeding what his days as a player--or commissioner--could provide.
In short, all the powerful pressures of a deeply corrupt white baseball executive world would have prevailed on Robinson as commissioner to become what he had NEVER been as a player: professional baseball's Uncle Tom. One can only speculate on whether even HIS character would have survived the test. Perhaps that character would have manifested itself in simply declining the commissioner's role.
If we take the immense pressures facing Jackie Robinson as imaginary first black commissioner of a deeply corrupt white-dominated baseball world--and put those pressures on serious steroids--we can begin to imagine the inexorable buzzsaw inexperienced Illinois senator Barack Obama must have faced as our first black president. A world of corrupt white power in deep disrepute due to Bush but just as deeply entrenched--with FAR higher stakes than our imagined game-fixing baseball profiteers. An omnipresent, circumambient white world--a world with corrupt standards of competence--to which Obama felt pressured to prove himself daily. And a world eager to richly reward "competence." Perhaps Jackie Robinson--perhaps even Martin Luther King--would have caved under the overwhelming pressure. And Obama had never yet endured the public character-forming ordeals of either. With the eye of retrospect, it seems deeply imprudent for Barack Obama--and for us as voters--to have tried the experiment when we did. Uncle Tom's White House was the all but inevitable result.