THE BLOG
08/14/2013 04:54 pm ET | Updated Oct 14, 2013

Jackie Robinson and Race in America, Then and Now: A Tale of Two Movies

Recently I watched "The Jackie Robinson Story" ("TJRS") (1950) (staring Jackie Robinson as himself) and "42 "(2013) back to back. They tell the story of how Robinson broke the color barrier in professional baseball and changed race relations in America.

Watching the movies, I thought about some of the bad and terrible still imbedded in race in America. In June, five of the nine members of the Supreme Court put the voting rights of African Americans and other minorities seriously at risk for the first time since enactment of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. African Americans remain subject to profiling and targeting by vigilantes and police, as demonstrated by the killings of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida and Oscar Grant in Oakland, California. Young African American men over-populate our prisons and death rows disproportionately to their numbers in the general population.

The movies transported me to 1947, when I was nine, living in Brooklyn and, like everyone I knew, a committed Brooklyn Dodgers fan. One day I was having my hair cut. A bunch of the barbers and customers talk about how Dixie Walker (the Dodgers right fielder and then one of my heroes) was leaving the team because Robinson was joining it. For years, I wondered what that was about.

My family was committed to the "Jackie Robinson Dodgers." When we listened to games on the radio, if Robinson got a hit, stole a base, or made a great play, my mother would exclaim: "That's my boy." She meant no offense and none would have been taken, which is apparent in TJRS.

TJRS and "42" tell the same story, and plumb the depths of race hatred and segregation. Both dramatize incidents, often the same ones. But, they use different words, tones and colors that inform us about race in America in 1950 (the year TJRS was released), and now 63 years later in 2013 (when "42" was released).

TJRS soft peddles the darkest sides of racism and "Jim Crow," the web of segregation laws and practices enacted and implemented, following the Civil War and the end of Reconstruction, still in place well into the 1960's. Branch Rickey, who brought Robinson to the Dodgers, refers to him as "boy" without even a hint that it was demeaning; the words "nigger" and "shine" are used only once each. Images of segregated buses, restaurants and hotels, and risks of violence are muted. The 1950 film even has comic relief principally in the antics of a diminutive player called "Shorty."

TJRS ends with Robinson addressing Congress, prophetically imagining "a country where every child has the opportunity to become President."

Although "42" is upbeat, there is nothing funny, light or muted in it about bigotry, segregation, and threats of violence. It shows racism for what it is -- raw, ugly and dangerous. "42" pushes in our faces stark images of segregated hotels, public rest rooms, public transportation, the unlimited power minor white functionaries had over African Americans, and ever present risks of violence. It includes among its brutal images an extended dramatization of Phillies manager Ben Chapman repeatedly yelling "nigger" and other hateful epithets at Robinson.

TJRS showed segregation and racism to white northern audiences in a lazy way without starkly displaying its brutality, probably because in 1950, lynching's and the grossest kinds of Jim Crow mostly were relegated to the South. Nothing much had happened to challenge everyday segregation. President Truman had issued an order integrating the military in 1948, but only after early defeats in Korea did the command structure systematically begin implementing the order. And those changes took place in the separate world of the military.

Then along comes the 1954 Brown school desegregation decision. It is followed in 1957 and 1958 by images on television of hateful violent white mobs terrorizing nine black high school students who desegregated Little Rock Central High School, which was followed in the 1960's by the Freedom Summers complete with freedom riders and Southern blacks brutalized by clubs, police dogs, fire hoses and Klan murders. The nation was galvanized to end segregation.

"42" shows the images of segregation's everyday brutality and its violence in a way that TJRS could not, because they had not yet caught most white northerners' eyes when TJRS was shot. "42" also shows more violent imagery of segregation and racism because today we can think about them as mostly "history"--i.e., safely remote in time.

Yet, although not constantly in our faces, racism and discrimination remain close to the surface, giving me pause personally and as a citizen.

Racism is again so soft-focus that the Supreme Court got away with gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Section 4 and Section 5 of the Act required several southern states, and parts of other states, including my adopted home state of California, to pre-clear with the U.S. Department of Justice or federal courts any changes in their laws affecting voting due to those jurisdictions' long history of interfering with African Americans' or Latinos' right to vote. It was reenacted overwhelmingly by Congress and signed by President George W. Bush in 2006. This June, a five person majority of the Supreme Court declared Section 4 unconstitutional on the grounds that the mountain of evidence on which the 2006 reenactment was based was stale and not linked to current African American voting patterns.

The center piece of the decision is epitomized by Chief Justice Roberts' observation that: "But history did not end in 1965." Of course not. However, even though African Americans and other minorities increasingly vote and capture political office in the States and jurisdictions that were subject to Sections 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act, not enough has changed since 1947, 1950, 1954 or 1965.

Republican-governed Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, North Carolina and Florida's immediate responses to the 2013 Voting Rights decision were to tighten voter eligibility standards, shorten voting times, and tighten voter identification requirements--to purge voting rolls of people suspected of not being eligible to vote. The brunt of these efforts demean and fall heavily on persons of color, most of whom are entitled to vote.
Both of the Jackie Robinson movies include scenes of Robinson at Spring training in 1946 with the Montreal Royals in Sanford, Florida. Sanford's police chief quashed Robinson's participation in practice games, because local law prohibited mixed race sporting events.

It is impossible not to think about volunteer watchman George Zimmerman's killing of Trayvon Martin in Sanford last year, and Zimmerman acquittal of murder and manslaughter. Almost surely, the unarmed young African American victim was racially profiled by the heavily armed Zimmerman, but that was not part of the proof at trial.

One of my sons-in-law is African American, and two of my grandchildren are beautiful mixed race or African American teenagers. My son-in-law has told me just a little of his experience with racial profiling. I have witnessed some of the thinly veiled reactions he and my daughter get to being a bi-racial couple, and similar reactions to my African American grandchildren. I cannot help but worry about how potentially unsafe and subject to racial bigotry they would be if they travel to Florida to visit relatives.

When I think about Oscar Grant's killing (adjudged involuntary manslaughter) by a white BART policeman at BART's Oakland, California Fruitvale station, I worry about my family's risks even in the progressive San Francisco Bay Area.

TJRS and "42" identify the essence of why people of color remain more at risk in America than Caucasians. TJRS includes a scene in which Clay Hopper, the manager of the Montreal Royals, asks Branch Rickey: "Do you really think he [Robinson] is a human being?"

In "42," Dodgers' manager Leo Durocher exhorts the Dodgers team shortly after Robinson joined it: "I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a fuckin' zebra." As Durocher pungently says it, race and color need to be perceived by all as little more than curiosities, not characteristics that define a person's humanity.