A year before he made his Negro League debut, on July 6, 1944, Jackie Robinson refused to sit in the back of a bus, prompting his discharge from the Army. It was 11 years before Rosa Parks stood up against injustice in Alabama. Robinson was ahead of his time and exuded courage that, in Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, “challenged the dark skies of intolerance and frustration,” in this country, which remains a pivotal point of his legacy.
The 73rd anniversary of his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers is today, and although there isn’t baseball, Major League Baseball is paying its respects to Robinson on this day digitally by having players wear #42 on the Internet.
Likely if Robinson were alive, he would be frustrated with all that has transpired during the COVID-19 pandemic. But the great thing about Robinson was, through his well-documented defiance and rage against injustice, he remained optimistic. He believed in the good of humanity.
Even in this current emergency as we watch systemic racial disparities be exposed once more, Robinson, to a certain extent, might even feel at ease that the consciousness of this country can’t turn away and must lie in the bed it created.
Learning that black Americans have disproportionately died from coronavirus makes me think of a statement that Robinson made many decades ago that still rings true today.
“Negroes aren’t seeking anything which is not good for the nation as well as ourselves. In order for America to be 100 percent strong — economically, defensively and morally — we cannot afford the waste of having second- and third-class citizens.”
The structural racism that has been exposed during this pandemic is not new. Recent evidence shows African-Americans account for 70 percent of coronavirus deaths in Chicago, even though the city’s population is only 30 percent black. Those numbers are echoed in urban and rural cities across this country. Robinson and many of his peers spoke publicly about the structural racism that existed in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s.
It still exists today.
“I think if we go back and check our record, the Negro has proven beyond a doubt that we have been more than patient in seeking our rights as American citizens,” Robinson said on April 14, 1957.
In this country, black people who live in predominantly urban areas systemically are set up to receive the worst that COVID-19 has to offer. From food deserts to grossly intrinsic pollution that funnels it’s way into black neighborhoods via creosote and other chemicals — which contribute to higher levels of diabetes, hypertension, asthma and cancer — the years of institutional neglect of black communities has left them decimated.
Robinson suffered from heart disease and diabetes himself, which ultimately led to his death at 53.
And let’s not forget how black people disproportionately work as grocery store clerks, drivers and delivery workers, which during a pandemic is considered “essential work”, exposing them daily to the disease for low pay. They don’t get to self-isolate. It should be surprising to absolutely no one that when a respiratory disease bubbles to the surface, black people suffer far more than others — even if Donald Trump says, “It doesn’t make sense and I don’t like it.”
The trickle-down effect of the pandemic has also had a devastating impact on black unemployment.
After breaking the color barrier, Robinson’s career speaks for itself. His ability to hit, steal bases and field multiple positions in 10 years in the majors — after getting a late start at 28 — made him Cooperstown-worthy, but his work in social activism and his fight for racial equality cemented his legacy as one of our most important voices ever.
As we trudge through this pandemic, Robinson’s voice is as important as it’s ever been.