First Base on Race
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Playing first for the Brooklyn Dodgers that day was Jackie Robinson, the rookie ballplayer who had recently broken Major League Baseball’s color line. The rattling that Robinson had received thus far was much worse than just racial slurs. Days earlier, Robinson’s life had been threatened, and his family had received threats that his infant son Jackie Jr. would be kidnapped. Members of opposing teams sat in their dugouts pointing their bats at him and simulating machine gun noises. The Phillies coach fined his pitchers if they failed to throw at Robinson. The hotel where the Dodgers stayed refused to admit Robinson, and the organist at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field played “Bye, Bye, Blackbird” as Robinson walked off the field. No wonder Robinson’s batting average had slumped. No wonder he was contemplating quitting.
Early in the game, after laying down a perfect bunt, Robinson had collided with Greenberg at first, with Robinson going on to reach second. The following inning, Greenberg was walked. Arriving at first base, Greenberg asked Robinson if he had been hurt in the earlier collision, and Robinson assured Greenberg that he hadn’t been. Greenberg then said to Robinson, “Don’t pay any attention to these guys who are trying to make it hard for you. Stick in there. . . . I hope you and I can get together for a talk. There are a few things I’ve learned through the years that might help you and make it easier.”
Robinson was deeply moved by Greenberg’s supportive words and praised him in the African American press. Following the game, The New York Times reported Jackie saying, “Class tells. It sticks out all over Mr. Greenberg.” The two men would always remain in touch, their meeting at first base becoming the foundation for their friendship for years ahead. (S. Harwood, H. Brackman, “Going to Bat for Jackie Robinson: The Jewish Role in Breaking Baseball’s Color Line.” Journal of Sports History, Spring 1999, pp. 115-141)
This morning, I want to use the image of Greenberg and Robinson together at first base to frame some preliminary reflections about race, reflections I believe to be both modest and ambitious. Neither Greenberg nor Robinson was a political philosopher, nor, for that matter, a community activist. They were athletes. As Mark Kurlansky explains in his book Hank Greenberg: The Hero Who Didn’t Want to Be One, Greenberg had an ambivalent relationship with his Judaism; his dream was to be a great ballplayer, never a great Jewish ballplayer. Which is why, I think, I love the image of the two men that day in Pittsburgh. Standing at first base with Robinson at his side, Greenberg realized that there was a bit of his own story in Robinson’s story. Greenberg didn’t have to say anything. It was the final year of his career as a player, and because of the reserve clause, he had been ingloriously traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Greenberg would have been well within his rights to give Robinson a nod and carry on his business. But that is not what he did. He saw Robinson and acknowledged that he, perhaps better than anyone, understood the uphill battle Robinson faced, and given the choice of doing nothing or doing something, he chose the latter, becoming what we would call an ally.
In the years ahead, Greenberg would leverage his stature more forcefully. As General Manager for the Cleveland Indians, Greenberg would be publicly criticized for fielding too many African Americans – more than any other team. As GM, Greenberg refused to have his team stay at any hotel that denied admittance to all his players, remembering when he, as a ballplayer, had been denied rooms at hotels because he was Jewish. Greenberg knew the structural racism that African American ballplayers faced, and in his spheres of influence, to the degree that he could, took steps to dismantle it. But Greenberg’s activism did not begin when he was a GM. It began when he realized that his own words, his own actions, and his own behavior mattered – his willingness to respond to his inner compass and connect to the common humanity of another, no matter the color of their skin. That happened on first base that 1947 day.
“To think of man in terms of white, black, or yellow,” wrote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “is more than an error. It is an eye disease, a cancer of the soul.” Heschel spoke those words at a 1963 Conference on race and religion, in a time that, like our own, sought redress against the systemic injustices experienced by the African American community. In calling out racism as an eye disease, Heschel signaled that important as the civil rights agenda was, the first step was to address the root cause of racism: the prejudices, biases, and chauvinisms that lie within the heart and soul of every human being. Similar to King’s message later that year from his Birmingham jail cell, the object of Heschel’s prophetic charge was not so much the overt racist, but rather the well-intended white person whose unexamined prejudices perpetuated the structural impediments to creating a just society.
Yes, there were public battles to be fought against segregation – sit-ins and freedom rides, marches and protests – but the segregation on Heschel’s mind was between humanity and God. Heschel reminded his audience that the front line of the fight against racism was in one’s soul, an impassioned plea that every human be treated with the honor due to a being created in the divine image. Yes, the laws on the books had to be changed, but that was a process contingent on every person examining their received biases and addressing their internalized prejudices. Then and only then could the systemic and enduring societal changes take place. Akin to how Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 case that overturned “separate-but-equal,” was informed by doll tests revealing the pernicious effects of segregation on young children, Heschel knew that the root cause of the societal ills of his era could be found in the heart of every individual listening to his words. Some may have been more guilty than others, but everyone was a contributor, everyone was responsible.
And what Heschel understood then is as true today as it ever was. We could, if we so chose, talk about Black Lives Matter, police reform, the politics of monuments, intersectionality, and educational access. We could talk about all sorts of uncomfortable things, leaving some people to think we are saying too much and others that we are saying too little. But as the leader of a religious institution, it strikes me that my primary calling card is to prompt the really uncomfortable conversation lived by each of us regarding the degree to which we do or don’t see our fellow as created equally in the image of God. To ask ourselves the awkward question of implicit bias, the manner in which we have been conditioned to see the world, to see “the other,” and consider if the lens of our vision, and by extension of our souls, is not more distorted than we would care to admit.
Most of us, I hope, do not consider ourselves to be racist. Most of us, I imagine, would say of ourselves that we give everyone a fair shake, treat everyone the same way, judge people by their character, not the color of their skin. Further, some would say, we give to the right causes, supporting scholarships and assistance to those seeking educational and economic access. We are, after all, a socially liberal New York synagogue. We are the good guys. If we cannot be relied on as allies, then who? But then I catch myself as I walk into a store, realizing that I have already made a million assumptions about who does what – based on how people look. And I know, uncomfortable as it is for me to admit it, that my every act of walking down the street or through the park is laden with distinctions between me and “the other,” and that regrettable as I may find the latest news item rooted in profiling, I do not find it surprising. I know the sense of security I feel when a police car pulls up next to me, and I know that that my experience is not shared by all people of color. I know that, startled and grieved as I am by a world marked by the offenses wrought by bias, I am not shocked. In my own limited sphere, am I not myself guilty of the same?
And I know that when I turn the lens onto the Jewish community, my own community, here, too, I come up wanting. I am given pause when I think of the Jewish mother of color who shared with me her frustration because she was presumed to be a nanny by other parents at drop-off. I am given pause by the experience of a child of color at her Jewish summer camp who was teased by the other kids for not being Jewish. I conduct an audit of my staff, my programs, and my own words, and I know there is still much work to be done. Confessions of bias need not be damning; they are opportunities to acknowledge the work that needs to be done. Leadership means it is not enough to talk the talk, we need to walk the walk. There is work to be done because building an inclusive community is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I want the next generation of children at Park Avenue Synagogue to believe that a Jew of color is unremarkable, then I must make it unremarkable. If I want my children or, more likely, grandchildren not to inherit or internalize deeply ingrained notions of race, then I myself must work to eliminate the structures that serve to perpetuate those notions. It is not enough to consider yourself one of the good guys and go about your business. You have to check your implicit biases; you have to live intentionally knowing they are present; and then you have to work on the much broader and deeper societal transformations that await.
Our Torah reading describes inequity based on gender, not race, recounting how the disenfranchised daughters of Tzelophehad successfully transformed the biblical laws of inheritance. The medieval commentator Rashi attributes their success to the fact that they saw with their eyes what Moses’s eyes did not. The first step is to open our eyes. Only then can we effectuate structural change. It is not easy, but it is not impossible, and the good news is that it is in all of our power to do so.
Until twenty-four hours ago, the parting image of this sermon was going to be the final public appearance of Greenberg and Robinson, brought together to testify before the Supreme Court on behalf of Curt Flood against the reserve clause. A closing scene and fitting tribute to their friendship which I encourage you to read about.
But then something really unexpected happened in Pittsburgh. This time, the sport was football. As you may have heard, earlier this week Philadelphia wide receiver DeSean Jackson posted a screed against Jews, as significant for its offensive nature as for the fact that the recently woke NFL has been as silent on Jackson’s antisemitism as it has been vocal of late on any racism.
About thirty-six hours ago, Pittsburgh offensive tackle Zach Banner posted a response to Jackson which I encourage you to read or listen to in full. In brief, without platitudes, banalities, or anger, Banner, who is of Chamorro and African American descent, addresses Jackson and his antisemitism, seeking to correct the misbelief among Black and Brown people regarding Jews. Having spoken of his Jewish friends and his horror at the Pittsburgh shooting, Banner preaches that important as the work of Black Lives Matter may be, its achievements can’t come by way of stepping on the backs of other people, meaning Jews. In Banner’s own words: “We can’t preach equality but as a result we’re just trying to flip the script and change the hierarchy. . . . Change your heart, put your arm around people, and let’s all uplift each other.” (https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/news/articles/zach-banner-desean-jackson-anti-semitism)
Who would think that some 70 years after that 1947 day in Pittsburgh, it would be an African American athlete in the same city who would call out his own community on prejudice against Jews? Bias operates in every direction, sometimes all at the same time, and the pressures of our moment run the risk of bringing out the worst in people, not the best. Our shared human condition alerts us to the fact that we are all flawed and that we are all capable of doing better. So let’s do what Greenberg did in 1947, what Heschel preached in 1963, and what Banner posted this past week. Change our hearts, put our arms around people, and uplift each other. It is not everything, but it is something and it is certainly better than nothing. It is, you might say, first base. But maybe, just maybe, from there we will round the bases together, creating a world able to house the hopes and dreams we all share for our children and grandchildren.