Black History Lesson

Published February 24, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

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
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
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
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
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

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.

By David Horowitz

David Horowitz is a conservative writer and activist.

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