Home | Back Issues

Thursday, April 17, 1997

Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright

It's almost incomprehensible that within a three-day span a confluence of events could yield such a concise microcosm of America in the last half-century. The Entertainment State, in full commemorative mode, seized on a couple of these occurrences and milked them in predictable fashion, saluting itself for making the plausible connections, while successfully retaining its contextually challenged prestige.

There was much gurgling about the obvious, if simplistic, link between the breakthroughs of Tiger Woods and Jackie Robinson in their respective sports, though only marginally forthcoming was any connecting of the dots to the announcement that a presidential task force comprised of industry, labor and human rights groups had reached tentative agreement on a code of conduct to combat global sweatshops.

Every newspaper in the country ran the photo of Woods wearing a Nike sweatshirt after his Masters' triumph. Above the fold on those same front pages was a photo of Robinson, in baggy Dodger blue, on the eve of the 50th year the color line in sports had been breached. Robinson was beholden to one of the exemplary men of our times, Branch Rickey, and his remuneration was standard rookie scale. Woods counts as his sponsor one Phil Knight, boomer parvenu, from whom he receives $40 million for services rendered. Within those points of comparison lies the tale of the second half of the American century, in the real categories which drove it, race and class.


The unacknowledged significance of Jackie Robinson's achievement was that it took place at the onset of the Cold War. White America had heard stirrings from moderate black leaders who questioned whether blacks should continue to defend the country as part of a segregated army. Soon after, the actor Paul Robeson provided the larger context, insisting that a colonized black populace was smart enough to know that joining a war against a Soviet Union committed to ending world colonialization would only worsen the conditions of American blacks. Robeson's subsequent branding as a Communist--the "Black Stalin"--was something no amount of reasoned distinctions on his part could surmount.

The specter of a fifth column, that hackneyed hangover from the 1930s, prompted Congress to demand reassurances of loyalty from black leaders. In the summer of 1949 Robinson testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He pointedly made clear his stance against racial discrimination, but in a moment he would apologize for years later, castigated Robeson for his attempts at influence, stating that "we can win the fight without the Communists and we don't want their help." Robeson, who as early as 1943 had met with baseball club owners and made the case for desegregation, refused a public contretemps with Robinson, selectively chiding Robinson that personal success was not enough, and that he, Robeson, also had an "investment" in America to protect, one which would further wither under the direction American foreign policy was taking.

The trail to Michael Jordan, Alonzo Mourning and Tiger Woods, one could safely submit, began in that HUAC hearing room. I recently noted that Rachel Robinson has said that Jackie would be appalled at the conditions blacks still experience in this country. Small wonder. The effort toward civil rights and economic justice through biracial trade unionism which consumed Paul Robeson (and Martin Luther King) is moribund. In the world of Phil Knight, there are far fewer American shop floors upon which to toil. At an earlier time, the successes in labor union inclusion for blacks helped hold in check potential Cold War hostilities. Stasis was maintained as long as the political backdrop remained bipolar. When developing countries entered the mix, the die was cast, and we ought to be pretty much agreed by now that when Dr. King regarded Vietnam as an example of the poor warring against the poor, and that blacks had no dog in that fight, he lost his life. It was the true measure of Jackie Robinson that, after his infatuation with Richard Nixon wore off, he began echoing King's positions. He was hardly an internationalist, but he was too smart, too adverse to injustice not to have seen that race and class eventually converge. Robeson, whom Mike and Tiger probably haven't heard of, clearly never wavered. He bore his powerful geniality to the very end, when the vilification became terminal.


Halting the militancy of the Cold War's Pax Americana and effecting domestic inroads was accomplished by black leaders who were spurned by the black establishment. The inheritors of that activist mantle now grope awkwardly in the more problematic environment of offshore globalism. The handholds are more elusive, the atomization and personal self-absorption are rampant. As the tireless Jesse Jackson endlessly intones the larger vision, his prominent brothers and sisters reap unparalleled personal rewards. Michael soars higher; Tiger, Tiger burns brighter; no one mourns for Alonzo.

Were Paul Robeson around today he'd be playing football again, and he'd be a superstar. He'd take the money, but it wouldn't end there, because personal success wasn't enough for him. Were Jordan and his fellow athletes possessed of even a smattering of the awareness of the Jackie Robinson they laud that would be cue enough, but their interests off the field and out of the arena evidently lie elsewhere. One wonders what Tiger Woods, who defines himself as Asian American, thinks of the 14-hour days his Thai brethren labor to assemble the clothing he wears. Has Nike's new pledge to monitor factories for abuses--though refusing to pay a living wage--sufficiently mollified him?

That leaves another group who lay claim to speak for the travail of fellow blacks. Former athletes like Harry Edwards and Jim Brown have been conspicuous by their absence in acting on the economic chasm between the black underclass and privileged black athletes. A few visits to the latter's locker rooms by Edwards and Brown for introductory lectures on how role models for a people mired in neo-enslavement continue that oppression by casually lending their names to the exploitation of foreign workers seems rather appropriate.

Robeson would be amazed and angry that it hasn't already been done. And I suspect that, by now, Robinson would too. I recall my glee at Ebbetts Field as I witnessed his basepath fire and determination, and I smile to think of him sticking his finger in Michael Jordan's face and rasping, Think globally, act locally!

Copyright John Hutchison 1997
Home | Current Issue | Back Issues | sfflier@well.com