Workplace pioneer: Barack Obama as a modern day Jackie Robinson

I never thought that I would be comparing President Obama to Jackie Robinson, the Hall of Fame baseball player who broke the game’s color line when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.  Throughout that season, and during years that followed, Robinson endured virulent racial taunts from fans, threatening, racist letters, and the cold shoulder from many fellow ballplayers.  He often was a man alone, and it is a mighty testament to his character that he managed to play so well under such pressure.

When Barack Obama was elected President last year, I thought America was largely past the kind of bigotry that confronted Jackie Robinson.  Don’t get me wrong: I’m not one of those who claimed that his election meant that America had become a “post-racial” society.  And I certainly never have believed that we have conquered racial bias.  (After all, I live in Boston, where vestiges of the city’s ugly history on race and exclusion are very much alive and well in our workplaces, communities, and civic life.)

But what has transpired over these past few months has been stunning.  The hatred being directed at this President is unlike anything I’ve seen during my adult life.  And how pathetic it is that opposition to the humanitarian cause of affordable health care for all has become the latest and most prominent vehicle for rallying the haters.  (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, please, please start paying attention to the news.  And I don’t mean FOX News.)

Even as an employment law professor and labor and civil rights advocate, it took me a while to see things this way: Barack Obama is a workplace pioneer.  This is about his experience of work.  This is what he deals with on the job.  Like Jackie Robinson, he has to show up to work every day, while at the same time there are many who dearly hope he will fail because he happens to be black.

This is why so many of us have a stake in the President’s success.  I don’t agree with everything he’s said or done, but especially in view of the extra burdens that have been placed on him, he is doing as well as anyone could do under the circumstances.  I remain delighted that I voted to “hire” this man as our leader, and Election Night 2008 remains one of my happiest moments as a citizen.  Let us hope that our President weathers this storm and succeeds in ways that benefit all of us.

23 responses

    • Joy, thank you very much for that comment. I debated over how to express my outrage over these events, and fortunately I was able to couch it in terms very consistent with what I’m trying to do with this blog. Best, David

  1. David, I’m an avid reader of your blog and always find something meaningful in your writing. This post is particularly outstanding – I really admire the way you’ve framed what it means for Obama to serve in the role of chief executive officer of the U.S. It puts it all in a whole new light. And you certainly got it right – he is indeed a workplace pioneer. Thanks so much.

  2. So let’s see if I have this straight. Because I consider Obama’s plans for health care reform to be hugely wrongheaded, I am, perforce, a hater. Well, since I’m already thus branded, I might as well tell you what I really think, which is that he is so narcissistic and so ill-prepared for the job that he poses a threat to our national security as well as to the preservation of our most sacred institutions. I would have celebrated, too, if we had elected a black president who was actually suited to the job. But instead, we got a glib ideologue from the precincts of the worst political machine in the country whose handlers took advantage of a series of opportunities to put him in the presidency. It will be seen as tragic that our first black president managed to do so poor a job. Obama is no pioneer; he is just an embarrassment.

    • Oh my, how you misconstrue! I’m perfectly fine with reasoned arguments for/against different approaches to health care. And I’ve got no problem with our differences of opinion about whether or not we support this President, just as I hope that you would be cool with my opinions about Bush or McCain. I’m alarmed, however, at the kinds of outbursts, thinly and not so thinly veiled threats, and hateful messages being directed at this President. If you think this is politics as usual, then we do part company on that.

  3. Um….David: were you alive or conscious over the past eight years? “The hatred directed at this President is unlike anything I have seen in my adult life”? You cannot possibly be serious. You did not see the vitriol and hateful, ill-informed comments directed at President Bush for the past eight years? The not-entirely inaccurate attacks on President Obama’s health care proposals (to the extent that we know what they are, given that he is prone to talk only in generalities and poll-tested buzzwords) are nowhere close to the shameful statements that you people on the left made about President Bush. Truly, you are delusional.

    • Tom, what can I say? If I’m truly delusional, unconscious, or dead, as you suggest, then presumably whatever I write in response will be the words of a deranged maniac or a medical miracle. Instead, I’ll simply stand on my post and let it be.

    • Politics being what it is, I’m fine with folks throwing even some hard jabs at each other. But what we’re seeing from folks like Beck and Limbaugh is outright thuggishness that has crossed a scary line. I think Nancy Pelosi is right that the hate being stirred up is reminiscent of the poisonous atmosphere that led to the assassinations of George Mosconi and Harvey Milk in San Francisco. Thanks again for your comment!

  4. Although there are two comments on this blog that really do deserve a response, in the spirit of time and keeping my blood-pressure down, I will respond only to Mr. David G. Tuerck’s incendiary comments. First, the author states in reference to our President, “he is so narcissistic and so ill-prepared for the job that he poses a threat to our national security.” I am curious to know if the author felt President Bush was well-prepared to serve as President? Maybe the MBA his family purchased for him from Harvard made him qualified? In regards to our national security, was the author equally as critical when the previous Commander in Chief launched the country into a needless war in Iraq, straining the resources we needed to support our troops in Afghanistan and other missions around the world? (oh and killing a few Americans and Iraqis – no big deal though) Did engaging in a conflict where there was NO imminent threat to the United States make us more secure? I submit it did not. I maintain that the Iraq quagmire will continue to undermine US security and that the Obama Administration is left with no good solution for extracting us from this foreign policy disaster. President Obama has, in less than 9 months, handled our foreign policy with more careful judgment and shrewdness than was ever exhibited by 43 in eight years.

    Lastly, calling President Obama an “embarrassment” after almost a decade of someone who couldn’t speak coherently is really humorous. So eloquent was he, I can see why President Obama would be such a shock to your system. I didn’t vote for President Obama in the Democratic Primary, but I have never been prouder of a President than I was when he spoke to the nation about healthcare a week and a half ago. In the face of opposition and incivility, he was composed, articulate and perhaps most importantly, comported himself with the dignity that the holder of the Executive Office should.

    • Brandie, thank you for that comment! Although in my main post I purposely tried not to emphasize my own views on some of the policy matters you mentioned, suffice it to say that I like what you had to say. David

  5. Professor Yamada:

    I don’t agree with the idea that most of the people opposed to President Obama are opposed to him because he is African-American. If you want proof that the opposition has nothing to do with race and everything to do with ideas, please read the signs displayed at the “9/12” protest. You can find a collection of them at this web address:

    Although not in this collection, there was even a sign that said, “No Matter What My Sign Says, You’ll Call Me A Racist”.

    MJM, Suffolk Law, 1983

    • Michael, thank you for your comment. I’ve never made the claim that “most of the people opposed to President Obama are opposed to him because he is an African American” — in fact, I would disagree with that assertion if it came from someone else, and as I’ve said in a previous reply, I’m fine with legitimate policy disagreements over health care or other issues. But I believe the hateful, threatening, gun-toting behavior definitely has a racial element to it….and it’s being spurred on by the likes of the Limbaughs and Becks. Obviously this is a point that neither of us can necessarily “prove” one way or the other, so I’ll simply stop with my clarification. Thanks, David

  6. Surely, the phrase “you lie” leaves as much unsaid as it says? Surely the views of the utterer about the Confederacy and his South Carolina roots are part of that? Surely, the fact that all the protesters visible in rallies about the health care are white says something about the lines being drawn in the country? Surely the demagoguery of “socialism” and “the loss of the American way of life” are code for Obama’s uppitiness? His intelligence, articulateness and personal character must really shock Republicans who are used to Cheney’s bluster and Bush’s bumbling. To think we were lied to, when they “made reality,” (remember that?)and now, when we have a President who has inherited a total melt down of the financial system, the loss of any global respect, a poorer working and middle class, we see in Tuerck’s comment a perfect example of twisting the truth, changing the issue, diverting the attention, that got us into this mess in the first place.

  7. My goodness, Brandie, I most certainly don’t want to risk your health by raising your blood pressure even further, but here are a few items for you to consider. First, I wonder if you’ve had the opportunity to watch our “articulate” president stumble trying to form a coherent sentence when his teleprompter goes down. As for Iraq, you forget that the war there was started, not by George Bush, but by Bill Clinton when he rained cruise missiles down on the country. You also forget the consensus among Democrats, including Hillary Clinton (I’ll bet you voted for her in the primary), that Saddam was harboring WMD. As for how that war will turn out, the more likely conclusion is that Bush did Obama a big favor by handing him a military success, rather than a now WMD-armed Saddam. I’ll further risk condemnation by saying that we can be thankful to Glenn Beck for bringing to light Obama’s appointment of that crackpot, race-baiting, Communist Van Jones to a White House position. Then there’s the deliberate effort to hobble and demoralize the CIA in order to make it easier for the jihadists (can we call them that, I wonder?) to do their work. So I’ll stick to my prediction that people who are fawning over the One now will steadily fall into silence as he goes from one policy debacle to the next. And if that’s incendiary, so be it.

  8. David–

    I want to congratulate you on having such an interesting discussion on this web-site; too often we only talk to people with whom we agree, so it is refreshing to see different voices being raised here.

    Having attended some of the rallies on this issue, my impression is that most of the real anger is directed not at Obama at all, but at Congress. I suspect the real villains in the public mind (at least the public with which I am most conversant) are Nancy Pelosi, Barney Frank, and Charley Rangel. Remember, the House of Representatives came up with the death panels, the rationing, the other objectionable features of reform (or, the bogeymen of the right, if you are a supporter).

    My sense is that this “opposition is driven by race” is a political dodge meant to garner support for this objectionable plan. It is another bit of name-calling, the last refuge when you cannot muster an effective argument in support of a program.

    Are Michael Steele and Thomas Sowell motivated by race in their arguments against health care reform? Was Nat Hentoff’s recent column, that says for the first time he is afraid of an administration, also sparked by racism?

    My fear during the campaign was that any criticism of Obama would be stigmatized as “hate speech”, a fear now being realized.

    • Hi Bob, thanks for joining the exchange. Mainstream progressives are not characterizing every disagreement with Obama as “hate speech.” In fact, Beltway liberals are doing everything they can to diffuse the race issue so as not to derail efforts on health care. The alarm is over the threatening, thuggish behavior from those who don’t have much of anything to add to a legitimate debate over health care. It would be great if GOP leaders would disavow that behavior and state a commitment to work toward affordable health care for all. Best, David

  9. I also recall Jackie Robinson saying the first time he felt he really had been accepted into the game was when an umpire ejected him. He realized he was being treated like every other player.

  10. Thank you to those of you who have submitted thoughtful comments, agreeing and disagreeing with this post. I’ve appreciated the dialogue, and I hope fellow readers have as well.

    I’m going to ask that we close comments for this post because I think we’ve set out a healthy variety of opinions and also because I’m starting to receive submitted comments that would take the discussion way off the original topic.

    Thanks again for your contributions.

  11. Dave…

    As a 76 year old native male white
    Texan, only semi educated, I have observed the use of
    Racism in politics up close and personal, and noted the adroit way the political right wing has utilized
    white working class Racial fears to persuade us to vote against our own self interests, particularly in the South….Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma.
    I mention these because they are the states where I have some personal experience,having voted for every Democratic candidate available since my discharge from the first fully integrated American war in l955.

    The Conservative attack on Barack Obama absolutely IS racist! Those who attack him use the code words well recognized by liberals, and by the conciously racist
    audience that they are designed to influence. Rush Limbaugh doesnt even always use code words, just blatantly tells his audience that the white middle class is in danger of subjugation by black rulers.

    Barack Obama ran the best presidential campaign of any politician in my voting life time….Eisenhower, thru Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton, and both of the Bushs.

    The right has had eight years to create our mess, and they are completely stunned at the total victory which our President has achieved. He is educated, intelligent, full of ideas and plans, articulate, and seems intent on doing what no past President has every done….. he plans to actually do the things he has promised. It has been an article of faith to the racist right wing that no Black, no Mexican, and no
    Asian minority has the ability to either be elected President, NOR to BE President.His very presence in the White House is a daily reminder to them that the very core of their beliefs is wrong.

    Of course the attacks on Mr. Obama are racist!!His targeting of Health Care, Energy and Global warming,
    Education, and his support for a strong Military and
    Homeland Security has left the right with no choice but to play the race game while insisting that is not what they are doing… the same game I have seen played out here in Texas since Kennedys election in 1960. These idiots own my state….but they had to import a host of Yankees from Maine and Connecticut
    to pull it off.
    You have a great blog!!!

    • Bill, I have been meaning to post a reply to your comment, which I appreciate. Thanks for sharing your own observations and personal story, as all too often we fail to take into account even relatively recent history in assessing current events. And thank you, too, for your military service back in the day. By your discharge date, it sounds like you served during Korea and the revving up of the Cold War, yes? Best, David

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