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.