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“White Fragility” Gets Jackie Robinson's Story Wrong

Robin DiAngelo’s book, White Fragility, has been on the New York Times best-seller list for over two years, much of that time ranked number one. The book is assigned frequently in college courses, and DiAngelo is in great demand as a “diversity” consultant to help corporations, universities, government agencies, and other institutions purge themselves of their white privilege. DiAngelo’s core message is that white Americans need to acknowledge their unconscious racial biases which make them, unwittingly in most cases, complicit in what she deems the U.S. racial caste system.

In her book DiAngelo uses Jackie Robinson as an example of her point. Most are familiar with Robinson’s story: in 1947, at the age of twenty-eight, Robinson became the first Black ballplayer to play in the modern major leagues. DiAngelo claims that “the story of Jackie Robinson is a classic example of how whiteness obscures racism by rendering whites, white privilege, and racist institutions invisible.” She continues:

While Robinson was certainly an amazing baseball player, [the] story line depicts him as racially special, a Black man who broke the color line himself. The subtext is that Robinson finally had what it took to play with whites, as if no black athlete before him was strong enough to compete at that level. Imagine if instead, the story went something like this: ‘Jackie Robinson, the first black man whites allowed to play major league baseball.’ This version makes a critical distinction because no matter how fantastic a player Robinson was, he simply could not play in the major leagues if whites—who controlled the institution—did not allow it.

Apparently DiAngelo is not a baseball fan, because, in an error that aligns perfectly with her ideology, she gets this episode of U.S. history all wrong.

Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey picked Robinson—who grew up in Pasadena and was a four-sport athlete at UCLA—because of his outstanding athleticism and his strong religious faith, college education, and experiences living and playing with white people outside of the South. But anyone with the slightest knowledge of baseball knows that there were Black ballplayers in the Negro Leagues who were as good or better than Robinson when he broke the sport’s color line.

Moreover, DiAngelo’s account entirely omits the protest movement which made it possible for Robinson, and then other Black players, to play in the majors. In DiAngelo’s telling, Robinson couldn’t play “before being granted permission by white owners.” This is like saying that women were “granted” the right to vote by men, instead of acknowledging that women “won” the vote after decades of movement activism—including lobbying, rallies, public awareness campaigns, and civil disobedience.

In White Fragility DiAngelo examines racism as a web of deeply-ingrained attitudes rather than as a system of power—what is often called institutional or systemic racism. Perhaps this is because discussing the redistribution of power, wealth, and income might not sit comfortably with DiAngelo’s corporate clients. She acknowledged as much in a New York Times interview. “I avoid critiquing capitalism,” she said. “I don’t need to give people reasons to dismiss me.”

Read entire article at Boston Review