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Integration


This last week has been intense with the early and devastating start to California fire season. It began while my husband and I were grabbing some time in Lake Tahoe, enjoying the last of summer in the mountains. We had been hiking for several hours when we both started smelling fire and noticed we were suddenly swamped with smoke. It was impossible to tell where any of it was coming from. We were almost 2 miles from the trailhead and we hustled as quickly as we could toward it. Frankly, I was scared. The feeling was exactly the same feeling I had when I was in Kruger National Park last winter with my friends, idling in the car and gazing at a large herd of elephants blocking the road in front of us, and then I turned around and realized the road behind us was also blocked with elephants. A lot of elephants. One moment you feeling perfectly safe and completely absorbed in the moment, and suddenly you realize you could be in extreme danger. Panicking is the worst thing you can do, and trying to hold that feeling in check is critical. I think we are all learning a lesson about that these days. As it turned out, the fire was miles away and the only thing we were in danger of was having the rest of our vacation clouded by thick smoke, which is exactly what happened. (And the elephant herd eventually moved on without flipping over our car.)

The wildfires are another disaster, and for bystanders like me, an endurance test of just staying in it because my usual escapes-- the garden, the hills, the beach-- are not available due to the bad air quality. The smoked out skies make me feel claustrophobic and crazy, but I have tried hard to recalibrate my reaction. There is so much suffering for people who are directly affected, and I am merely inconvenienced. I want to focus on gratitude and do what I can to help others. No complaining.


I was moved by the athletic strike that took place this last week in response to the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. It is so interesting to me how sports are quickly assuming a place in the new Civil Rights Movement that was strongly resisted not so long ago. We only need to look to how Colin Kaepernick was drummed out of the NFL for leading fellow players to take a knee during the national anthem, and contrast it to this moment where basketball players are wearing jerseys with Black Lives Matter slogans emblazoned on the back. Would this be happening if not for the pandemic? My thought is that professional league teams are able to leverage their power as a collective because they are sacrificing so much to entertain us during this time. Asking them to please shut up as they are "bubbled" in places like Disney World (the utter absurdity of this location and what it says about our culture is something for another day) is simply way too much to ask. They recognize the power they have, and they will continue to wield it. And it's nothing new, the primacy of sports in civil rights and social change.


I was listening to an interview with Bob Kendrick, the president of the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City. I mentioned recently I'm not really a fan of baseball or sports in general, so even listening to this interview was a bit of a stretch for me. To the extent I have thought about the Negro Leagues at all, I assumed that it was a second-class version of the Major League Baseball that Black men were relegated to because of racism, and Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in the Leagues was a step not only forward, but up. Yeah, I was wrong about all that.


What this interview helped me think about is the deep complexity of integration, and my assumptions about integration being a step up is indicative of my own internal bias toward the superiority of white culture, even while intellectually I don't believe that is true. The interviewer, Jesse Thorn, brought this up by noting that when integration started, it's not like white players were added to the Negro Leagues despite their great success-- and they were incredibly successful, touring the US and foreign countries to great adulation-- or Black owners were added to MLB. He wanted to know from Kendrick what we lost as a culture when the League integrated. Kendrick replied:


I don’t know if the African American community realized what it was losing, when they lost the Negro Leagues. Because [wherever] you had successful Black baseball, you had thriving Black economies. And so, what was good for the soul of our country, what was good morally, what was good socially, was devastating economically. And so, when we lost the Negro Leagues, we lost that catalyst {that was the] spark for a thriving economy.


There was so much more to that interview about baseball's central role in the Civil Right's Movement that helped me contextualize a few things, and to think about the fact that I have not spent much--if any-- time considering the other side of integration, how people of color view their trade-offs. What they are losing. It's a huge blind spot. Within a day or two of hearing this talk, I heard an interview with author Alice Randall on her new book, Black Bottom Saints a novel that pays tribute to a legendary Detroit neighborhood and the people who lived there. When asked about about the fear of losing Black history through integration, Randall says:


Because so much does get diluted when we enter into white spaces, though there are things to be gained... how many of us forgotten that there was once a caramel Camelot, a shining hour of Black art activism, athletics, industry. One of the things that gets lost when we enter into the whole story is sometimes our private stories and histories, what become untold stories and forgotten history. I completely support integration, but integration in moments of economic and political inequality often lead to erasure.


There is a lot to ponder here, but what I come away with is this: as long as integration includes erasure of Black culture and stories, it cannot be a path to equality, because we are building a new foundation of inequity. Equality requires a flip on how we view power, and an assessment of what we are willing to give up. I need to think a lot more about this. What are your thoughts?

I wanted to share a bit about my own history of integration in my family, how we experienced it. I grew up with the story of how my maternal grandparents, who were stationed at a Naval base in Norfolk, Virginia in the 50's, had to send my teen-aged aunt home to Washington to live with relatives because the Virginia state government shut down schools rather than start federally mandated integration procedures. As a child, this was inconceivable to me, that adults would try to deny an equal education to people because of skin color. It seemed like a tale from the dark old days. Yet when I was a teenager myself in the 80's, I went to a high school in Wilmington, Delaware that was still locked in its own long-simmering battle with busing and integration. My family was new to Delaware and didn't have the full context, and it was confusing to me that I had to board a bus early in the morning to go to a school that was 30 minutes away when there was another school just 15 minutes away. I found out later that my school, which was considered "the best" in Wilmington, if not in the whole state, was not reaching its own mandated goals of integration, and was in fact doing all it could to boost its numbers of white students compared to the surrounding high schools. I was essentially a White student getting bussed in to aid in this goal.


Here are a few more link to stories, articles, and podcasts that I listened to while thinking about this subject:


Nice White Parents: This is a five episode podcast series about integration in New York City. It's a must-listen. New York Times


Protesting Her Own Employer: An assistant apparel designer at Adidas leads daily protests at her work over her employer's handling of race. The Daily Podcast


Let's Call Athlete's Workers, and Let's Call These NBA Protests What They Were-- Strikes The Conversation


Baseball's Integration and the Contemporary Civil Rights Movement : Beyondtheboxscore.com


Protests, Yesterday and Today: It's Been a Minute podcast


Integration-- We've Been Doing It All Wrong: Shelterforce.org


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