The more I see and hear President Obama, the more I’m reminded of Jackie Robinson. Like Obama, Robinson was the first of his kind and like him he had to walk a narrow line always conscious of his race, but ever careful not to draw too much attention to it. And then there’s the temperament thing. No matter how many times Robinson was called racial slurs – I won’t bother stating them here for obvious reasons – he never took the bait. He was cool, collected and a perfect gentleman. He had no choice; he was the only black man in a white man’s sport. If he screwed up, the future for black athletes looking to break into baseball would be set back years.
Obama on the Richter scale of emotions is one cool customer. In the midst of what can only be described as the worst economy in seventy years and now facing a disaster in the Gulf of Mexico that potentially threatens that body of water’s very existence, he has remained unflappable. Even during the contentious healthcare debate last year and early this year, Obama resisted the urge to go tit for tat with his political rivals and remained, for many, one of the more mature and level-headed players in the debate. Like Robinson he refuses to take the bait that his rivals throw at him. He is the first of his kind: a black man in the Oval Office.
Last year I wrote that I thought the great test for America was whether it could bring itself to elect a black man to the office of president. I now realize that was the easy part. Like Robinson, getting there proved to be a fairly non starter. We all wondered what took so long and we eagerly anticipated the road ahead. Looking back however the real test was to come after the inauguration. It was at that exact moment that Obama became more than just the black man who got elected; he became the black man who was now boss.
The moment Jackie Robinson stepped onto the field he had already taken a white man’s job away. He dared to swing a bat at a white man’s delivery, and when he beat out a single, or stole a base, or scored a run, or, God forbid, hit a homerun, he was doing so against white men. How dare he? Doesn’t he know his place? And Robinson had to do all this while being shouted at, threatened, and denied the basic rights his white teammates took for granted.
From day one Obama has had to endure much if not all the slurs and attacks that Robinson endured in 1947. True, he could not be denied entrance into a facility like so many other black men and women had been years ago – he is the president after all – but in every other sense he has been treated as though he were the help that overstayed his welcome.
Witness the fallout from just one picture of Obama with his feet up on the Oval Office desk. Despite the fact that every president going back to Kennedy has had photos taken of them with their feet up on that same desk, the fact that Obama had done it was newsworthy. Why doesn’t he show some respect for the decorum of the office? Translation: Get your damn black feet off our furniture!
The pictures at last summer’s Tea Party rallies were not your typical political caricatures. They were overtly racist and indicative of a mood in the country that was not at all happy with the fact that a black man was running the show. Jimmy Carter, in an interview with Brian Williams last year, said that much of the animosity directed at Obama was based on his race. "I live in the South, and I've seen the South come a long way, and I've seen the rest of the country that shares the South's attitude toward minority groups at that time, particularly African-Americans."