The Jackie Robinson effect


         By Ira Smolensky


As we come close to election 2008’s moment of truth with Barack Obama ahead in the polls, there has been much discussion of the so-called “Bradley effect”.  For those who do not know by now, that term refers to the 1982 California gubernatorial race in which Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, an African-American, led in the polls by a healthy margin but lost narrowly on Election Day.  The widely accepted explanation for this outcome was that numerous white voters were reluctant to tell pollsters their true feelings about voting for a black candidate.  The Bradley effect also seemed to apply to a number of subsequent races involving black versus white candidates in locales as disparate as Virginia (L. Douglas Wilder v. Marshall Coleman), New York City (David Dinkins v. Rudy Giuliani), and Chicago (Harold Washington v. Bernard Epton).  Applied to the present situation, the Bradley effect would lead one to predict considerable erosion in Barack Obama’s apparent lead, indicating that, despite polling evidence to the contrary, American voters cannot quite wrap their minds around the idea of an African-American president.

         Of course, many observers have argued against the universality of the Bradley effect.  After all, speaking scientifically, the theory of the Bradley effect is based on a rather small “N” (number of cases), and our society has changed a lot since the 1980’s.

         For example, here in 2008 countless folks seem quite willing to publicly discuss their aversion to Obama, pronounce him “not ready” for the presidency, or even to admit that they are the ones “not ready” for a black president.   This openness would indicate that the Bradley effect may be quite limited or even nonexistent in this race.  Indeed, based on the 2008 primary elections, some observers have even proposed the existence of a “reverse Bradley effect” in which the polls sometimes significantly understate Obama’s actual support.

         While the Bradley effect continues to be a hot topic, I have not seen anything written on what might be called the “Jackie Robinson effect”.  

         For those few who don’t know, Jackie Robinson was perhaps the greatest American of my lifetime, a WWII veteran who served his country with distinction and, more famously, the man who was chosen to break Major League Baseball’s self imposed color line way back in 1947.  

         As I conceive of it, there are actually two parts to the Jackie Robinson effect.  The first aspect that occurred to me involves the directive Jackie had from his boss, Brooklyn Dodger General Manager Branch Rickey, to essentially “turn the other cheek” to the verbal and physical abuse he would receive from a lot of white players. Sure enough, Robinson had to deal with a barrage of high spikes and racial slurs from opposing players.  For the first year or so, he could only answer back by helping the Dodgers to win more ball games, ultimately transforming the team into a National League dynasty.  Then, having displayed super-human self-control, Robinson was allowed to give as hard as he took.  And he did.  Soon, other black players reached the Major Leagues and the color line in baseball became history.

         Likewise, in the first phases of the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama was the epitome of civility, even when he was subject to unconscionable abuse.  Indeed, he was often criticized by his own supporters for failing to aggressively counter low blows first from the Hillary Clinton campaign and then from John McCain.  The question of the day, for a long time, was: when will Barack “take off the gloves?”   Then, recently, as John McCain was slipping on his special nuclear powered brass knuckles for another go-round at the already well-aired Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright non-issues, Obama trotted out the Keating Five incident, a very real episode of poor judgment in McCain’s congressional career during which he displayed gravely unfashionable coziness with corrupt financial interests.   

         Though Obama’s counterpunch was still tepid to some, it deterred McCain from recycling the charges alluded to above in last Tuesday’s Town Hall Debate.

         Knowing that he might be face to face with the unchained version of  Barack Obama (Jackie Robinson), McCain decided that discretion was the better part of valor.

         Oddly enough, it took a while before the second, far more basic aspect of the Jackie Robinson effect dawned on me.  In the beginning, Branch Rickey had little support for his plan to integrate Major League Baseball.  Even those owners and other officials who were not out and out white supremacists were skeptical that the time was right.  They were not at all sure that Americans were “ready” for such a momentous change.  Who knows, maybe with someone less strong and heroic than Jackie Robinson the times would not have been right.  But Jackie Robinson was the man selected and he was more than up to the challenge.  The time did turn out to be right.  And no one would ever have known unless someone had the guts and foresight to try. 

         Similarly, at the outset of Barack Obama’s quest to break the presidential color line, there were many doubters.  Even nominal supporters of racial equality were highly dubious about the timing of Obama’s quest.  Remember, one of the early Clinton strategies was to plant the notion among Democratic primary voters that Obama (that is, a black man) could not win.

         Well, I don’t know if Barack Obama is going to win.  But he has already come a lot closer than most people thought possible just a very short time ago.  

         This much is now abundantly clear-- the time was definitely right for this historical effort to take place.  And the United States of America has already become a better place because the effort is being made.

         In closing, it might be asked whether Obama is the right individual to meet the present challenge. 

         While it is manifestly unfair for any person to be compared to the late, great Jackie Roosevelt Robinson, Barack Obama has so far managed to pursue that lofty standard with grace and dignity.