The Ballad of Jackie Robinson West

Jackie Robinson West Rally Millennium ParkPeople often mistake me for African-American. That’s fair. I’ve lived in this country for 14 years. But I was neither born here nor grew up here so I often correct them and say I’m Jamaican. Black yes, but not African-American. Many nod and move on, but some ask me, “Well, what’s the difference?” My answer is usually simple, “A very different narrative.”

For eighteen years, I grew up in a country that was 91% black. In that country, people who looked like me were the narrative. We were in politics, the media, the businesses, the schools, the front lines of our nation’s past, present and future. The narrative of my country was the narrative of me. Yes there were racial tensions (no post-colonial country is without them), but at no point in my childhood did I ever feel that I was a supporting character in the story of my nation.

I now live in Chicago, the most racially segregated city in the country. I arrive at work via the El train and every morning witness a fascinating social phenomenon. My stop has a train coming in from the North Side of the city, and a train coming in from the South Side of the city. They both arrive on opposite sides of the same platform. If you stand there when both trains get in, you will get a first-hand look at Chicago’s segregation. 95% of the commuters who get off the South Side train are black. 95% of the commuters who get off the North Side train are white. For a few brief minutes, the State and Lake platform is the most integrated spot in the city.

Until yesterday. Yesterday, I can safely say that the most integrated spot in Chicago was on Michigan Avenue between Roosevelt and Randolph when the United States Little League Championship Team Jackie Robinson West celebrated their hard-earned victory with a parade through downtown Chicago and a rally in Millennium Park. Yesterday, I saw thousands (and I do mean thousands) of Chicagoans, black and white, celebrating this amazing baseball team. That’s the narrative of diversity. But I also saw thirteen little boys being told that there were part of the great American story. That’s the narrative of inclusion.

In February 2008, Michelle Obama famously said, “For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country.” Not the most politically astute thing to say, obviously, but I guarantee you that many in this country can relate with her feelings. The 250-year old American story of success – the myths, the heroes, the ballads, the folk history that defines this country – rarely spares any ink for African-Americans. There remains a sense of otherness, of  a group people separate and apart from “mainstream America.”

But for 28 glorious days, that narrative changed. Thirteen African-American boys from the South Side of Chicago became America’s Team. They were our boys, our team, playing our game, bringing home our national victory. The American story finally starred them.

If you weren’t at the rally, it’s difficult to explain how powerfully that narrative played. I have never been to an event where a crowd of majority African-Americans shouted, “USA! USA!” They certainly did there, over and over again. When Miss Illinois sang the National Anthem, people cheered. When the pastor talked about the greatness of our communities and this country, people cheered. And when White Sox executive Kenny Williams talked about black kids from the South Side playing baseball, the American pastime, the crowd cheered and cheered and cheered. For that hour, you could see the truth in what every diversity professional will tell you: diversity is the starting line; inclusion is the victory.

The rally today isn’t the end of the story of course. Those kids are going to go home and face some of the same problems many young African-American aspiring athletes face every day. What are those problems? Turn your eyes to Ferguson to find out. Baseball in particular is blocked to African-American children. High costs, the ubiquitous travel teams, the long road to success, and the lack of high school teams and college scholarships are only a few of the reasons many young African-Americans do not play baseball.

But at least for me, that rally was a powerful real-life reminder of the truth of legal diversity leader, Verna Myers’ words. “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.” The legal profession has spent countless resources inviting African-Americans to the party, but few remain for the dance. As a result, law firm and business leaders despair at the ever-dwindling numbers of diverse attorneys and wonder whether we should end diversity initiatives in the legal profession.

We should not end diversity initiatives. Look at these numbers. Lawyers account for 100% of judges; 58% of U.S. Senators; 37% of U.S. Representatives; 40% of Governors; 50% of Presidents and 11% of Major CEOs. Conversely, 88% of the U.S. lawyer population is white.

We don’t need to ramp down our diversity initiatives; we need to ramp up our inclusion. We need to work harder to ensure that attorneys of all stripes feel included in the larger narrative of our legal organization. It will require extra effort on the parts of non-diverse attorneys, but inclusion is the only way to ensure that our diversity initiatives stop stagnating and start making real progress. Here’s another, much longer quote from Verna Myers that I whole-heartedly agree with:

After all the resources spent and goodwill extended, many white people, in exasperation, ask me why we haven’t gotten further in racial understanding or increasing the diversity in our workplaces and lives. Sometimes, they don’t like my response. I tell them what I have come to believe. Not enough white people have done their work: the work of seeing the barriers to true meritocracy, the work of putting themselves in the shoes of black people to learn more about their experiences and perceptions, the work of understanding how being white has shaped their worldview and self-perceptions, and the work of gaining the skills of deciphering and managing cross-racial and cultural dynamics. That’s a lot of work, but without it you cannot create fundamental change in your sphere of influence.”

Diversity was the crowd who stood at Millennium Park celebrating those Jackie Robinson boys. Inclusion was making those boys, and the thousands of African-Americans cheering them on, the lead role in the great American story. Now all together, let’s sing the Ballad of Jackie Robinson West.

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Michelle Silverthorn

Michelle Silverthorn

After spending seventeen years living in the Caribbean, Michelle undertook a number of around-the-world detours before ending up at the doorstep of the Commission, including four years as a general litigator in New York and Chicago. She remembers pretty much everyone she’s met in her travels but she would especially like to meet again the passengers on a January 2001 flight from Miami to JFK. At the pilot’s request, they donated enough money for Michelle, who had her wallet stolen, to get back to college safely. She would very much like to tell them all thanks.
Michelle Silverthorn

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