Sixty-six years ago, Georgia-born Jackie Robinson did the unthinkable by becoming the first African American to play in the Major Leagues.
Robinson was a dervish on the field, thrilling fans with his baserunning flair and exquisite all-around skills, achieving various milestones before being elected to the Hall of Fame.
Jack Roosevelt Robinson didn’t have the luxury of just being good at baseball. He had to win by knockout.
Such is the responsibility of being in the tenuous and psychologically stirring position of “the first.”
Tokenism: the practice or policy of making no more than a token effort or gesture, as in offering opportunities to minorities equal to those of the majority.
Tokenism plagues society in insidious ways, mainly by enabling the notion of equality through numbers. The thinking goes, an institution must have a culture within that mirrors the surrounding culture. This way discrimination is nonexistent because minority groups are represented.
College universities, for example, feel pressure to admit diverse candidates in to portray fairness. Corporations seek to avoid lawsuits of discrimination, so there is incentive to not make the office an all boys club or “all white’s club.”
Tokenism is a buzzword that evokes a lot of emotion from all sides. Few like feeling as if their position is a product of top-down coercion (isn’t enforcement of any law coercion?). And management isn’t fond of losing out on a “better” worker to satisfy an anti-discrimination law. So in the name of progress, “concessions” are made and doors are widened.
In 1930, Thurgood Marshall applied to the University of Maryland Law School. He was denied due to the fact that he was — gasp — African American. Three years later, he fought for and succeeded in the admission of Donald Gaines Murray into the University of Maryland. Just like that, a university had its first black student.
Almost 80 years later, I walked through those same doors as the only black male in my grad school cohort. This isn’t much different than a grandmother who didn’t go to college and worked several odd jobs so that her children could go to school. A price was paid — and is still being paid — a long time ago for me, for us, to reap fruits we currently enjoy.
Robinson used his “first” and “only black person” status to elevate the lot of black people in uniforms and management. He did so by embracing the responsibility of being as disruptive for betterment as he was on the basepaths.
Many black leaders have used their voices to place themselves on a platform for their own gain — at the exploitation of others. Many black people have used their token status to create lives for themselves while giving nary a thought and plenty of finger-pointing toward those of lower socioeconomic status.
Singular feats and benchmarks that we notch is the result of tireless work from those before us. When a breakthrough comes, the work has just begun. The game doesn’t stop when one becomes a beneficiary of a token act; the deeper game is paying it forward. Breaking down doors is great. Holding the door open for those to follow and surpass you is a cut above.
Shedding the injurious effects of tokenism is something that can start from within the community. Though a few of us have benefited, its practice masks a deeper American pathology of, through hiring and quotas, keeping minorities on the margins of the power structure. Moreover, tokenism pacifies and encourages a false sense of progress.
It existed when Thurgood Marshall and Jackie Robinson came up. It exists now.