Jackie Robinson West & Black “Border-Jumping”
By Elizabeth Todd-Breland
“I wanted to reach out to you to thank and encourage you to continue to speak out against border-jumping families.” This was the message delivered from a former Little League official to Chris Janes, the white Vice President of the Evergreen Park Athletic Association who accused Jackie Robinson West’s all-black Chicago youth baseball team of violating neighborhood boundary rules in route to winning the 2014 U.S. Little League World Series. Little League International stripped Jackie Robinson West of its title after an investigation, prompted by Janes’ allegations, found that players did not live within the necessary neighborhood boundaries to play for the team. The Little League official’s invocation of “border-jumping” was chilling.
In the U.S., border crossing summons powerful images of race, class, and repression, from deported Latino migrants who crossed into the U.S. in search of economic opportunity to African American parents jailed for forging addresses so their children can attend better-resourced schools. For those fluent in American history, white anxieties about black “border-jumping” are nothing new. However, the former Little League official’s reference to “border-jumping” is also grounded in a white middle-class suburban ideal that links the idea of community to property ownership and residence. This notion of community is different from the ideal of community that the black families of Jackie Robinson West created in a park on the far south side of Chicago. In one of the most segregated cities in the country, the borders between black and white Chicagoland have long been contentious and governed by racism. These borders also generated different types of communities.
Chicago has a long and well documented history of border-creation through segregation in housing and education. For decades government policies, contract mortgages, restrictive covenants, and racial redlining reinforced segregation and restricted black residents to specific areas on the south and west sides of the city. When these were ruled illegal, less formal geographic barriers including viaducts, highways, railroad lines, and parks continued to serve as convenient lines of racial neighborhood demarcation. For much of the 20th century, whites defended these borders and barriers to exclude black residents, at times violently. Despite this, during the latter half of the 20th century many white neighborhoods on the city’s south and west sides increasingly transitioned into predominantly black residential neighborhoods. This change was the result of duplicitous blockbusting practices and white flight to the suburbs, which was aided by federal subsidies. This history produced the predominantly black communities around Jackie Robinson West’s park on the far south side of the city.
This history also produced the predominantly white suburb of Evergreen Park, IL. Like many suburbs, Evergreen Park developed as a homogeneous white suburb with a history of racial exclusion. After World War II, Evergreen Park’s population increased as whites fled the city and its growing black population. Today, the community is still predominantly white, but is surrounded by Chicago communities with significant black populations. Recently documented cases of racial profiling in Evergreen Park demonstrate an enduring commitment to policing the racial borders of the community. So, for many African Americans, the Evergreen Park Athletic Association’s policing of Jackie Robinson West’s border crossing is all too familiar.
Little League International and Chris Janes mobilized white middle-class suburban notions of community and neighborhood that defy the histories and lived experiences of black urban communities. Little League International projected a concept of neighborhood that “embraces policies designed to preserve traditional community-based leagues in which classmates play with classmates, friends with friends.” This romantic construction of community is premised on property ownership and residence and was used to punish Jackie Robinson West’s “border-jumping” families. It obscures the profit-motive imbued in youth sports and imposes a notion of community that is often not possible in black urban neighborhoods. A sense of community based on property ownership and residence is difficult to sustain black communities that suffer from systemic disinvestment: closed schools, foreclosed homes, commercial flight, and shuttered mental health clinics. This, however, is not to suggest that black urban neighborhoods are void of community.
If anything, the remarkable success and deserved praise of the Jackie Robinson West baseball team showcased the strong sense of community that continues to exist in black neighborhoods. The families who participated in Jackie Robinson West’s baseball team created community in that park on the south side of Chicago while navigating blended families that straddle the city and suburbs, gentrification and abandonment, neighborhood violence and long-standing block clubs. The social and economic forces that created predominantly white racially exclusionary suburbs like Evergreen Park also fostered the conditions of disinvestment that require black Chicagoans to create a different understanding of community beyond property ownership, residence, and school attendance areas.
When people exclaim that #BlackLivesMatter, they are also declaring that black culture and black communities matter. I stood with my child on the corner of 63rd and Halsted Street this summer with other black parents and grandparents, children from local daycares, and black students and workers from nearby Kennedy-King College, waiting anxiously for the Jackie Robinson West team’s victory motorcade to pass. The people assembled on those corners did not necessarily live on the nearby blocks, but we were part of a broader community that day: a black community, a community of Chicagoans, a community of “border-jumpers.” As that crowd swelled with pride, we felt that black lives and black communities, however constituted, mattered.
It is ironic that black kids from segregated black communities are being punished for “border-jumping” onto a team named after Jackie Robinson, a man who is venerated precisely because of his “border-jumping.” There are many lessons to be learned this Black History Month, but I hope we remember that the black children and families of Jackie Robinson West brought a community and city together on their own terms. For that, they will always be champions, regardless of others’ attempts to patrol borders.
Photo: Jackie Robinson West/White House