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Why Jackie Robinson West Winning Hearts And Minds Is So Important

By Jon Graef in News on Aug 24, 2014 7:00PM

If you were a Chicagoan, and were anywhere near a Smartphone, television, or a crowd, you probably heard the city's breathless, wildly enthusiastic cheers for Jackie Robinson West.

The South Side Little League squad defeated the Nevada team after a game that had everyone who watched it on the edge of their seat. They became US Little League World Champions, the first all African-American team to do so.

And who watched the game was a swath of humanity ranging from Gov. Pat Quinn to Chance The Rapper.

Reporters breathlessly tweeted updates and uploaded Vines of ecstatic celebrations from across Chicago. Once Jackie Robinson West won the game -- and it was close there for a while -- the congratulations came flowing in from the Mayor and the Police Department, to Common to Lupe Fiasco.

Jackie Robinson West have a chance to make history against South Korea today. Even if the fail, the baseball team has already scored a significant off-field victory. They've won the hearts and minds of many people during a profoundly troubling time in both United States and world history. Whether they know it or not, they've held up the psychological well-being of a terrific, but deeply troubled, city.

It's not to belittle the profound on-field accomplishments of these young men by suggesting that, statistically, the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against them as black men. You don't have to call the mind the events in Ferguson, MO, to reach that conclusion.

Here's why: thanks to the failed war on drugs, the emergence of the prison-industrial complex, and the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs, which in turn lead to soaring unemployment, a University of Chicago professor argues that black men are worse off today than they were forty years ago.

Some broader context: University of Chicago economists Derek Neal and Armin Rick wrote a study in which they looked at incarceration rates for black males.

We bet you can guess what they found:

We conclude that, over the past three decades, a broad menu of changes in sentencing rules and parole policies created a much more punitive criminal justice system. In the 2000s, arrested offenders received much more severe punishment than their counterparts in the 1980s, and this is true for both black and white offenders regardless of the offenses that led to their arrests.

There is some evidence that the increased use of long sentences as punishment for violent crimes may have been even more pronounced among blacks, and as others have noted, the Federal War on Drugs was not conducted in a color-blind manner. However, these factors are minor parts of our story. The key point is that, since black arrest rates are now and have always been much higher than white arrest rates, the move to much more punitive treatment for all arrested offenders has had much larger effects on black communities than white ones.

In other words, while an increased punitive approach has had an effect on all offenders, regardless of skin color, the effect of that approach on black communities has been much more pronounced because blacks were more likely to be arrested for whites.

(In Chicago particularly, there's something called the "grass gap." That is, everybody and their cousin smokes weed, but only black people are arrested for it. This despite the modest efforts at marijuana decriminalization made by the City of Chicago.)

The Sun-Times further broke down Profs. Neal and Rick's study:

Neal and Rick also write that more punitive treatments for criminals have "have had a much larger impact on black communities than white communities because arrest rates have historically been much greater for blacks than whites."

All of this has a significant negative impact on the labor market.

"Prison spells harm the future labor market prospects of arrested offenders, and black men likely now face worse labor market prospects relative to white men than they faced when policy shifts in the late 1970s and early 1980s ignited the prison boom," Neal and Rick write.

If further explanation is required, you can listen to the WBEZ discussion about the study below. lt's well worth your time.

To bring it back to Jackie Robinson West: what happens when they grow up? While younger generations have declared themselves to be increasingly post-racial, the world they inhabit is still decidedly not.

While there are certainly individual examples of black success to point to—there's the president, the entertainment world's power couple, and the country's leading public intellectual, after all—the overall picture for black men in 21st Century America is bleak.

And that's why Jackie Robinson West is so important. By winning the hearts and minds of a hypersegregated city that's eighth in the world US for income inequality, at a time when schools and mental health facilities that their neighbors so desperately need are being shuttered left and right, they've countered a narrative that will seek to crush them at a certain age. They've done so simply through the joyous act of playing baseball really well.

But, win or lose the championship, the team members of Jackie Robinson West have to come home. After the parades are done, they'll have to continue living their lives. They have to grow up. In what kind of city will the grow up?

We all know Chicago is proud of Jackie Robinson West. So let's make sure that Jackie Robinson West has reason to be proud of Chicago, too.