Colin Kaepernick is feeling the heat right now for refusing to stand during the National Anthem last Friday, and though he is now a controversial figure, he’s not exactly entering new territory. The American public has vilified its black athletes for protests for a long time and continues to do so. He just happened to call next this time around.
Backlash against black athletes in America goes as far back as the 1960s. Muhammad Ali stated his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War in 1966 because he didn’t want to shoot people who “never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father.” After that, Jim Murray labelled Ali “the white man’s burden,” among other journalists and public figures who derided him. In 1968, Olympic Gold and Bronze medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black fists during the national anthem in Mexico City. They were suspended from the U.S.A. team and received death threats. Sports writer Brent Musburger said they looked like “black-skinned storm troopers” and said, “Perhaps it’s time that 20-year-old athletes quit passing themselves off as social philosophers.” Carlos said the pressure contributed to his wife’s suicide in 1977. Jackie Robinson even wrote in his 1972 autobiography that “As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.”
Fast forward to recent history, Cleveland Browns receiver Andrew Hawkins wore a shirt that read “Justice for Tamir Rice – John Crawford” on December 14, 2014. Jeff Folmer, then head of the Cleveland Police Union, said Hawkins should stick to what he knows and even demanded an apology from the Browns organization. Hawkins’ shirt referred in part to Rice’s death at the hands of officer Timothy Loehmann who shot him for carrying a toy gun within two seconds of stopping his car. Loehmann went uncharged in what many consider a questionable grand jury proceeding. Ohio is an open-carry state.
On July 9th of this year, Minnesota Lynx players wore t-shirts that read “Change starts with us. Justice & Accountability” on the front and named Philando Castile and Alton Sterling as victims of police violence while stating “Black Lives Matter” on the back. Off-duty Minneapolis police officers working the game walked out. Lt. Bob Kroll, president of the Minneapolis Police Federation, praised them for it. He said officers would continue to not work at Lynx games if the athletes continued their stance, implying that the safety of the Lynx players took a back seat to their differences of opinion on police brutality.
Compared to his predecessors in the 1960s and 1970s, Kaepernick has it easy. He hasn’t spent years banned from his profession while litigating in court like Ali, nor has he received death threats to our knowledge like Smith and Carlos(yet). He hasn’t competed in professional sports during the Jim Crow era like Robinson. These distinctions must be made to give his protest the proper context. Kaepernick likely won’t receive the full extent of his backlash until he protests longer, but he is not exempt from the social rule barring black athletes from speaking up about social issues. His punishment so far comes in the form of racial slurs, demands that he go back to Africa, and overall demonization on social media.
Some critics took their ridicule further than others. Shane White, a San Francisco 49ers fan, even burned Kaepernick’s jersey and saluted the fire to the Star Spangled Banner after saying Kaepernick would spend the rest of his life “sitting while you pee.” Not to be outdone by Murray or Musburger at using a public forum and media outlet to bash black people, Tomi Lahren chimed in on Twitter by calling Kaepernick a “cocky child,” a close cousin to “uppity negro” in the context of this protest and her past statements. Lahren then proceeded to call Kaepernick a “whiny, indulgent, attention-seeking, crybaby,” questioned his level of oppression, and implied maybe our “black president” failed. She capped off her final thoughts by asking when the black community will take some “responsi-damn-bility,” implied Kaepernick was racist, and told him “you suck.” If she hoped to be included with Murray and Musburger in history, she may very well have succeeded.
Kaepernick’s detractors share a common theme. They don’t seem to know much or care about why he protested. Kaepernick stated police brutality was one of his reasons, but many things need to change. To those who viewed his protest as an insult to the military, he said:
“I have great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country. I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country. And they fight for freedom, they fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice, for everyone. That’s not happening. People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up, as far as giving freedom and justice, liberty to everybody.”
Again, Kaepernick is not the first person to bring this up. It’s not far off from what Ali said about his country expecting him to stand up for it, while it does not stand up for black people. Anybody could look up the statistics of police shootings against unarmed black Americans and see what Kaepernick is talking about, so why would anyone ignore his point? The answer is simple. They ignore it because that’s the easy route. It’s more convenient to paint the national anthem, and our nation, out to be something it is not, as James Baldwin said during his 1963 address to the Second Baptist Church in Los Angeles, The Free and the Brave:
“It is important that one begin to recognize this because part of the dilemma of this country is that it has managed to believe the myth it has created about its own past, which is another way of saying that it has entirely denied its past, and we all know…what happens to a person who is born in, say where I was born, in Harlem, and goes to the world pretending he was born in Sutton Place. How odd this may sound also [applies] to a nation…In this extraordinary endeavor to create the country called America, a great many crimes were committed….People treat each other very badly, and always have, and very probably always will. I’m not talking about that. I am talking about denying what one does, which is a much more sinister matter.”
Many of Kaepernick’s critics view the Star Spangled Banner as a symbol of pride in our military. However, many of them likely don’t know the anthem’s full story, its writer’s history, or even all of its lyrics. Francis Scott Key was pro-slavery, and he wrote a third stanza to the Star Spangled Banner that disparaged black soldiers who joined the British because they were promised freedom. It is safe to assume that when Key wrote “O’er the land of the free,” he did not intend to promote black freedom. A slavery supporter wouldn’t be caught dead doing that.
Vikings guard Alex Boone told USA Today Kaepernick should’ve stood for the national anthem because people died “to protect our freedom.” This point completely ignores the people who have died unjustly due to racist law enforcement, Kaepernick’s reasoning for his protest. Kaepernick acknowledged that people died for our freedom, and the United States has oppressed people of color in return. History is on Kaepernick’s side when you look at how black people were treated during our major wars. They were slaves during the War of 1812. After the Civil War, the United States abolished slavery, only for black codes, vagrancy laws, and convict lease systems to replace it, and prison labor still exists today as a replacement to the chattel slave trade. Jim Crow persisted during both World Wars and didn’t end until the Vietnam War was well under way. If a black man fought for his country during this time, he came home to a land that either segregated him until 1964 or started over policing him in the 1970s when Nixon declared his War on Drugs that was really intended to target black communities. The effects of Nixon’s drug war persist to this day in the form of police corruption in major cities, mandatory minimum sentencing and mass incarceration even as our military continues to serve in the Middle East. Boone can certainly argue that our armed forces fight for our freedom, but can he argue that everyone is getting the equality they fought to protect? How could he when it doesn’t exist?
You don’t have to join the military to fight and die for the voiceless, and Kaepernick was not the first person to cast shade on American ceremony. Neither was Robinson. Frederick Douglass escaped slavery, advised Abraham Lincoln on the treatment of black people in America (though he was disappointed in Lincoln’s stance on black suffrage), and became the first black person on the presidential ballot. On July 5, 1852, Douglass addressed the hypocrisy of celebrating the Fourth of July in a country that still kept slaves.
“The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony.”
Harriet Tubman was a runaway slave who risked her life for years leading slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad. She then served as a Union spy during the Civil War, and in 1863 led a gunboat raid in South Carolina with Colonel James Montgomery and 150 black soldiers. Did America honor Douglass and Tubman’s efforts to free their people with convict leases and Jim Crow? If you ask Kaepernick, he would likely say no.
Medgar Evers served in the U.S. Army during World War II and fought in the Battle of Normandy. When he returned from war, he was forced away from a voting booth at gun point. He helped organize boycotts for the Regional Council of Negro Leadership in the 1950s and became the NAACP’s first Mississippi field officer in December of 1954. In 1963, he was a constant target for death threats, and in May of that year someone threw a molatov cocktail into his house. On June 12, 1963, Ku Klux Klan member Byron De La Beckwith murdered Evers in front of his home with a gunshot to the back. One can only imagine what Evers’ last thoughts were as a man who fought in a war for his country and then became a casualty in a war for equality with his own government. He was a veteran who died in action for the cause of racial justice in front of his own house, not overseas. Beckwith wasn’t found guilty of Evers’ murder until 1994, over thirty years and two trials later. Did Evers fight for our country only to be killed by the conditions it allowed? If you ask Kaepernick, he would likely say no.
Fred Hampton, Deputy Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, helped start free breakfast programs and free medical clinics in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods, along with busing to prisons, clothing banks, and day-care centers. He even led the original Rainbow Coalition with the Illinois Black Panthers, Young Patriots, Young Lords, and Rising Up Angry. Black Panther Party member Bobby Lee described Hampton’s influence during a Q&A with Area Chicago:
“Fred Hampton got the idea of the Rainbow Coalition right away. He had been involved with the NAACP as a youth, so he already had worked with white people, knew they weren’t all bad. It seems to me that a lot of the real intense government repression didn’t happen until the Black Panthers started building coalitions. Once the party departed from the ‘hate whitey’ trip and got serious about building real politics, we were a threat—plain and simple. The FBI were always watching us. But the Rainbow Coalition was their worst nightmare. It was [Richard] Daley’s worst nightmare too.”
In August of 1967, the FBI established COINTELPRO, a covert operation that sought to eliminate the chance of a “black messiah” by targeting Martin Luther King Jr. as well as “neutralizing” the Black Panthers by discrediting them; even if it meant disrupting their free breakfast program. Chicago police and the FBI, working with State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan, assassinated Hampton on December 4, 1969 at 4:30 a.m. in a first floor apartment on 2337 West Monroe Street. Hampton’s estate, along with the estate of Mark Clark who also died that morning, got a $1.8 million settlement after over 13 years of litigation. Did anyone in the military fight for the corruption in law enforcement that killed Hampton regardless of the social services he helped build? If you ask Kaepernick, he would likely say no.
But if you ask any of Kaepernick’s critics, many of them likely do not know any of these people who fought and died for the equality activists today continue to fight for when faced with our nation’s disproportionate police shootings against unarmed black people. If they do know them, they know very little. Otherwise, they would at least understand the point of Kaepernick’s stance, and why it honors people who fought and died for his right to protest for equality instead of disrespecting them. The logical connection does not require a particularly vivid imagination when it is backed up with this much evidence.
Kaepernick has broken no law, and as much as people criticize him for protesting a nation that allows him the right to free speech, they are ridiculing him for exercising that right. Kaepernick is a grown man who made a decision knowing the consequences, so he does not need to be handled with kid gloves, but one must notice the odd logic of his detractors. They don’t criticize what he is protesting, police brutality that continues to kill people, but the way he protests, which has killed no one. White mocked the masculinity of a professional athlete, not because he did anything particularly feminine, but because he didn’t protest the way he would like. Boone didn’t call Kaepernick’s protest “shameful” because he was wrong, but because he saw a problem in our nation and voiced outrage in a way Boone didn’t like. Michigan head coach Jim Harbrough took it one step further. He said he didn’t like Kaepernick’s protest or its motivation. One must wonder what motivation for protest would satisfy Harbrough if proven racial discrimination in law enforcement in multiple departments is not enough.
One must also wonder what method would satisfy anyone who disagrees with Kaepernick. At least Army Ranger veteran Dorian Majied gave Kaepernick some options he could’ve used, including the methods chosen by Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Michael Jordan. But Kaepernick is not Wade, Anthony, or Jordan. He chose this method, one he has the right to choose and the social knowledge to back up, to bring awareness to an important issue. Yet people are criticizing Kaepernick more than the social problem he has highlighted.
It’s curious that Kaepernick is called unpatriotic for pointing out a social ill that oppresses Americans across the country, but Donald Trump’s followers praise him for “telling it like it is” and preaching against “political correctness.” Kaepernick is telling it like it is. He is not being politically correct. For Trump, that’s the recipe for success. For Kaepernick, this is cause for demonization and emasculation. The hypocrisy behind Trump earning his nomination by criticizing the country and promising to make it “Great Again” while vilifying people of color, and Kaepernick getting lampooned for speaking up for black people in a nation that hasn’t been great for them can only be explained by white privilege and willful ignorance. Of course, this hypocrisy is lost on Trump who said Kaepernick should find another country. Perhaps if Trump doesn’t think America is so great anymore, he should’ve followed his own advice instead of running for its highest office and telling a concerned citizen to leave.
White privilege makes sure black people never find the right way to protest that would satisfy the masses. Martin Luther King Jr. led nonviolent protests and received death threats. Even now Black Lives Matter is criticized for marching and blocking roads. Former St. Paul police sergeant Jeffrey Rothecker even encouraged people to run them over despite his department’s stated purpose to protect and serve citizens from criminal attack. Kaepernick has done none of the things America ridicules black activists and athletes for, and yet he is now told he should do something else.
Some people on social media have implied that Kaepernick has no right to protest because he’s rich. Claiming that Kaepernick is not qualified to protest racism in America because he’s a millionaire implies that only poor and middle class people should protest. Meanwhile when people with lesser means do just that, they’re told to get a job. They’re told to get off welfare. They’re called “thugs” and blamed for dividing our country. Kaepernick is not on welfare. He holds a lucrative job. Now the criteria that people expect the average protester to meet are suddenly disqualifying traits for protest.
Others on social media believe Kaepernick is not qualified to speak on black oppression because he was adopted by white parents(Lahren really hammered on this point). Already this argument is disingenuous when you consider Kaepernick said his protest wasn’t about him. It’s also intellectually lazy to assume his white parents somehow shielded him from racism like some white, 24-hour, bigot repellent. Such a notion is false almost to the point of comedic fantasy. Kaepernick grew up in Wisconsin, a state listed as the worst for black Americans in the nation for three years. In a row. Kaepernick said he was racially profiled, no “matter how close I stood to my family.” David Whitley of Sports Nation implied Kaepernick’s tattoos made him look like he “just got paroled.” Though Whitley said later he did not mean to stereotype him, the effect of associating a black male with parole wasn’t lost on anyone, including Kaepernick’s parents. Kaepernick even said during his press conference this week that while helping his friend move out of his house in college, someone called the police on them because they were the only black people in the neighborhood. He said the police pulled guns on him and his friend(see at 8:31). Kaepernick knows racism. He had no way of avoiding it.
These arguments about Kaepernick’s upbringing and social status are thinly veiled and unwarranted attempts to kill the messenger and a classic example of moving the racial goalpost in American society. The criticisms lobbied against Dr. King, Ali, Black Lives Matter, and Kaepernick lead to the conclusion that there is no right way to protest for people who refuse to acknowledge that your protest has merit. Why rally against racism that affects black people disproportionately when you can cut down Kaepernick’s manhood instead? Why rally against police brutality when you can tell Kaepernick how to do so in a way that fits your sensibilities? Why research our nation’s problematic past and present that has left thousands of black people buried underground when you can criticize Kaepernick for sitting in a chair? Why watch the videos of a black man getting choked and killed by police, a black boy getting shot for playing with a toy gun in an open-carry state by police, or an 84-year-old black woman getting pepper sprayed in her own home by police when you can watch Kaepernick’s jersey burn to a crisp? There’s no need to address Kaepernick’s message when you can kill the messenger by using his parents and income as a negative. These are nothing more than methods of deflection and should be dismissed as such.
Honoring our nation is nonnegotiable, but respect for its black citizens seems optional, empathy for them an afterthought, and learning about them a hardship so inconvenient people must protest to spark the conversation. And still, the protest endures more disdain than the crisis. Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the national anthem isn’t our nation’s problem. It’s the massive epidemic of intellectual cowardice that cripples us from learning how to help our nation grow into the utopia of freedom and equality we like to say it is. If we are so focused on killing black athletes’ voices every time they speak up that we don’t listen to what they’re saying, we are defending a nation that we don’t know. We are also insulting the lives of people who died inside the borders at the hands of those who were called to keep them safe. You don’t have to like Kaepernick, but you could at least try to learn about him and hear him out. Based on America’s treatment of black athletes when they protest, that alone would make you a revolutionary.
Seek the truth, my friends.