KAEPERNICK: RACE, SOCIAL JUSTICE AND THE BLACK ATHLETE
By Fahim A. Knight-El
I know that many apologists and pundits have weighed in on the Colin Kaepernick’s rebellion in which I and other socially conscious and enlightened black leaders and activist have been engaged in this conversation for decades and centuries. Yet, I applaud this young black athlete for daring to risk his career as a professional football player in order to bring public attention to the high incidents of racially motivated killings of unarmed black men by white police officers. These killings of black men, have a long history in America since our sojourn begin in 1555—lynching and violence against black men, is American as apple pie and baseball. Kaepernick stated: "These aren’t new situations. This isn’t new ground. There are things that have gone on in this country for years and years and have never been addressed, and they need to be. There’s a lot of things that need to change. One specifically? Police brutality. There’s people being murdered unjustly and not being held accountable. People are being given paid leave for killing people. That’s not right. That’s not right by anyone’s standards". The Treyvone Martin case in my opinion set a legal and social precedent that declared open season on black men.
Kaepernick goes on to state: “People of color have been targeted by police. So that’s a large part of it and they’re government officials. They are put in place by the government. So that’s something that this country has to change. There’s things we can do to hold them more accountable. Make those standards higher. You have people that practice law and are lawyers and go to school for eight years, but you can become a cop in six months and don’t have to have the same amount of training as a cosmetologist. That’s insane. Someone that’s holding a curling iron has more education and more training than people that have a gun and are going out on the street to protect us". Most white Americans are a bit hypocritical and they easily forget that the American flag is a symbol of freedom to them and their ancestors due to European settlements in 1607, into the so-called ‘new world’ in which they stole North America (and the Americas) from the Native Americans who had lived in this part of the world for over 16,000 years prior to European settlements. They had migrated by crossing the Bering Strait from Asia—the United States flag symbolizes for white people sovereignty and nationhood, which declared them free from centuries of British colonial rule culminating with the American Revolutionary War in 1776.
However, the U.S. flag and national anthem, have a different meaning to white Americans than it does to black Americans; it is difficult for us to overlook the history of tyranny carried out by the racially inspired despots throughout the history of the United States of America; nevertheless, some of us desire to be politically correct in front of white folk, but behind closed doors many of us share Colin Kaepernick’s political dissention, because deep down inside our history of oppression and subjugation is rooted in our DNA and the murdering of innocent black people by white supremacist police officers is reprehensible and it touches our souls. Many of these white officers never get indicted and/or charged and some of them are even exonerated and/or remedied by Internal Affairs agencies via a so-called bureaucratic process and/or are found not guilty by jury trials (some have even been found civilly wrong but not criminally responsible). This is often viewed by the black community and the families of the victims as clear evidence that the judicial and criminal justice systems are rigged and black folk cannot receive justice. The deaths of Eric Gardner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, etc. But there are countless other black men who are faceless that have been killed by white law enforcement and their cases have never made it to the national news.
The deaths of these black victims only serves as a reminder of the history of hatred, racism and injustice that both the Confederate flag and the American flag have historical had on people of African descent despite of our loyalty and commitment to consider ourselves American citizens (the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution don't mean a damn thing to some of us). This nation fought a 4/1/2 year bloody Civil War (1861-1865) the so-called South verse the North where slavery was the central theme of this conflict in which southern states desired to maintain the most profitable economic system ever recorded in American history known as chattel slavery (this evil system lasted for 310 years) where the south attempted to succeed from the Union.
Kaepernick decided that he had a moral obligation to bring attention to these racist motivated social issues by not standing up during the singing of the national anthem as a protest gesture against black injustices; he stated: "Yes. I’ll continue to sit. I’m going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed. To me, this is something that has to change. When there’s significant change and I feel like that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent, this country is representing people the way that it’s supposed to, I’ll stand". Thus, once again let me applaud this athlete for having the courage and audacity to use one of the biggest stages in American culture to bring attention to the social injustices that affects disproportionally African Americans, in particular cases involving police brutality. Kaepernick’s position was brave and if I could have had a personal word with him, I would told him, that I drew the same conclusion some years ago and refused to stand up for the saluting of the American flag and the singing of the national anthem.
Kaepernick understood the United States Constitution better than most of us and was exercising his right to freedom of expression, which was protected by law. His protest should have been immediately received as protected speech under the First Amendment Right to the U.S. Constitution and in my opinion every black athlete should have stood with him in solidarity, because they have a huge stage, which commands huge influence beyond just the world of sport and play. Yes, their collective stance and action would have created mutiny in the sports world, but it would have forced these professional sports conglomerates to view the black athlete different other than just being a Negro commodity. The National Football League is a huge corporation and possesses tremendous economic and political influence, but this well oiled machine has prospered from the gifts and talents of the black athlete (high priced modern slaves and gladiators). I am of the opinion that the NFL has a moral and social obligation to use its power and wealth to support individuals like Colin Kaepernick who sees the broader picture about social issues that affects our community.
Kaepernick's stance is reminding the NFL that the black athlete do not live in a glass house; here is a league that is probably over 65% black men, the issues that affects black men in the larger society cannot be ignored by a league who has built a powerful entertainment economic enterprise off the backs of the same black men who comes from these same communities and demographics and social-economic backgrounds as the victims who are being targeted by white law enforcement and their quick to discover that their newfound success (which often constitute a world of materialism) do not make them immune from being arrested while driving black (they might can change their zip codes, but they cannot change their skin color) and can easily become victims themselves of police brutality regardless of their wealth and celebrity status. The NFL could and should put more investment dollars in these urban black poor and disenfranchised communities as opposed to creating gentrification opportunities for big corporate real estate investors, which often devalue and steal poor and oppressed people's property to build arenas and playing fields and shopping centers that push poor people out and then revalue the property at astronomical tax values they are not helping to empower black communities. This is the real crime.
Kaepernick chose to use his high profile image to challenge racism and injustice relative to the above mentioned police brutality cases that have seen innocent black men killed by white law enforcement these injustices compelled him to act; he sought to kneel during the playing of the American national anthem, but his dissention was to challenge what was deemed by him as being a fundamental contradiction to the concept of American democracy, which was rooted in a double standard of American hypocrisy (Chattel Slavery and America's history of racism have created a longstanding social and political dichotomy relative to how some black Americans view patriotism and loyalty); the 310 years of dehumanization will always act like a ghost and haunt America in the area of race relations, which was one of the greatest crimes that have ever been committed against humanity. This history has never been rectified (it can only be resolved when reparation and justice is dispensed to the ex-slaves); moreover, some believe that Kaepernick's stance was the epitome of unpatriotic conduct, which stood as a shameful act for an American citizen to commit against the United States Government and their symbols of sovereignty. Kaepernick stated “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color.”
Those who criticized him refuses to look beyond their own biases that is driven by emotionalism he was clear about his position, he no longer could stand for the American flag until the injustices are halted and black and brown people are treated with fairness and is protected by the law (once again Kaepernick's stance was only a small reminder that the national anthem and the American flag means two distinct things to black America and white America). Lets not mistakenly expect this young black athlete to be viewed in the same breathe and light of Marcus Garvey, W.E.B Dubois, Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Louis Farrakhan, Muhammad Ali, Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, Fred Hampton, Mark Clark, etc., These men dared to alter world history by challenging the status quo and the powers-that-be. Sometime it’s mere circumstances that propels us to stand up against injustice—I do not necessarily think that Kaepernick is a student of Black Nationalism and he is probably not a student of radical militant politics, but yet the mass mediums and many in white America would make all types of attempts and assumptions to associate his position with leftist and perhaps even with anarchist groups and ideologies and try to mis-categorize his quest for black social justice by relegating his activism with acts of treason and sedition. But black people still in 2016 who are so-called Americans cannot receive justice and are victims of a highly charged racist police departments throughout America this what is fueling Kaepernick's dissent.
Kaepernick stepped outside of what is expect from the black athlete, they are not paid to become political symbols and pursue political or social justice issues, in particular those issues that deals with race are taboo, and yet Kaepernick's position broke rank with his expectations as an athlete and in today’s era of market brands and being politically correct in which athletes are more concern with marketing themselves for the next contract and pursuing Madison Avenue endorsements rather than standing up for issues that might spark controversy and tarnish their brand (to do what Kaepernick is doing is unique and it is outside of selfishness and ‘me-ism’ that most entertainers and athletes have succumb to in 2016). Trust me Kaepernick will pay a heavy price for his social rebellion; he will be vilified and isolated and will be viewed by the National Football League corporation as a cancer, which must not be allowed to take root and spread amongst other players. The NFL Players Labor Union will not back Kaepernick because his action has the potential to disrupt labor and could cause huge profit losses to the NFL corporation. They desire to sit idly by and attempt to ignore the wealth disparities, the modus operandi of the Prison Industrial Complex, and the militarization of the police departments. Kaepernick's stance only says to us and the NFL, we have a problem and we cannot pretend these social issues do not exist and to ignore Kaepernick's broader argument will only acerbate the American divide.
The National Football League views Kaepernick's protest as perhaps a public relations nightmare because athletes are paid to perform and entertain and not to promote real social justice and although some black athletes such as Jim Brown, Curt Flood, Muhammad Ali , John Carlos and few others decided to be more than just an athlete; they took up the mantle of social justice. Tommy Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games these two courageous athletes stood on the podium that day upon receiving their gold and bronze medals respectively raised their black gloved fist in solidarity of the Black Power Movement. They decided on that big stage to let the world know that they were in agreement with the resistance and the revolutionary movement that was being spearheaded by the black vanguard of our struggle respectively known as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in the 1960s. They refused to turn a blind eye to oppression and injustice. They were clear about the political stand they took. But former heavyweight boxing champion of the world George Foreman grab the American flag and ran around the stadium. His reactionary political stance was to show White America that he was a good loyal Negro and to also let the former slave master children know he was an 'American' and that he didn't support the Black Power movement. Frederick Douglass once stated in a speech "what to the slave is the 4th July".
Some of you may recall the former Louisiana State University (LSU) and Denver Nuggets National Basketball Association basketball player Mahmoud Abdul Rauf (aka Chris Jackson) who converted to the religion of Al-Islam and he too like Kaepernick in the mid 1990s took issue with pledging allegiance to the U.S. flag and standing for the singing of the national anthem. These symbols and notion of patriotism did not resonate with Rauf’s conversion to his new faith tradition of Al-Islam and although, his dissention was rooted more in a religious protest in which he had an affirmation to reconcile his belief in the Five Pillars of Islam in which caused him as a Muslim to question whether or not he could pay homage to the sovereignty of a nation that had stood for oppression and tyranny. Yet, I think both Kaepernick and Rauf shared a central theme, which was drawing the conclusion that America had a history of unresolved injustices and, perhaps after closely reading the words and interpreting the national anthem, it led them both see the hypocrisy and the social contradictions; it also, perhaps brought both of them to the question of race and justice in America. Thus, being black and living the black experience it was easy for them to see two Americas one black and one white. I remember Rauf standing in a Muslim prayers position while the national anthem was being played perhaps as a respectful denunciation.
He was vehemently criticized for showing his allegiance to Allah (God) and although, Rauf’s protest was rooted deeply in the injustices aimed at black Americans but his argument was more shrouded in the complexities of Islam relative to the American culture in the 1990s of course a lot has changed domestically and globally since Rauf made his protest perhaps over 20 years ago, but yet Kaepernick's protest serves as proof positive that a lot still remain the same in America two decades later. Kaepernick's motivation to challenge the status quo was tied directly to race and class and wealth disparity and injustice. The above mentioned high profile police brutality incidents sensitized him to speak out and condemn the innocent killings of black men by white law enforcement officers. Yes, he has been ridiculed by some and praised by others, which has led to some NFL football players not standing for the national anthem as well and even some college and high school players have joined onto Kaepernick's protest; if nothing else Kaepernick's protest has restarted a conversation relative to social justice. The question relative to free speech is, how do we act and receive speech in which we disagree, that is the litmus test to determining our so-called constitutional freedoms and our level of tolerance as a society?
Lastly, like many so-called African Americans this past summer, I watched the summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil in which my interest was to see and applaud the African American/African athletes and to celebrate their accomplishments. They all seem so proud to stand on the podium as so-called Americans in receiving their Gold, Silver and Bronze metals and seeing the American flag being risen and the United States National Anthem being sung must of have sent goose bumps down their spines. But I immediately had to gather myself in recognizing what these young black athletes had accomplished for America and yet simanteously think about the way black people are treated by United States Government and the U.S. police departments at home, it is this contradiction that immediately soured my taste to accept and recognize American patriotism being displayed as less than genuine. I looked at Brazil, which was colonized by the Portuguese and next to the United States, it was Brazil where the most African slaves were transported against their will during the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Middle Passage.
The media mostly show you the light skinned mulatto Brazilians, but there are over 20 million black Brazilians who are descendants of ex-slaves that the media in Rio do not show you. So I will always salute our right to be treated as human beings and not just be celebrated during athletic events to add to America's medal count. I salute our right to attain complete freedom and be treated under the banner of freedom, justice and equality. Moreover, anyone of these African American, Afro-Caribbean and or African athletes, etc., could be killed in America by white racist police law enforcement. So as we raise the American flag, I think about Sandra Bland, Treyvone Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, etc., and the recent deaths of other Black men at the hands of racist American police officers. I think about the over 100 million African slaves who were kidnapped, raped, dehumanized and enslaved (they were so-called Americans and my tears are for them and my ancestors runs deep). Yes, Black Lives Matter beyond these damn Olympic Games; do not ask me to stand when the flag is being raised and put my hand over my heart when you are still killing us in the streets. One of my idols Muhammad Ali threw his gold medal (Ali won a gold medal in the 1960 Rome Games as a light-heavy weight boxer) in the river. Ali was a free black man and who debunked the shackles of a modern day slave. Treat black people as true Americans and not just during the Olympic Games. Black Lives Matter beyond adding gold metals to America’s count. Thank you Colin Kaepernick for rekindling this much needrd conversation that evolves around social justice, race, class and white privilege.
Fahim A. Knight-El Chief Researcher for KEEPING IT REAL THINK TANK located in Durham, NC; our mission is to inform African Americans and all people of goodwill, of the pending dangers that lie ahead; as well as decode the symbolism and reinterpreted the hidden meanings behind those who operate as invisible forces, but covertly rules the world. We are of the belief that an enlightened world will be better prepared to throw off the shackles of ignorance and not be willing participants for the slaughter. Our MOTTO is speaking truth to power. Fahim A. Knight-El can be reached at email@example.com.
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Fahim A. Knight-El