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If you think millionaire athlete Colin Kaepernick is too rich to protest, you don’t understand activism

You don’t understand racism, either.

Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers
Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

At the San Francisco 49ers’ Friday preseason game against the Green Bay Packers, quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat down during the national anthem in what he later explained was a protest against racial injustice.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told the NFL after the game. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

It’s no surprise that while some are inspired by his use of his platform to make this statement, others are disgusted. A popular line of attack that’s already surfaced on social media is that a person with Kapernick’s level of success and presumed wealth is unfit to critique anything about the country in which he lives.

This Twitter exchange, in which @theshrillest responds to a user who says, “Multimillionare NFL player complaining about oppression in the America. Unbelievable,” is one astute response to that criticism.

He’s right. If you pair the “Can you believe a successful person would complain?” response with, “Get a job!” — a line that’s consistently used against demonstrators who are not public figures (think, for example, of how Donald Trump addressed protesters at his rallies), you get a disturbing double bind for black Americans who want to protest racial injustice: Just about any person who speaks out risks being dismissed as either lazy and not successful enough to complain on the one hand, or too successful to complain on the other.

Money doesn’t protect you from racism. Plus, it’s possible to have unselfish motives.

The criticism of Kaepernick as a millionaire represents deeper misunderstandings too.

First, it wrongly assumes that any call for racial justice relates to money, and that individual wealth (or, for that matter, being biracal and raised by white adoptive parents like Kaepernick was) can protect a black person from the police violence the quarterback mentioned in his statement. We know that’s not true.

Second, it reveals a belief that no person with relative privilege could possibly be interested in standing up for, or drawing attention to the plight of, people who are less powerful. That — based on the most cursory glance at the history of racial justice activism in America — is demonstrably false.

More broadly, the “You’re too rich to complain” attack on Kaepernick represents a really limited imagination and a sad view of humans as having no capacity for anything more than selfishness — one that I would argue says more about the critics than it does about the activists who are the target of their scorn.

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