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The backlash over Colin Kaepernick is just Americans’ refusal to acknowledge racism — again

Kaepernick wouldn’t have to take a knee if Americans listened to black athletes before him.

Arizona Cardinals v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The NFL preseason game on August 26 between the San Francisco 49ers and the Green Bay Packers began as an ordinary game. And as with any other game, before kickoff came the national anthem.

But for 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, this preseason, so far, has been anything but business as usual. While everyone stood, right hands over their hearts as “The Star-Spangled Banner” played, Kaepernick pointedly sat down.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he told 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.”

Kaepernick — like activists and organizers in the movement for black lives that has swept the nation over the past two years — is calling attention to continued racial injustices black people face in America that are magnified by each extrajudicial police killing of African Americans.

But the court of public opinion shows a simple protest isn’t the entire story.

The 49ers issued an official statement recognizing Kaepernick’s First Amendment right “to choose to participate, or not, in our celebration of the national anthem.” NFL Hall of Famer Jim Brown has said he’s with [Kaepernick] “100 percent.” Professional athletes like Seattle Reign midfielder Megan Rapinoe and retired Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch have expressed their support. Yet Kaepernick has drawn the ire of many, who accuse him of being ungrateful for calling out racism while receiving a multimillion-dollar contract, or of being disrespectful to the nation.

For Kaepernick, his act of protest (which he says will continue) is about using his platform as a prominent athlete to highlight the needs of those who don’t have a voice.” But the response to his statement shows his actions and statements are part of a much bigger discussion of how Americans talk about racism today, and whether professional black athletes like Kaepernick are allowed to participate in, let alone help dictate, the conversation.

Kaepernick shows that the movement for black lives has inspired a new generation of black athletes to call out racism

Three years after the Black Lives Matter organization was created, the movement for black lives has exploded into a national black millennial–led movement for racial justice, with prominent black athletes like Kaepernick counted among them.

After a grand jury decided not to indict former Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson for Michael Brown’s death, the St. Louis Rams ran onto the field in a “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture in solidarity with the protestors in nearby Ferguson. The next month, NBA players Derrick Rose, LeBron James, and Kyrie Irving warmed up wearing “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts on the court to honor Eric Garner, who died after NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo put him in a chokehold.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

And recent weeks have shown these kinds of statements aren’t going away anytime soon. “I’m going to continue to stand up with people that are being oppressed,” Kaepernick told reporters. And he is joined by a wave of other young black athletes, who, inspired by the contemporary fight for racial justice, are doing the same thing.

Black WNBA players for the Minnesota Lynx wore Black Lives Matter shirts during warmups following the police killings of Philando Castile in their home state and Alton Sterling in Louisiana in early July. Similarly, after Simone Manuel made history at the Rio Olympics as the first African-American woman to win an individual gold medal in swimming, she called attention to police brutality — just days after the Department of Justice released a scathing report on the Baltimore Police Department, detailing numerous racial abuses endemic to the department that are mirrored in police departments around the country.

Police officers have killed at least 2,195 people since Brown was killed in 2014. A disproportionately high percentage of those killed were black.

And despite the high frequency with which officer-involved killings take place, hope for accountability is often fleeting because police are rarely indicted for killing civilians, even as more video evidence of those killings becomes available.

And as Kaepernick publicly aligns himself with the movement for black lives, the backlash mirrors the kind of criticism activists face constantly and that shapes the way Americans talk about racism today.

Why people are upset with Kaepernick

Baton Rouge police officers at a recent protest against police brutality Mark Wallheiser via Getty Images

Responses to Kaepernick’s act of protest have centered on three key ideas: that he disrespected veterans by not honoring the national anthem; that he is disqualified from speaking against racism because of his multimillion-dollar contract; and that by speaking out against police brutality, he is anti-police.

Kaepernick drew the ire of veterans and military supporters offended by his unwillingness to stand up for a country many have fought on the front lines to protect — some going so far to burn his jersey while playing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

According to the Washington Post, Jay Gruden, coach of Washington, DC’s NFL team, who Gruden noted has a “close relationship with the military,” said his team has “a ton of respect for what goes on for our country with those people.” On the other hand, some military members expressed solidarity with Kaepernick through the viral hashtag #VeteransForKaepernick shortly after his first protest and the backlash that followed.

In a move to find some common ground, President Obama urged a genuine conversation instead of arguing. Kaepernick, he said, could acknowledge the pain of someone whose spouse or child "was killed in combat and why it hurts them to see somebody not standing," or his critics could be mindful of the pain of “somebody who's lost a loved one that they think was unfairly shot."

But the sense of disrespect looms, and is compounded by the fact that Kaepernick is richer than most people generally, but also richer than those for whom he is protesting.

According to the Pew Research Center, black households earned a median income of $43,300 compared with $71,300 for white households in 2014. Black adults with a bachelor’s degree earned nearly twice as much ($82,300) but still lagged behind their white counterparts of the same educational background ($106,600).

Kaepernick signed a six-year, $114 million contract in 2014. He’s been accused of being too rich to protest racial inequality, which his $11.9 million base salary suggests doesn’t apply to him.

Aside from Kaepernick’s financial privilege, law enforcement officials also felt chided, as Martin Halloran, president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association, noted in an official statement to Jed York, the 49ers president, and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, on Monday:

While we certainly acknowledge Mr. Kaepernick’s first amendment right to remain seated during the National Anthem, as inappropriate as that may be, we will not stand by while he attacks police officers in this country with statements such as “People are on paid leave while people of color are killed.”

Not only does he show an incredible lack of knowledge, regarding our profession and “officer involved” shootings, but also shows a naivety and total lack of sensitivity towards police officers. Ironically it is those officers who on numerous occasions have protected Mr. Kaepernick and have ensured that the venues where the NFL holds its events are fully protected.

Halloran is expressing a familiar sentiment from critics of the movement for black lives: that the focus on disproportionate police brutality against black people denigrates police officers. And while on-duty police officer deaths are at a record low, officers are concerned that protests obscure the reality that they put their lives on the line for their job.

But at a moment when America is witnessing the end of the second term of the first black president, there is also an idea that institutional racism no longer exists. As Greg Howard explained for the New York Times, people have gone so far as to redefine racism “to mean malice in one’s heart,” to make it seem like racism is a personal failing of a select group of people and not the product of a broken system.

And that’s the exact source of the tension. Like Donald Trump’s fearmongering that the movement for black lives stands against America’s greatness for calling out institutional racism, Kaepernick calling out structural racism is framed as a matter of national loyalty. And while his income is supposed to indicate someone who transcended racism, he is demonstrating that money doesn’t magically make racial injustice disappear. Being a biracial person raised by a white family hasn’t completely alleviated injustice either.

Kaepernick is upending the story Americans have told each other about racism. For many, racism is a relic and the workings of a few bad people who didn’t get the memo. But Kaepernick understands that racism is still present and persistent.

Black athletes of the past have said the same thing and faced similar backlash

Muhammad Ali. Harry Benson/Express/Hulton Archive via Getty Images

Despite the uproar, Kaepernick’s protest fits into a long legacy of black athletes using their platform to magnify racial inequalities, and finding themselves similarly scorned.

Muhammad Ali famously refused to fight in the Vietnam War in 1967, not just because it was against his faith but also, more bluntly, because the Vietnamese, as he said, never “called me [racial slur].”

As Ali recounted in an interview with Esquire:

I came back to Louisville after the Olympics with my shiny gold medal. Went into a luncheonette where black folks couldn't eat. Thought I'd put them on the spot. I sat down and asked for a meal. The Olympic champion wearing his gold medal. They said, "We don't serve niggers here." I said, "That's okay, I don't eat 'em." But they put me out in the street. So I went down to the river, the Ohio River, and threw my gold medal in it.

The story is as much a testament to Ali’s classic comedic bravado as it is a sobering reminder that no accolade, not even an Olympic gold medal in light heavyweight boxing at the 1960 games in Rome, could shield him from being treated like a second-class citizen.

State senators in Ali’s home of Kentucky went so far as to pass a resolution stating, “[Ali’s] attitude brings discredit to all loyal Kentuckians and to the names of the thousands who gave their lives for this country during his lifetime.”

Similarly, when John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists in a Black Power salute at the podium for winning the gold and bronze for track and field at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, they weren’t just stripped of their medals for violating the Olympics’ “no politics” policy. As Smithsonian Magazine reported, both were called “black-skinned storm troopers” and received death threats back home.

"As soon as we raised our hands, it's like somebody hit a switch," Carlos told Vox. "The mood in the stadium went straight to venom.”

And today, when Rep. Steve King (R-IA) can go as far as to suggest that Kaepernick is "sympathetic to ISIS" simply because his girlfriend is Muslim, it appears black athletes continue to face the same kind of vitriol nearly half a century later.

The controversy proves America has a racism problem because it won’t face its racism

Kaepernick knows this isn’t really about him. As he told at the end of the preseason game, this protest “is bigger than football.” It’s also bigger than Kaepernick and the controversy surrounding him.

The issue isn’t that Kaepernick is factually wrong. As Jon Schwarz reported for the Intercept, the national anthem does include an often-forgotten third verse that glorifies killing slaves.

Rather, the problem is that it’s still taboo to hold a mirror up to America to show that “the land of the free and the home of the brave” inflicts violence on its own citizens simply because they’re black, and refuses to take responsibility for it, let alone provide redress.

NBC Sports pointed out that Jackie Robinson, who broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947 by joining the Brooklyn Dodgers and was one of Ali’s critics, expressed almost the exact same sentiment as Kaepernick when reflecting on his historic first World Series in his 1972 autobiography I Never Had It Made (emphasis added):

There I was, the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people. The air was sparkling. The sunlight was warm. The band struck up the national anthem. The flag billowed in the wind. It should have been a glorious moment for me as the stirring words of the National anthem poured from the stands. Perhaps, it was, but then again, perhaps the anthem could be called the theme song for a drama called The Nobel Experiment. Today, as I look back on that opening game of my first world series, I must tell you that it was Mr. [Branch] Rickey’s drama and that I was only a principal actor. 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 made it.

From Jesse Owens being forced to enter through a back door to get to a reception honoring him for his gold medal wins in track and field at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin to Ali being denied service at a local diner in his hometown when he returned from the Olympics more than two decades later, black athletes reckon with the sobering fact that regardless of what they do, they’re still not considered real Americans.

That’s why Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, argued for the Washington Post that the focus shouldn’t be on reprimanding Kaepernick. Instead, people should look at the disturbing picture that criticizing Kaepernick paints of America today.

“What should horrify Americans,” Abdul-Jabbar wrote, “is not Kaepernick’s choice to remain seated during the national anthem, but that nearly 50 years after Ali was banned from boxing for his stance and Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s raised fists caused public ostracization and numerous death threats, we still need to call attention to the same racial inequalities.”

Why it matters that Kaepernick is speaking out as an athlete

San Francisco 49ers v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

As Ijeoma Oluo pointed out in the Guardian, a simple question hovers over the controversy: Why didn’t Kaepernick “just stick to football?”

The reason: There’s simply no buffer for racism — no matter what jersey someone wears, how much money he has, or what his ancestry might be. And professional sports leagues are key places where racial inequalities remain stark.

Black players make up 68 percent of the NFL, but no black person has ever owned a national team. Given the fact that the NFL’s fan base is 83 percent white, black football players are pressured to stay silent and just play the game, both literally and figuratively.

But stereotypes that define black athletes by their physical prowess, not their intelligence, also limit the kind of freedom players like Kaepernick have.

As Lindsay Gibbs explained for ThinkProgress earlier this year, “Black athletes were either steered away from the quarterback position in their youth, or forced to abandon it before they were allowed to play football professionally,” because they “weren’t [considered] intelligent enough to play the position of quarterback, and their athleticism could be better used in skill positions.”

Kaepernick’s statement is powerful precisely because he’s in a position he was never meant to occupy. And while there is no indication of what specific repercussions he will face, his willingness to stand up against racial injustice — especially as a black quarterback — represents a pivotal moment of him taking the lead both on and off the field in ways that were never meant to be possible.