John Carlos and Tommie Smith stood tall with their fists raised during a medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. The iconic image of two black men raising fists covered in black gloves in defiance against racial inequality is timeless. One would think that their courage would have been celebrated but they disrupted the ritual of the national anthem. It was a “public display of petulance”, according to an article written in Time. Nearly a half century later, Colin Kaepernick took a seat during the national anthem for many of the same reasons Carlos and Smith stood with raised fists. Kaepernick, a bi-racial black man raised by adoptive white parents; is receiving some of the same criticism.
"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 said while addressing the media. "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."
"I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag. I know that I am a black man in a white world." This was not a quote from Colin Kaepernick but from Jackie Robinson’s biography, “I Never Had it Made”. The book was written in 1972 and echoes the sentiment that Kaepernick was trying to bring attention to. Why are we still having these conversations in 2016? Why are numbers and facts about minorities dismissed as conditional circumstances and often ignored by a country that’s theoretically built on a promise of “unalienable rights” for all?
Kaepernick is following a long tradition of black athletes using their platform to bring awareness to social issues. It’s a tradition has always been met with scrutiny and ire from a section of people, mostly white; who feel uncomfortable about marginalized groups reminding them of the marginalization. Look no further than the reaction of people to the “Black Lives Matter” movement quickly deflecting to the generic “All Lives Matter” mantra. What about the need to blame the unarmed black men that have been killed by police officers with the excuse of “what about black on black violence?”
Of course #whitefragility wouldn't allow Kaepernick to make a social stance without deflecting from the issue. They showed up on social media in droves to remind Kaepernick that racial inequality is an uncomfortable issue for white folks. The conversation quickly deflected from the issue of social injustice to patriotism because that's a lot easier to talk about. We suddenly went from the narrative of “Kaepernick protesting injustice against people of color” to “Kaepernick is un-patriotic for sitting during the national anthem”.
Twitter exploded with criticism against Kaepernick in the guise of "military" support. Many of his critics, mostly white, called his actions disrespectful and hurled racist insults, posted videos of burning his jersey, made jokes about his appearance and threatened to boycott the San Francisco franchise. Some athletes and entertainers quickly swooped in on the momentum, chastising Kaepernick for being “selfish”.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees told ESPN, "Sitting down for that, that is a blatant disrespect of the freedoms that that gives you," Brees said. "Like, it's an oxymoron that you're sitting down, disrespecting that flag that has given you the freedom to speak out." Kaepernick’s former coach and one of his biggest supporters in the past said he didn’t “respect” the protest. Ex-teammate Alex Boone said he was upset by the protest and said Kaepernick should have some “(expletive) respect”. Some athletes tried to distance themselves from Kaepernick by #whitesplaining his decision in an effort to the topic a little easier to digest. San Francisco 49ers legend Jerry Rice tweeted "All lives matter. So much going on in this world today. Can we all just get along! Colin, I respect your stance but don't disrespect the Flag."
We can’t allow a group of people to deflect an issue because it’s uncomfortable to their life perspective. As much as we’ve seen negative backlash towards Kaepernick he has his fair share of supporters. In an op-ed for the Washington Post Kareem Abdul Jabbar wrote,"What should horrify Americans 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 inequities," Abdul-Jabbar said. "Failure to fix this problem is what's really un-American here." Jim Brown told NFL Total Access, "I listened to him and he makes all the sense in the world," Brown said. "He's within his rights and he's telling the truth as he sees it. I am with him 100 percent”.
D.L. Hughley, who has been one of Kaepernick's biggest supporters weighed on Facebook live. He said, "Maybe America can't stand the thought of black people sitting down". Hughley made reference to Rosa Parks decision to "sit" and also raised the question of whether or not Kaepernick was being un-patriotic. "Patriotism apparently only belongs to one group," he said emphatically. The video, which you can watch below; quickly went viral. Hughley's short but impactful post is a microcosm of the larger issue at hand. There is a divide amongst what can be addressed in our country and that matter in which it can be discussed.
Yes, there have been legal and legislative actions to create a sense of equality but there has never been a law that can change a person's attitude of perspective. There are some people that will never believe that inequality amongst people of color is an issue because it's not an issue to them. CNN invited Hughley to continue the conversation on their platform. He remained supportive of Kaepernick and said, "There's nothing more American than silence". He challenged why the same people that have been critical of Kaepernick's "silent" protest have been equally silent on the issue he wants to bring awareness to. "The question has never been how Black people feel about America...it has and always will be how America feels about us," he told CNN.
Will there ever be a time when we can actually have uncomfortable conversations about racial inequality, social issues and injustice without having to deflect? Kaepernick has vowed to sit until he sees change but the image of Tommie Smith and Juan Carlos standing proudly with fists raised is still relevant today. We can call Smith and Carlos champions of change but did anything actually change? How we will view Kaepernick's protest 20 years from now? Will he be considered a hero? Muhammad Ali was a pariah when he refused to enlist in the military in the prime of his boxing career based on his political and social stance. Today we call him a legend but today we're still having the same conversations. When will it change?