Kaepernick

How Colin Kaepernick Won

No matter how you feel about the NFL star’s protest, you can’t deny he’s forced America to talk openly about race

by Michael Harriot, September 14, 2016

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Kaepernick

San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid (35) and quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) kneel during the national anthem. AP / Marcio Jose Sanchez

Growing up, I was a skinny, wisp of a kid who didn’t cross the 100-pound threshold until I was a sophomore in college. In my comic book inspired dream sequences I fantasized about being the mild-mannered introvert who suddenly transformed into a superhero. My cousin Bernard, however, was a different story. He was older, big, athletic with street smarts and fists as heavy as cement blocks. Even though I was a nerd growing up in a poor, tough neighborhood, I was never bullied because Big B taught me one of the most important lessons of life. He would hold me hostage in impromptu boxing lessons, where he would throw halfhearted—but still heavy— punches while he chided me to “fight back, man! Fight!”

He never explained how to land a jab or the proper way to throw an uppercut. Instead, while slinging fists that felt like five-pound bags of flour at my face, chest and arms, Big B would wax poetic about the importance of not fearing being hit. “Some people won’t leave you alone, because they know you won’t fight” WHAP! “But sometimes you have to fight, even if they’re bigger than you.” WHAP! “Even if they’re stronger than you, you still gotta fight’em.” WHAP! “You might get your ass kicked, but you still won.”

Last weekend, as I soaked in the first week of professional football, I watched every NFL pregame, halftime and wrap-up show air at least one segment discussing Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest. Every commentator and host offered an opinion on why they thought his decision was disrespectful to veterans and America as a whole, or, conversely, why they respected his decision to protest nonviolently.

While it is impossible to know the exact percentages of the people who agreed with Kaepernick’s actions versus those who viewed his dissent as dishonorable, it is safe to say that the majority of Americans were on the opposing side of the San Francisco quarterback’s stance. Social media, mainstream news outlets, and every person with a Twitter handle, smartphone, and Facebook page either lambasted Kaepernick as un-American, or praised him as an agent for social change. Few people were on the fence.

Whichever opinion you hold, there is one unavoidable conclusion to this entire controversy:

Colin Kaepernick won.

I am sure that even Kaepernick himself was not under the illusion that kneeling during “The Star-Spangled Banner” was going to solve racism. No one thought that White America would see his demonstration and say, “You know what? Maybe we do treat people of color a little too harsh in America.” No amount of protest can do that. His intention was to increase awareness for injustice and spark a conversation. And he succeeded mightily.

The parts of America who regularly engage in the elusive “conversation about race” had already largely drawn their lines in the sand. On one side were the people desperate to show the disparity in the treatment of Black lives and the systematic inequality people in this country face every day. On the other side were the people who stuffed their fingers in their ears, closed their eyes, and pretended the belligerent Black people were just making stuff up. The intervening gap was filled with people content to ride the fence, mute the conversation, and extricate themselves from the argument.

Kaepernick’s simple expression dragged the discussion into the biggest arena in American entertainment. The most profitable and powerful entity in sports was forced to place the discussion about Black Lives under the brightest spotlight in America. Old, white sportswriters had to listen to Black men 20 years younger and ten times richer explain how racism works. He won. Unequivocally.

Of course there were those who wanted to change the narrative to a clumsy false equivalency about veterans, soldiers, freedom and respecting ‘Murica. But with them also came stories reminding the flag-waving finger-waggers of the Black soldiers who risked their lives for the same flag in WWII and Vietnam only to return as second-class citizens. They learned the history of a national anthem whose third stanza championed slavery. They heard the disaffected voices of Black Americans they assumed held dear the symbols of freedom and liberty.

There is only one real political party in America. Only one religion. Only one real pastime. A year ago I would have believed that presidential candidates, pastors and activists would still be addressing issues surrounding Black Lives Matter. If anyone had told me that every football broadcast in America would be talking about racial injustice, I’d think they were dreaming. If they suggested that the dialogue would overshadow 9/11, I’d call them crazy.

The most beautiful thing about the protest is the widespread Caucasian clutching of pearls when other players join in. The idea that Black men had along been disgruntled about the treatment of their kin left White mouths agape. They found it almost impossible to believe that these new millennium Mandingos dared not stand while pocketing American dollars for playing an American game in America. How dare they disrespect the benevolence of a country that made them millionaires—even if that country shot their cousins in the face in intermittent spates? How could they have the nerve to speak up about that? It was so disrespectful.

Yes, there are some who legitimately believe that the actions of the players are anti-American, even when players like Brandon Marshal state explicitly, “The message is: I’m against social injustice, I’m not against the military or police or America at all. I’m against social injustice…” Even when actual policemen and veterans support the protests. It is important to acknowledge those dissenting voices, because Kaepernick exposed a population of people who believe Black people respecting the symbols of liberty and justice is more important than Black people actually getting liberty and justice.

Colin Kaepernick’s actions won’t stop police from killing Black people. It is not a magic elixir that will cure racism, or force White America to see the error of their ways. The interest over his demonstration will eventually subside because America’s attention span is shorter than her patience. He will forever be a pariah to some, and he might not ever start in the National Football League again because of his choice.

I’m sure Kaepernick understood all of this before he kneeled down. Before risking his endorsements, his career and his popularity, he knew they were probably going to kick his ass. But for a couple of weeks, a dialogue about the value of Black lives and systematic inequality found itself at center stage of the biggest theater of American spectacle.

That’s winning.

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