Colin Kaepernick still doesn’t have a job. I am a white man, a white male professor of race and culture, with a job, writing about a black man, an athlete and activist, who doesn’t have a job because he is not quiet about the things I critique.
Kaepernick’s football career remains tenuous, at best, while I am able to cash in on the wages of whiteness. Like dozens of white quarterbacks, 32 owners, countless media pundits, and millions of fans, my decision to speak or not to speak, to kneel or stand, does not leave me wondering about my future.
As a prominent American institution and corporate behemoth, the NFL has been and remains an instrument of anti-Black racism. The refusal to sign Kaepernick, who has over and over again made clear that Black Lives must matter in every corner society, fits with the NFL’s business model. It isn’t a sign of hypocrisy.
Football is inherently political. It’s an American pastime. Like racism, it is as American as processed apple pie. It was once a professional sport only white people were allowed to play. Most people were okay with that. It’s shaped by nationalism and Americans’ fetishization of a masculinity based in violence and conquest. And adoring fans love it no less.
The very issues Kaepernick is protesting, from mass incarceration to police brutality, remain fixtures of contemporary American life. They, too, are consequences of a country where everything from sports to law enforcement is shaped by masculinity and whiteness, racism, misogyny, and homophobia, just like football.
Kaepernick kneeled in hopes that white America would look in the mirror, holding account of its historical failure to honor Black life … to respect, protect, and empower all Black lives. Yet, we continue to push the hand holding the mirror away from our faces.
Our—white America’s—failure to be accountable is not surprising. Rather than take up the issues that he and so many others are protesting, we have deployed that all-too common playbook of denial and deflection. Even his defenders use the language of anti-Black racism, rooted in the criminalization of Black people, when referencing Kaepernick’s circumstances.
During an appearance on CNN, Bob Costas argued, while referencing the NFL’s refusal to hire Kaepernick, “but you hire criminals.”
“When you consider the fact that domestic abusers, people guilty of various forms of misbehavior, find a place on NFL roster’s… “ Costas continued, “Pac Man Jones was just suspended again for a single game for a run-in with the police several months ago. This guy has a rap sheet a mile long and collects millions of dollars for the Cincinnati Bengals who at various times seemed to have been running a halfway house for miscreants, you gotta believe that Colin Kaepernick, regardless if you agree or disagree with him politically, deserves a chance to apply a trade.”
In other words, if the NFL is willing to employ “miscreants,” “thugs,” “criminals,” “pariahs” and other undesirables, surely they can find a spot for a Black man, like Kaepernick.
At Forbes, Rob Tornoe offered a similar talking point. “Colin Kaepernick didn’t commit a crime,” he argued. “He didn’t punch his fiancée in the face or try to cover up a murder. He didn’t run a secret dogfighting ring, or violently throw his girlfriend onto a bed of weapons. No, Kaepernick’s only crime is that he offered an opinion while being black. And for that heinous act, NFL owners don’t want any part of him.”
Beyond the centrality of respectability politics, beyond the reinforcement of stereotypes of Black criminality, beyond playing into narratives where crime figures as an epidemic in certain sports only, beyond the parallels with a society that refuses redemption or second chances for incarcerated people, these defenders work against the very nature of Colin Kaepernick’s protests. The willingness to throw any of number of (Black) NFL players under the prison bus as part of their defense of Colin Kaepernick is ironic.
In December, Colin Kaepernick, as part of his Know Your Rights campaign, donated 25,000 dollars to Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation (SOUL), a Chicago-based social justice organization, whose focus is “…to end mass incarceration and [the] over-criminalization of communities of color in Illinois.” As part of their work, SOUL fights for every member of the community, irrespective of “the color of their skin, their economic demographic, prior criminal history” so that they, too, have “the opportunity to work with access to gainful, sustainable, living-wage employment.”
Kaepernick also donated 25,000 dollars to American Friends Service Committee, an organization based in Phoenix committed to stopping the privatization of prisons. He specifically gave “$20,000 to cover the cost of behavioral health treatment for formerly incarcerated/convicted people participating in AFSC’s program.”
In May, Kaepernick also partnered with 100 Suits, a New York organization committed to reducing recidivism rates. Working with “formerly incarcerated individuals, homeless individuals, gang members and survivors of domestic violence,” 100 Suits offers “free business attire to men and women who are in the job search process.” He dropped off two boxes of suits and helped distribute them. Kaepernick challenged the ways equal access to gainful employment is withheld from men and women, who have been cast as suspect and undesirable, even when they deserve second chances.
Whereas so many of Kaepernick’s defenders identify the presence of those wrapped up in the criminal justice system as evidence of the NFL’s hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy, rather than our failures and that of the criminal in(justice) system, Kaepernick is fighting so formerly incarcerated people and those deemed as undesirable pariahs have opportunities. To join in Kaepernick’s fight is not only fighting for his right to play football, to kneel in protest against white supremacy, but it’s also acknowledging and joining the fight so that formerly incarcerated people, or those with “rap sheets,” have the right to earn a living, whether in the NFL or in any number of industries.
The hyper criminalization of Black people and the demonization of dissent; the disregard of Black pain on the football field or in the streets; the punishing of Kaepernick, Craig Hodges, Mahmoud Abdul Rauf, and Tommie Smith and John Carlos for refusing to “shut up and play for team post racial”; the comfort of denying formerly incarcerated people from voting and landing certain jobs are all bounded by white supremacy.
Anti-black racism is seeing the league as a halfway house. It is the easy demonization and punishing of Black people who protest injustice. It’s ignoring the significance of kneeling during the national anthem or a red hat strategically placed in a locker without having to account for how the latter might offend people. It is an endless supply of white backup quarterbacks having jobs even though there are more qualified Black applicants.
Anti-black racism is continuing to focus on everything but the racial injustice that defines the nation. It is American professional football, with or without Colin Kaepernick.
To stand or kneel with Kaepernick requires challenging the logic of anti-Black racism. It necessitates fighting against the demand that he “shut up” about white supremacy if he wants to play. It necessitates questioning why formerly incarcerated people must check the box and learn how the language of the criminal justice system shapes conversations about sports, schools, and spaces and places inhabited by Black people. It demands we, white people, question the presumption of guilt, of criminality, on NFL rosters and in the streets of American cities.
If WE, white America, really understand Colin Kaepernick, we must look at ourselves, asking why we are repulsed and outraged by those demanding racial justice, but find pleasure in the destruction of Black bodies on and off the field.
If we are truly heeding, the fight must not end with Colin Kaepernick, but with the millions of lives that he is fighting on behalf of when he kneels, when he hands out suits, and when he joins forces with those organizing for a cultural valuing of all black lives, when he resists both increased fame and money. If we are truly heeding, we would hold up the mirror so we can truly see ourselves as we are and not as we imagine ourselves to be.