Colin Kaepernick is not Colin Powell. One is an NFL quarterback and the other a retired general, once Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and then secretary of state – but both are black, or African-American if you prefer. In the late fifties they would have been Negros, or in the South, Nigras, because someone told those folks they couldn’t use the term “nigger” anymore. They had a defiantly ironic workaround. But these two guys are quite different. As George W. Bush’s secretary of state, Powell kept his deep misgivings about the Iraq war behind closed doors. That “you break it you own it” argument was leaked to the press by others – Powell never said such things in public. Similarly, the public only later learned that he knew that his presentation to the UN about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction was based on pure bullshit, but he gave the presentation anyway. He was a good soldier. Those of us who heard him speak at the West Point graduation in 1990 heard a good man saying sensible things. Powell’s only act of public defiance was endorsing Barack Obama in 2008 and then again in 2012 – for which he was excoriated by every conservative with a keyboard or a microphone. This was those black folks sticking together for no good reason once again. This was a lifelong conservative Republican selling out because of race – no more than that – because McCain was just fine and so was Romney. Powell only liked Obama because Obama was black. That was stupid. That was actually racist. And so on and so forth.
Colin Powell did not like where the Republican Party was headed. He’s didn’t like where America was headed – but he was still a good soldier. He did not campaign for Obama. He did not criticize any specific Republican. He simply said how he’d be voting and left it at that. That’s what a good soldier does.
The other Colin is not a good soldier:
Donald Trump sharply criticized San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick on Monday for refusing to stand for the national anthem, telling a radio host it’s a “terrible thing.”
“Maybe he should find a country that works better for him. Let him try. It won’t happen,” said the Republican presidential nominee, who spoke to conservative show host Dori Monson on KIRO radio in Seattle ahead of his Tuesday trip to the region for a fundraiser and rally.
A lot of things are implied as givens in what Trump said. America is a wonderful place for blacks – they won’t find a better place on earth – we treat them well. Secondly, there is a bit of 1968 in there, when Nixon was running for president and the antiwar movement was exploding. The issue was Vietnam and the chant from the right was “America, love it or leave it!” The given there was that patriots do not ever question their government, which can never have made a mistake, and thus our war in Vietnam was right and just and good – so shut the hell up or get the hell out, and by the way, get a haircut. It was my country, right or wrong, my mother, drunk or sober – a kind of family thing. Nixon said that’s how the “silent majority” felt, and they’d put him in office. They did, which is probably why Donald Trump now speaks of that same silent majority that in spite of all the polls showing he cannot (probably) possibly win this thing will put him in office.
That may or may not happen, but Kaepernick speaks of a kind of new Vietnam:
Kaepernick, who has been highly critical of both Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, has drawn national scrutiny for his decision to sit during the national anthem before games as a form of protest against what he sees as injustices across the country, including police treatment of civilians.
“I mean, ultimately it’s to bring awareness and make people realize what’s really going on in this country. There are a lot of things that are going on that are unjust, people aren’t being held accountable for, and that’s something that needs to change,” he said Sunday, according to the San Jose Mercury News.
Asked what he would like to see changed, Kaepernick said: “There’s a lot of things that need to change. One specifically is police brutality, there’s people being murdered unjustly and not being held accountable. The cops are getting paid leave for killing people. That’s not right.”
Is he allowed to say that, and to sit down when he should stand up? Mike Oz has a few things to say about that:
You shouldn’t think about Kaepernick without thinking about Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists on the Olympic podium or about Muhammad Ali’s defiant stance against war or Jackie Robinson’s segregation-challenging journey to the big leagues.
It has to make you wonder: What would Ali say if he were here? What would Robinson say? We don’t know the answer to either question necessarily. But we do what Jackie Robinson was thinking close to this death in 1972.
Oz cites Robinson’s autobiography I Never Had It Made:
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 Noble Experiment. Today, as I look back on that opening game of my first world series, I must tell you that it was Mr. 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 had it made.
There’s nothing new here, and Oz adds this:
The historical context around Kaepernick is important because we don’t see this type of protest as often from athletes anymore. They’d rather sell you a pizza or a pair of shoes than make you think about race, which is every bit their right, just as Kaepernick’s protest is his. Other athletes are careful to stick to the script from their media-training session, as to not show the wrong type of emotion and end up ostracized like Cam Newton.
The modern world might even have you believe that Ali was revered during his days of defiance, from all the social-media eulogies a few months ago. He wasn’t. He stood for what he believed in, and faced dogged criticism for it, including a media that wasn’t nearly as supportive as it’s been to Kaepernick. But Ali didn’t back down.
So if there’s one thing we can safely assume sports’ famous activists would applaud Kaepernick for, it’s this: He voiced his opinion, acknowledging that it might hurt his reputation and financial situation and he didn’t care. When the condemners came condemnin’, he didn’t backtrack, waver or dodge questions.
Whatever you think about Kaepernick’s method or message – that, too, is your right – he at least deserves credit for that.
Perhaps so, but Kareem Abdul-Jabbar prefers to open with a little story:
During the Olympics in Rio a couple of weeks ago, Army Reserve 2nd Lt. Sam Kendricks was sprinting intently in the middle of his pole vaulting attempt when he heard the national anthem playing. He immediately dropped his pole and stood at attention, a spontaneous expression of heartfelt patriotism that elicited more praise than his eventual bronze medal. Last Friday, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose not to stand with his teammates during the national anthem. To some, Kendricks embodies traditional all-American Forrest Gump values of patriotism, while Kaepernick represents the entitled brattish behavior of a wealthy athlete ungrateful to a country that has given him so much.
In truth, both men, in their own ways, behaved in a highly patriotic manner that should make all Americans proud.
That isn’t so hard to understand:
The discussion of the nuances of patriotism is especially important right now, with Trump and Clinton supporters each righteously claiming ownership of the “most patriotic” label. Patriotism isn’t just getting teary-eyed on the Fourth of July or choked up at war memorials. It’s supporting what the Fourth of July celebrates and what those war memorials commemorate: the U.S. Constitution’s insistence that all people should have the same rights and opportunities and that it is the obligation of the government to make that happen. When the government fails in those obligations, it is the responsibility of patriots to speak up and remind them of their duty.
James Baldwin put that a different way – “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually” – but left and ended up living in Paris among the cheese-eating surrender-monkeys, and he was gay. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, however, sees no reason the leave:
One of the ironies of the way some people express their patriotism is to brag about our freedoms, especially freedom of speech, but then brand as unpatriotic those who exercise this freedom to express dissatisfaction with the government’s record in upholding the Constitution. Colin Kaepernick explained why he will not stand during the national anthem: “There are a lot of things that are going on that are unjust [that] people aren’t being held accountable for. And that’s something that needs to change. That’s something that this country stands for – freedom, liberty, justice for all. And it’s not happening for all right now.”
That doesn’t sound like a brattish wealthy athlete ungrateful to a country that has given him so much, nor should it:
What makes an act truly patriotic and not just lip-service is when it involves personal risk or sacrifice. Both Kendricks and Kaepernick chose to express their patriotism publicly because they felt that inspiring others was more important than the personal cost. Yes, Kendricks is a national champion pole-vaulter, but every athlete knows that breaking focus and concentration during a high-pressure competition can be devastating to the athlete’s performance. The Olympics was filled with favorites who faltered because of loss of focus. Halting his run in order to honor the national anthem could have cost Kendricks his medal. He was willing to take that chance.
Likewise, Kaepernick’s choice not to stand during the national anthem could create a public backlash that might cost him millions in future endorsements and affect his value as a player on his team, reducing salary earnings or even jeopardizing his job. If team ticket sales seriously dipped as a result, he would pay for his stance.
We should admire those who risk personal gain in the service of promoting the values of their country.
And then it’s back to Vietnam:
In 1989, when a federal law prohibiting flag desecration went into effect, Vietnam Veterans burned the American flag as a protest to a law curbing the First Amendment. Their argument was that they fought for the freedoms in the Constitution, not a piece of cloth, and to curtail those freedoms was an insult to their sacrifice. Ironically, the original purpose of flag desecration laws between 1897 and 1932 wasn’t to prevent political dissent, but to prevent the use of flag imagery for political campaigns and in advertising.
So everyone has this all wrong:
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. Failure to fix this problem is what’s really un-American here.
Maybe so, but Adam Serwer reminds us of the real world:
Kaepernick’s detractors, when they are not insisting his protest is unpatriotic, or disrespectful to the military, mock his background, upbringing, and success. Photos of Kaepernick with his adoptive parents, mocking the idea that Kaepernick is “oppressed,” have been widely shared on social media…
Rodney Harrison, a former NFL safety, said that Kaepernick wasn’t black and therefore “cannot understand what I face and what other young black men and black people face, or people of color face.” (Harrison later apologized and said he didn’t realize Kaepernick is black). “When did rich people become victims?” the conservative journalist Tucker Carlson asked on Fox News in disbelief, one of the rare moments a Fox News audience has ever been encouraged not to see a rich person as a victim. Sean Hannity, a Fox News host and adviser to Trump said Kaepernick was “a spoiled brat, out of touch, super rich athlete. He, in his own life, has suffered no oppression, he’s free to share all the money he wants, he lives in the greatest nation on earth,” and speculated that the quarterback had converted to Islam, as though being Muslim would make Kaepernick less patriotic, or his protest less legitimate.
Yet none of these responses engaged the substance of Kaepernick’s protest, which is that black people are killed in disproportionate numbers by police officers who are rarely punished, no matter the circumstances. Also ignored are Kaepernick’s own statements on the issue, which make clear that his protest is not focused on his own treatment.
“This stand wasn’t for me. This stand wasn’t because I feel like I’m being put down in any kind of way. This is because I’m seeing things happen to people that don’t have a voice, people that don’t have a platform to talk and have their voices heard, and effect change,” Kaepernick told reporters in a press conference on August 28. “So I’m in the position where I can do that and I’m going to do that for people that can’t.”
Serwer has no problem with that:
There is no tension, no hypocrisy, no contradiction, between Kaepernick being a black person of unusual status, fame, and financial success and his demand that the United States treat black people equally. African Americans are a hybrid people and he is nowhere near the first black man of mixed ancestry to protest against racism. Du Bois had white ancestors, Frederick Douglass believed that his father was the white man who owned his body, Malcolm X, with his red hair and light skin, was asked by a student why he identified as black upon his visit to Ghana. There is also the current president of the United States.
Kaepernick’s true sin is his rejection of the Faustian bargain offered to black people who reach elite status in America, that their success comes at the price of ceasing to criticize the racism in the system that allowed them to thrive as exceptions. Many Americans would prefer that black elites not remind them of America’s unfulfilled promise that all are created equal, but rather pretend it has already been realized, or be silent about the ways in which it has not. The only thing that would satisfy Kaepernick’s critics is apathy.
That’s what Donald Trump would have preferred. This guy never had it so good. Only in America could a black kid get rich and famous like that. Where’s his gratitude? If he doesn’t like it here he should get the hell out, but he’ll never find a better place. Blacks never had it so good.
Donald Trump is an impulsive fellow. He hadn’t thought this through, because, as Slate’s Jamelle Bouie notes, that contradicts his main message to black America:
To the extent that Donald Trump is reaching out to black Americans, his pitch relies on a bleak vision of black life in the United States and an attack on Democratic Party leadership in those same cities. “Inner-city crime is reaching record levels. African-Americans will vote for Trump because they know I will stop the slaughter going on,” Trump tweeted on Monday. “Now that African-Americans are seeing what a bad job Hillary-type policy and management has done to the inner-cities, they want TRUMP!”
So far, there is no groundswell of black enthusiasm for Trump. He wins 8 percent of black voters in the latest poll from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal; he wins 5 percent in the latest survey from Morning Consult; and he wins just 3.6 percent in the latest poll from Reuters/Ipsos. In critical swing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, he wins a statistically negligible share of the black vote, i.e. zero percent.
Oops. That didn’t work. Bouie knows why:
The simple answer is that it’s patronizing, ahistorical nonsense that’s not at all unique to Trump. The problem goes beyond the mere optics of his “outreach” – producing dystopian portraits of black life for predominantly white audiences. And it’s not just the extent to which Trump is talking about black Americans rather than to them. The central issue is that Trump portrays black Americans not as able citizens who need to be convinced, but as mindless followers of a failed regime.
“The Democratic Party has failed and betrayed the African-American community. Democratic crime policies, education policies, and economic policies have produced only more crime, more broken homes, and more poverty,” Trump said in a recent speech in Milwaukee. He continued: “The Democratic Party has run nearly every inner city in this country for 50 years, and run them into financial ruin. They’ve ruined the schools. They’ve driven out the jobs. They’ve tolerated a level of crime no American should consider acceptable.”
In this narrative, black Americans are mere objects – means to a partisan end. They do not choose or act as political agents. There are no black politicians or activists or leaders of any stripe. Instead, they are acted upon, tools of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party. And worse, despite the horrors of Democratic governance, they don’t understand that they’ve been used and “betrayed.” They still vote for Democrats in overwhelming numbers. They are dupes.
That is, however, not how blacks see the Democratic Party:
Shaped, influenced, and even driven by black Americans in the middle of the 20th century, the modern Democratic Party is not the literal descendant of the white supremacist party that bore the name for a century; in much of the modern-day South, black Americans are the Democratic Party. Black Americans have had an active role in Democratic Party politics for two generations, culminating in the election of Barack Obama, a black American. More broadly, blacks have not been led astray – they are not victims of false consciousness or some “plantation mentality.” They are political actors making choices based on their interests as they see them.
Likewise, the issues in urban America aren’t the product of the Democratic Party or the black mayors and city councilors who took the reins of the cities in the 1970s and 1980s. The decline of Detroit or Cleveland or Baltimore didn’t begin in 1967. Instead, they’re the cumulative result of a century of policies, from redlining and housing discrimination to white flight, federal neglect, and ongoing hostility from surrounding municipalities. There’s no question that these cities have been marred by bad governance, but to understand that in terms of party affiliation – neglecting the effects of deindustrialization, racism, and capital flight – is to show profound ignorance of urban politics and problems.
Okay, he got that wrong, and then there’s Barack Obama:
Tens of millions of black Americans hold the president and his family in high esteem as exemplars of the black community. For them, he deserves respect regardless of your politics. And if there’s anything that defines the GOP in the present age for black voters, it’s the outsized disrespect for Obama, from South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson’s “you lie” to the birther crusade pursued so vigorously by Trump and others. Black Americans see this, and they remember.
Trump doesn’t have a winner here:
In this world, for blacks to reconsider Trump and the Republican Party, they would have to ignore his birtherism; they would have to ignore the push for voter ID and the attacks on civil rights legislation; they would have to downplay the patronizing “outreach” of conservative voices and Republican politicians. For blacks to reconsider Trump, they would have to act as if they were the dupes of his imagination.
They would also have to ignore that Trump just said that that they’ve never had it so good and should just shut the hell up. Colin Kaepernick should. Colin Powell is the model, not this Colin – so vote for Trump!
Colin Powell has remained silent on the question of Trump’s candidacy. That may not last much longer. Sometimes you just can’t be a good soldier.