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Arguing with Colin Kaepernick

Abe Khan just joined the department of Communication Arts and Sciences. MID had a big role in this hire and we are very pleased to welcome him to Happy Valley. Abe's research centers on protests and other forms of political activism by athletes. Wouldn't you know it, as soon as he arrives,there is a story that is right in his wheel house: Colin Kaepernick's refusal to stand for the national anthem. Abe is a very busy assistant professor, but he was generous enough to offer the following to our blog. It should help you understand why we are so pleased to have him on board.

Arguing with Colin Kaepernick

Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem during an NFL preseason game should have occasioned vigorous public debate regarding the problem of police violence, the fairness of the criminal justice system, and the persistence of racial conflict. Kaepernick, to the surprise of some, was thoughtful, sincere, and unambiguous in explaining what motivated his protest. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Implicitly invoking the recent acquittals of the police officers accused of Freddy Gray’s murder in Baltimore, Kaepernick’s comments, simultaneously earnest and provocative, attempted to give meaning to the symbolism contained in his protest: “There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” News of those acquittals was largely consumed by the flames of a vitriolic presidential campaign. Last summer, Baltimore was engulfed in the flames of a black, underclass insurrection, and one wonders what kind of public expression could better remind us of those events than the most elemental expression of democratic dissent: refusing to salute the American flag.

Of course, Kaepernick’s interpretation of that violence, his assumption of police culpability, and his imputation of police motives are each subject to plausible refutation, but refutation is a condition of argument, and Kaepernick’s fiercest critics seem to have little interest in argumentation. Instead, the response to Kaepernick reflects a broad cultural impulse to disqualify one’s interlocutors and political opponents. Colin Kaepernick claims that there are bodies in the street, but his critics rarely address the evidence that supports this claim, nor the variety of arguments towards which the claim points. Instead, Kaepernick has faced persistent attempts to simply disqualify him by denying him the authority to speak.

There are variations on these themes, but criticism of Kaepernick clusters into three basic positions: (1) Kaepernick has not been oppressed enough to speak, (2) Kaepernick is not black enough to speak, and (3) Kaepernick is disrespecting America, its troops, and its flag. I worry not only that these positions squander the opportunity to have useful debates, but also commit corrosive political errors. So, I want to address each of these in turn.

I. Colin Kaepernick had not been oppressed enough to speak.

Oppression is not experienced uniformly. There are in fact large patterns of racism in society that are typically related to socioeconomic class. The black poor have it worse, of course, than the black middle-class. But that doesn’t mean that that oppression is an alien concept to those who find themselves inside the black middle-class. (You may remember Henry Louis Gates, the Harvard University professor who was arrested for attempting to enter his own home.) The truth is that people of color both in the US and around the world experience varying levels of social exclusion, ostracism, and vulnerability, and that those experiences are felt differently, and sometimes very differently. To say that Colin Kaepernick lacks the authority to speak because he hasn’t been “oppressed enough" is to dispute his lived experience, and that’s not something anyone has authority to do.

Many claim that Kaepernick stands in a righteous tradition of black protest embodied in pro athletes like Jackie Robinson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Muhammad Ali, and Arthur Ashe. Consider, however, that Robinson’s experiences were not Kareem’s, which were not Ali’s, and which were not Ashe’s, differences which tend to be lost inside the banal observation that these figures were all “fighting for the same goal.” In many cases, they were not. Jackie Robinson and Malcolm X disagreed vociferously in 1964, for example, not long after Malcolm and Ali had formed an important friendship. I think that we can both acknowledge a full variety of black freedom struggles in sport and hear Colin Kaepernick in a way that affirms his experience. When we address ourselves to the hard work of meeting others inside their histories, we make argument possible. We may come to disagree with Kaepernick, of course, to hold anyone to the standard of absolute oppression, or to try to parse whether someone is oppressed enough, is to paralyze our political discourse.

Disqualifying protest speech in this manner, in fact, reinforces the oppressive conditions against which protestors agitate. For such a standard requires that the oppressed must constantly perform their oppression in order to be heard. This is precisely what reduces the oppressed to victims, instead of recognizing them as agents of their own history. Political theorist Jodi Dean identifies the double-bind into which victims are placed: “To speak at all they have to demonstrate how they are harmed and vulnerable, how they are weak, inadequate, or suffering. They must speak as those who have lost, those who are losers. One who feels the political impulse to struggle, who is ready to fight against injustice, is not injured enough to speak.” To say that Colin Kaepernick hasn’t experienced the requisite degree of oppression to speak is to endorse both the idea that the poor in America aren’t poor enough to complain. It is to identify with whatever is implied in asserting that slaves tasked with building the White House ate well. Not only do we simply argue about who’s more oppressed (a key to any divide and conquer strategy), but we also deny the oppressed an affirmative role in naming and resisting their oppressors. In this case, Kaepernick wants to draw our attention to racism, so let’s have that debate, instead of mining his biography for the authority to speak.

II. Kaepernick is not black enough to speak.

This position hides in more distant corners of public life, but it was advanced most prominently by former NFL star Rodney Harrison, who insisted that Kaepernick, “is not black.” When corrected, Harrison reportedly noted that he “didn’t even know that Kaepernick is mixed.” The problem is that Kaepernick’s racial identity is irrelevant to his point. Moreover, we are all “mixed.” Race, of course, is biologically inconsequential, if not meaningless. Race is a categorical system invented by humans to manage and control other humans. That doesn’t mean it isn’t real — it is — it has material effects and motivates people to do real things. But to say that Kaepernick cannot speak because he isn’t “black enough” or because he “is mixed” is to repeat racism’s error. It is an argument which gives race its meaning, validating the categorical utility of race instead of undermining its power. To the extent that we are all “mixed,” nobody would ever be “black enough” to talk about racism and its effects. I’m “mixed.” My own father is South Asian, but my mother is white. Does that mean I am somehow prohibited from explaining the funny looks I get at the airport? Or that I am afraid of Trump’s “deportation force?” Am I still allowed to be a professor of African American studies?

Second, this position recalls a dubious history. The idea that someone isn’t “black enough” to speak is simply the reverse of the idea that someone isn’t “white enough” to speak. Before the end of Jim Crow, what classified a person as “black” was a policy called the “one drop rule.” In other words, “one drop” of "black blood" meant that you were susceptible to legal mistreatment. Now, if that’s all it took to disqualify people of color from the protection of the law, why hold “one drop” of whiteness against a person of color who wants to express her or his opposition to the legally sanctioned, judicially endorsed mistreatment of other persons of color? This is a line of reasoning that not only disavows the possibility of interracial solidarities, but willfully ignores both the way our culture confers subordinate status to all people of color and the particular indignities experienced by Colin Kaepernick in being conferred with such a status.

III. Colin Kaepernick disrespects America, its troops, and its flag.

The accusation that Kaepernick is being “unpatriotic” or “disrespectful to our troops” commits two errors. First, it is a deflection, a ship passing in the night. Kaepernick made no comment on the military, the troops, or even foreign wars. He wasn't talking about Iraq, or ISIS, or drones. There are bodies in the streets, he said, and people getting away with murder. The argument from patriotism avoids these facts in favor of sanctimonious scripts about the virtue of military service. At their worst, these scripts valorize nationalist militarism, but their routine function in the Kaepernick controversy is to redirect argumentative attention from police violence, legally sanctioned murder, and the history of racism with which such discord is infused. It is not simply that patriotic assertions leave us blind to the facts in question, but that they deploy the courage required for service as a wedge with which to separate Kaepernick from the right to his convictions.

With an ironic twist, in this context – one in which a professional football player has violated the symbolic expectations associated with ritualized nationalism – the argument from patriotism is literally the opposite of a courageous argument. Saying that you love the troops and that you love America and the others must hate the troops and hate America is — without exception — the safest possible claim in American political culture. Aristotle once said (quoting Socrates), “It is not difficult to praise Athenians in Athens.” Is it any more difficult to praise American soldiers in the United States? More specifically, is it any more courageous to praise the troops at a football game? Even if we bracket football’s symbolic reliance on military tropes – a game predicated upon the occupation of enemy territory – NFL commissioner Roger Goodell expressed the need to secure the League’s special reverence for the military. To ignore the argument toward which Kaepernick’s gesture intends to point is fundamentally craven. It is a feeble retreat from the risky arena of meaningful debate, a move toward the shelter of platitude.

Second, the patriotism claim assumes that the flag and the anthem belong exclusively to the military. Yes, they help constitute the symbolism of the flag, but they do not exhaust the symbolism of the flag, and we can only know that -- we can only get to the idea that the flag and the anthem can mean other things -- when someone like Colin Kaepernick (or Craig Hodges or Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf or Carlos Delgado) does something like he did. Kaepernick’s point is, in part, “If that flag belongs to black people too, if the troops are supposed to protect black people too, then maybe we should stop letting cops get away with murder.” Like John Carlos and Tommie Smith may have wondered before raising their black-gloved fists in Mexico City in 1968, how do you make that point without turning away from the flag and making your case? What the flag means — indeed, what the republic stands for — is precisely what’s at stake.

I believe there are sensible reasons to disagree with Colin Kaepernick (even if I am likely to refute those reasons), but racial tests, oppression tests, and stale patriotism aren’t persuasive, principally because they are not arguments. Like Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson before him, Colin Kaepernick has placed his livelihood in peril in the service of his conscience. It is a risk that deserves our attention. Are the risks the same as those faced by Ali? No, of course not. As Jackie’s? Certainly not. But like both of them, Kaepernick, his protest, and the cause which motivates him are not going away. The entire Seattle Seahawks squad, according to recent reports, intends to present a gesture of solidarity on Sunday. Instead of disqualifying its participants, let’s recognize that they have something useful, important, and urgent to say: There are bodies in the street.