Colin Kaepernick and the Monday-Morning Quarterbacking of Black Protest

Johnson: Why it was only logical that Colin Kaepernick decided to kneel; we’ve been asked to do that for generations now.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, middle, kneels during the national anthem before the team's NFL preseason football game against the San Diego Chargers, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016, in San Diego.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, middle, kneels during the national anthem before the team’s NFL preseason football game against the San Diego Chargers, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016, in San Diego.

Well, that didn’t last long, did it? Not even a week after snatching every potential outlet and headline possible, Colin Kaepernick’s protest has essentially come to an end. His stance, which was never about the National Anthem but about using the moment at the beginning of NFL games to serve as a quiet reminder that the country still hasn’t fulfilled the promise of an equitable society for its black and brown citizens, drew the ire of players, military men and women, pundits inside and outside the game, and tons of everyday citizens. After a conversation earlier this week with Nate Boyer, a former green beret and an NFL player himself, the 49ers QB has come out stating that he’ll now kneel during the National Anthem, a conciliatory gesture that comes as a result of talking with Boyer. He started the kneel practice Thursday night in San Diego during the National Anthem and has stated that he’ll also donate the first $1 million dollars of this season’s earnings to social justice organizations.

This ordeal will likely represent a win for the NFL, an organization that has consistently proven more adept at suppressing social issues than addressing them. The artful thing here is that the latest update keeps the conversation bottled on two things in the public’s mind: Kaepernick’s choice and patriotism. Those are two issues that the public (and the league) can cleanly cleave; even the intervention of Boyer confirms that this was still a tightly controlled message about the “what” of the protest, not the “why.”

I support Kaepernick and his individual right to make the choice to engage or abstain in the National Anthem as his American right. It is important to see what the gesture was provoking; interpretations of his stance as anti-American, disrespectful of servicemen and women’s sacrifices over the lifespan of this country were straw-men — distractions about the topics he was attempting to bring to the public conscious. In many ways, the comments that were thrown his way mirrored the sentiments often shared with black protestors in the country’s incredibly racially charged climate nowadays. The idea that protest — itself a tool intended to inconvenience and discomfort; to instigate awareness, conversation and hopefully allegiance to a cause — is disruptive and maybe even anger-inducing for non-participants is rather the point, which made the reactions to Kaepernick’s stances rather predictable, as any sort of black anger or angst that doesn’t fit the narrative of appreciation, progress or accountability becomes a sore point for much of the rest of the country’s consciousness.

Ultimately, it remains unclear how white Americans will ever find black protest and angst digestible. The last couple of years have seen various forms of protest take place in a variety of places around America’s racist history and uneven progress when it comes to the black community.

Not only has #blacklivesmatter — which has used everything from disrupting brunches in restaurants to blocking major commuter arteries and public spaces —  raised the ire of the general public, but so have all the other vocal, but peaceful, protests and reminders of how much of the stain of our history remains.

When Simone Manuel emerged victorious from the pool and remarked about police brutality, it was treated as an assault on American values, pride and representation. She was also treated as immature and ungrateful, seen as robbing a moment that should’ve been about something bigger — America — that she wasn’t capable of seeing.

It’s also similar to the way that the dozens of WNBA players have chosen to protest the disproportionate ways that black lives have been lost — without consequence — to police brutality. That argument and stance, like so many other black protests, have been rebutted with the weak-chinned rhetorical chants of “all lives matter,” “black on black crime” and accusations of laziness, wrong-headedness in these situations (“well maybe if Sterling obeyed …”) and a litany of ways that the public has chastised a community’s conscience and bravery to say “this continues to be wrong.”

When Michelle Obama remarked that it wasn’t lost on her that she and her family wake up every day in a house built by slaves, she was soundly ridiculed by a chorus of voices asking her to either dear God move on from the whole slavery bit or say that her statements were actually false.

The finger-wagging by some in white America has been tiresome due to its familiarity — the constant contempt for any given method, message, value or argument that inequality still exists, largely unfettered, in this country.

It’s like this: So what your city is deeply segregated in housing and schooling, resulting in poorer access to basic services, increased police presence and higher crime and poverty. You prefer to live together anyway.

It’s like this: So what you don’t get as many chances as anyone else — how’s that true? You’ve got a black president (that I hate); black sheriffs, mayors, etc.

The answer is that there will never be an acceptable form of protest — white people will finger-wag and say “there’s a better way to do this” citing MLK and the Civil Rights Era, overlooking the fact that some of the most iconic images to come from that period include images of Elizabeth Eckford being screamed at as she led the walk integrating Little Rock Central HS; of the peaceful sit-ins at the Woolworth lunch counter that show the sturdy black college protestors being pelted with hateful words; the scores of images of everyday black citizens being hosed, dogs sent upon them. Or the bloody, beaten face of John Lewis and the macabre scene of Selma.

No black protest in America has come without the Monday-morning quarterbacking of white America; a constant crowd murmur of positing a right way, right voice, right time, right tone, right stance, right conversation, right objectivity of black pain and turmoil. We’ve legislated and tone-policed resistance to inequality routinely in America, so of course it was only logical that Colin Kaepernick decided to kneel; we’ve been asked to do that for generations now.

Tre Johnson writes at Dearth of a Nation.