To Kneel or Not to Kneel… That Is the Paradox

by A’Jamal-Rashad Byndon

The National Football League (NFL) is at a major crossroads in terms of how it addresses the Colin Kaepernick dilemma. For those who have not being following this controversial and polarizing situation, it all started last year when Kaepernick—the former San Francisco quarterback—decided to sit, and subsequently kneel, during the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner. Many fans, military supporters and law-enforcement officials felt it was disrespectful to those who served or gave their lives to defend this country for an athlete to insert politics into sports. These folks appear to suffer from a social and historical amnesia. Almost 50 years ago, Gold Medal runner John Carlos gave the Black Power fist salute during the national anthem at the summer Olympics in Mexico City in 1968. Muhammad Ali, who refused to serve in the military during the Vietnam War, is another example of athletes protesting social conditions and unjust wars.

But when Kaepernick, who led his team to the 2013 Super Bowl, became a free agent, even NFL teams like Houston, that had lost its star quarterback Deshaun Watson to a season-ending injury, refused to pick him up. The man had become a pariah, merely for attempting to bring attention to the many African Americans who have lost their lives in questionable circumstances to police officers and racist predation agents of the system. (And, no, the police, military and other government agents are not protecting any African Americans’ rights or freedom unless they afford us the same rights that they themselves enjoy in this system.)

This society has a 450-year-old debt that it has never paid to African Americans for slavery and Jim Crow behaviors. Nor should we forget the treatment of other Americans—from Native Americans to Asians and Latinos who have suffered brutal historical injustices. This country does not have the social capital to engage in an honest dialogue about racism unless it first acknowledges its oppressive and brainwashing history. There are many examples where African American GIs served this country, only to return home to the South and experience lynching at the hands of God-fearing whites. A flag never saved any of the thousands of Blacks from lynching in the United States.

The reaction to Kaepernick and other athletes who have protested (including some Nebraska Cornhusker players) has revealed just how sick with racism this country still is. From reading the comments made in countless sport articles and web pages that report on these protests, the hatred from fans ranges from profanity-laced tirades urging the firing of the protesting players to outright calls for Kaepernick’s lynching. To express their anger, some whites have stopped watching football games altogether, calling even for the boycott of the sponsors of the NFL. This is the same behavior that African Americans have experienced historically when they attempted to vote and participated in Civil Rights demonstrations from the 1940s through the 1970s.

But it’s not just the foul-mouthed racist fan who’s the problem. One business owner said he refused to hire an African American because his golf buddy told him something about that potential employee being likely to ‘assert his rights.’ Many people of color are judged based upon how well they acquiesce to injustices or on hearsay comments without being given equal opportunities to prove themselves. This reminds me of a former supervisor who once told me that he should be able to hire individuals based upon who he can play golf with. How many women and people of color routinely play golf, or are allowed into the back rooms of those old-boy networks? It’s that old saying about it’s not what you know, but who you know—demonstrating once again the buddy-based double standard of hiring without regard to merit.

What the backlash of these ignorant, hateful comments and actions tells me is that we need even more protests—because way too many whites holding racist and hostile views want to prohibit people of color from peacefully and nonviolently exercising their democratic rights. Many pundits making similar comments in the white-controlled media fail to understand that throughout American history there have been those who protested the treatment of African Americans in this society and that nonviolent protests are part of this unjust nation’s legacy. In order for change to occur, someone must be willing to push back against these injustices.

Well before the Civil War, African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass asserted, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” The California NAACP, interestingly enough, has called for the end of having the national anthem ritual played before each sport event. It offers no value to the game and may have well been cynically enacted simply as a way drum up recruits for the U.S. military.

Whites have always utilized institutional buffers to stop and impede equal opportunities for others. In a country that could easily afford healthcare for all, many continue to suffer premature deaths due to lack of access. Equally unfair is the expectation that that the larger public of the poor, working class and people of color should support with their taxes institutions and industries that do not allow them to work in those organizations. Under these circumstances, where elites control half of the nation’s wealth and run all the corporations, it is well-nigh impossible to create a society where there are Civil Rights for all.

These are all matters, though, that we must take up and address if this country is ever to realize its potential. And it must start now. For if as a nation we do not wake up and deal with the nonviolent ‘kneelers,’ we will soon be dealing with the increasing level of social and violent discontent of its residents. Because African Americans are not going back to the old days of the servility and docility of the plantation.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not calling for violence. However, if the power elites in this country don’t start addressing the burgeoning social disparity and make real progress to end racist actions and make everyone free… as Malcolm X once said, we will have our freedom “by any means necessary.” And Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during The Star-Spangled Banner will be the least of our worries.

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