Colin Kaepernick, the Virginia Elections, and the Canary in the Coal Mine

Anything to do with Colin Kaepernick throws GOP officers and their alt-right trolls into an uproar. Everything that goes with talking about the historic US system of slavery and reminding people of its institutional dehumanization is now immediately subsumed under the umbrella of “critical racial theory” and makes the same people froth under their noses. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise to see a clip from Colin Kaepernick Comparing the NFL Draft Combine to a Slave Auction has enraged the right.

The clip is part of the Netflix show Colin in black and white. And this comparison by Kaepernick is, to be honest, nothing new, even if the outrage is great and great. In the NFL Scouting Combine, athletes who are predominantly black are physically supervised by coaches and executives who are predominantly white to see if they are worth playing in the NFL. Your speed, strength and body parts are measured. They are asked all sorts of questions about their personal life, their past, their parents, and even their sexuality. You stand in your underwear to be overlooked, like an object that can be bought and sold. NFL player Michael Bennett wrote the following in his 2018 book: Things that make white people uncomfortable (which I co-authored):

I thought it was like interviewing a Fortune 500 company, but then I walked into a room full of older men. They stared at me like I had never been stared at in my life. I finally knew what it felt like to be objectified like so many women are. It was also clearly up to me to impress her, pretending I was cool with the poke and poke. I felt like Kardashians and I was an NBA starting center.

The best word for it is “awkward”. I wish it had been awkward for everyone, not just the players. You should let the scouts sit in their tight whites and boxer shorts so we are all on the same level. Someone actually picked up my leg and measured my thigh. I thought, “Excuse me? Keep your eyes up here, sir. “I thought, damn it, am I a piece of meat? Will they chop me up like cattle and sell me by the pound? It reminded me of descriptions I’d read of slave auctions. People don’t like to associate slavery with exercise because of the money we get. But when one is made to feel like property and grown men raise their arms to examine your armpits, I don’t know what any other comparison is.

Bennett wasn’t the first athlete to make this comparison, either. Former NFL player Anthony Prior wrote about this in his 2006 book The slave side of Sunday, and it has been an open discussion among black players for years. The combine harvester is a mindset designed to determine precisely who has power and who doesn’t. The point is to send a message: this is not a “player league”. It’s a non-guaranteed contract league where an average career only lasts three and a half years. It’s a 100 percent injury rate league where any game could be your last. It’s a league that wants players to know that “they are disposable”. Or, as Michael Bennett and his brother, former NFL player Martellus Bennett, put it dryly, “NFL stands for N____ For Lease.”

What Colin Kaepernick says is not new. The outrage is new. What is new is this current reactionary wave that threatens to ban the teaching of anything that addresses the history of the brutalization of slavery or the way racism systems persist to this day. Republican-run states across the country have found their theme of terrifying white parents, and it’s the sparse anti-racist curriculum in our public education system. Their rallying cry is never to make white children uncomfortable, if that means Toni Morrison banned‘Then that’s the way it is. It is a revanchist magic weapon that aims to stir up white resentments, attack public education, and sacrifice the careers of public school teachers who pledge to teach the truth.

I never thought yesterday that I would get my dog-eared copy of Lover and reading it in a coffee shop in Northern Virginia would qualify as an “act of resistance,” but here we are. I know there are a ton of people here in Virginia and across the country, including many who either didn’t vote or are under the age of 18, who will turn the lives of Toni Morrison book burners upside down as they are responsible for them Challenge the past, present and future. For my new book The Kaepernick Effect, I interviewed dozens of these young people who protested during the anthem at sporting events and later during the 2020 demonstrations following the police murder of George Floyd. I can tell you that they are not ready to be satisfied with what their parents and grandparents were ready to accept. Nor will you settle for the fine pulp of the Terry McAuliffes of this world. I doubt that the Democratic Party, with its inability to carry out any fundamental reforms, is politically equipped to accept these voters and join their ranks. This means that the future will not be determined by battles between dems and reps, but rather by movements of people outside the electoral arena towards progress or reaction. Kaepernick’s statement about the NFL and slavery – and the reactions it triggers – is just a microcosm: a canary in the coal mine for the battles that are not just coming. They are clearly already there.

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