To many, this weekend felt like a trip through the twilight zone.
For months Colin Kaepernick and those he inspired endured the outrage of NFL fans who insisted they were disrespecting the military and the flag by not standing for the national anthem. Kaepernick, after meeting with Nate Boyer, modified his protest from sitting down to taking a knee. This was still seen as outrageous and Kaepernick found himself unsigned as the 2017-18 season kicked off. Thousands of fans refused to watch the NFL and the league found its TV ratings plummeting. Parallel boycotts were largely to blame for the threat to the multi-billion dollar business: on one hand folks were staying away because they were turned off by Kaepernick’s protest; on the other hand folks were boycotting the NFL because Kaepernick is being blackballed and remains unsigned.
In this atmosphere Kaepernick and his supporters found zero allies among the owners—Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, who kept Riley Cooper on the roster after he was caught on camera using the N-word, said he thought Kaepernick was disrespectful—and few among their peers. Ex-players such as Ray Lewis and Michael Vick openly criticized the protests. Current players such as LeSean McCoy derided Kaepernick as a distraction. There weren’t many demonstrating the bravery of Kaepernick by speaking out against police brutality and systemic racism. Enter Donald Trump.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired!”
When Trump attacked Kaepernick and the others who took a stand against systemic racism and police brutality by calling them sons of bitches—and then followed that up with his Tweets—he further exposed the inner workings of whiteness. And make no mistake, that was the impetus for the signs of unity we saw this weekend from the NFL, not a desire for justice or a moral defense of Colin Kaepernick. It was what Critical Race Scholars call white interest convergence, and it is something we need to be acutely aware of.
Trump’s campaign has been marked by overt white nationalism. From his campaign slogan of “Make America Great Again” to his employment of Jeff Sessions, Sebastian Gorka, and Steve Bannon, to his failure to condemn the violence of white nationalists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, to most recently calling out Black players, Trump has repeatedly spoken a plain truth that many white folks, particularly white liberals, have worked tirelessly to mystify: this country thrives off oppression and inequity. In order to mask this ugly truth whiteness will shapeshift, it will evolve so it can remain socially acceptable while maintaining the fundamental order of things. To pull this off it requires the feigned ignorance of those of us perceived as white. Similar to the movie Fight Club, the first rule of white interest convergence is you don’t talk about white interest convergence. Trump broke this rule. In order to rile up his base Trump called for NFL owners—his friends and supporters—to narrate what they had already done: fire Kaepernick.
Actually firing Kaepernick was not enough; old school white supremacists like Trump and his supporters you need to articulate and make obvious the power the system grants white people over people of color. That is (just barely) socially unacceptable in 2017, so we saw the very same folks who criticized Kaepernick—folks like Ray Lewis—kneeling on Sunday; LeSean McCoy went so far as to stretch while the anthem was playing. Billionaire owners who have kept Kaepernick unemployed and who have donated to Trump stood arm in arm with players, ostensibly taking a stand. None of them. Not. One. Even bothered to reference the systemic racism and police brutality Kaepernick originally took a knee for. They (the owners) didn’t even mention Kaepernick. They did what powerful, rich white folks always do: they shifted the narrative. They were essentially protesting themselves since they are the ones who fired Kaepernick because of his stance, but somehow they managed to turn his protest into a demonstration of patriotism and “unity” by entire teams while ignoring the issues at the heart of the protest. Trump himself has even taken pride in the stance stating, “Great solidarity for our National Anthem and for our Country. Standing with locked arms is good.”
It’s easy to get caught up in the emotion and buzz surrounding the “protests,” but it’s important to remain focused on the issues that Kaepernick initially knelt to draw attention to: systemic racism and police brutality. We must continue to demand justice and not be lulled into the current of white interest convergence which sells us the façade of progress and equity while maintaining the social hierarchy.