Sunday, September 11, 2016

Colin Kaepernick is right

I prefer not to give blog space to ginned up controversies over fake political issues, but I have to say:  an awful lot of white Americans confuse sticking their head in the sand with patriotism.

My introduction to the Colin Kaepernick brou-ha-ha came at the gym, when I parked myself on an elliptical machine across the way from a CNN broadcast. Onscreen was Jake Tapper, formerly a real journalist at, who asked the mother of a dead war veteran what she thought of Kaepernick refusing to rise for the national anthem in protest of the oppression of black Americans.

Even as I sympathized with the woman being interviewed—what can be more painful than losing a child?—the wall-to-wall phoniness of the media moment was galling. What could have been a long overdue discussion of race in America was instead the cheap spectacle of an overpaid TV personality wearing a pasted-on earnest expression as he asked a grieving mother just how offended her sense of patriotism was by Kaepernick's quiet act of civil disobedience.

Sadly, this is what passes for much of the political discourse around race in the United States. A white, highly privileged class of media figures frame race issues in a false binary, giving equal credence to the concrete information, real world experiences, and historical context cited by #Blacklivesmatter and the subjective, often subrational views of a white majority who back cops unconditionally and get upset over the occasional lack of compliance with empty ritualsusually because they have never personally experienced discrimination.  

Faced with this level of denial, in which one side of the debate has such a poor grasp of the details, we can't have much of a dialogue. The facts about police discrimination toward black Americans are crystal clear. According to publicly available studies, blacks are more likely to be harassed by the police, pulled over without just cause, searched when they're pulled over, handcuffed, arrested and detained, met with physical force, shot, and fatally wounded when not posing a threat

Once in the legal system, blacks are more likely to have ineffective representation and be given longer sentences (and more death sentences) than whites for the same
crimes, particularly when it comes to drug offenses. Time in the legal system increases employment discrimination against blacks and sometimes robs them of the right to vote, either outright, through laws that prohibit felons from casting a ballot, or through onerous voter ID measures strategically passed by Republican state legislatures in order to lower Democratic voter participation

African-Americans who steer clear of legal problems face discrimination in the acquisition of healthcare, talk therapy, education, housing, loans, and numerous other less consequential but still humiliating ways, from being followed through grocery stores to being treated as less-than in everyday interactions to being unable to get a cab in major American cities.

Institutional and societal racism exacerbate a grinding poverty tied to America’s ugly past. Sociologists, psychologists, and anyone who understands history knows that a people who have been systematically subjugated for centuries are less likely to develop the tools to raise themselves up by the bootstraps. The United States tried to address this problem in Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, but these efforts were undermined by the Republican Party, which has exploited white America's stone cold ignorance and bizarre feelings of racial grievance ever since passage of the Civil Rights Act to win elections and gut social services that lend a hand up.

In a just world, Colin Kaepernick would receive applause for using his celebrity to bring attention to this shameful situation. In a future, more enlightened America, populated by a higher concentration of people of color, a higher proportion of Millennials, and fewer elderly and middle-aged whites with fossilized racial attitudes, Kaepernick's cause may get the hearing it deserves. But in today's America, his message is falling on deaf ears. Such is life in the United States of Amnesia.

Other civil rights writing by Dan Benbow:

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Road to the Mountaintop (about the speech King gave on the last night of his life)

A look back at "Strange Fruit" on the 100th anniversary of Billie Holiday's birth

Honest Abe Makes Sausage (a review of Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln")

                                 Brown v. Board and Three Dog Night's "Black and White"

                         Actions, Not Words (a life review of Ollie Matson, an Olympic medal 
                         winner, NFL Hall-of-Famer, civil rights trailblazer, and good citizen) 

                                                       Follow Dan Benbow on Twitter              


  1. I am one of the elderly you refer to. However, I agree that additional change is necessary in connection with discrimination, but can you explain how disrespect of the flag and national anthem is a way to accomplish this. Rosa Park and Martin Luther King made great impacts without disrespecting anything.

    1. Hi Douglas,

      I didn't condemn ALL elderly or middle-aged whites. As a first born, I have always related well to older people. I know many, many Baby Boomers and elderly Americans who are exemplary human beings, and in some cases, role models for how I want to conduct my life. I condemned elderly and middle-aged whites with "fossilized racial attitudes" because they are holding us back as a country and contributing to human suffering (whether they realize it or not).

      Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King lived in a time when there was far less media and their individual acts of protest were guaranteed to get coverage seen by many more Americans than is the case now, when there are so many options and so many people are tuned out and/or distracted by bullshit enter- or infotainment. You have to break eggs to make omelettes, and in my opinion, Kaepernick's real world message is infinitely more important in human terms than the purely symbolic importance some people attach to the flag, the national anthem, or other such (to my mind) empty rituals.

  2. So much to commend in this essay, Dan. A breath of fire, for sure, and fresh air too. More than anything in this endless circling we're all doing around the need to have a conversation that may not come until we again have true leadership in this country, I think your point about the Republican Party and its obvious antipathy towards Johnson's War on Poverty (and all it implies for so many of us here at the beginning of the 21st century) is essential to acknowledge. None of the shit we've been witnessing over the last 15 years is an accident.

    1. Thank you for the kind words, and yes, the GOP's contribution to all of these problems needs to be more out in the open. There are a lot of factors involved, as the intersection of race and poverty and law are so complicated, but it's a fact that beginning with Reagan's first budget and continuing into the present, Republicans at the national level have consistently undermined the anti-poverty agenda and used coded rhetoric to drive white resentment. It is no accident that the GOP can't crack double digits among black voters.

  3. Let me add one note of hope, though: A lot of us do applaud Kaepernick's courage and tenacity. More and more people every day in fact. Today's America is a weird place with the media you so rightly point the finger at pretending to be "the voice of the American people." Everyone knows that's bullshit, even though most people don't know what to do about it.

    We are only strong when we stand up for what we believe in and demonstrate our dissent intelligently and with a belief that things can be better. Colin Kaepernick has done something truly great and truly American. Good job with this piece, my friend.

    1. Good point. Media is incredibly diversified now, and many people do agree with Kaepernick...I just feel that those who support his stance--within the greater media/online universe--are relatively marginalized, to blogs, alt-left publications, and places where the audience already understands these issues.

      I hope in my lifetime to witness an honest dialogue about race in the mainstream media organs that can get the discussion out to tens of millions of Americans; the tolerance and diversity of Millennials makes me cautiously optimistic that it will happen.

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  5. It's fascinating to see how hard right wing forces are working to avoid dealing with the issue of police violence that Kaepernick is trying to draw attention to. They simply will not address that issue. So, they demonize him instead. If anyone is unpatriotic, it is those working so hard to shut him down.