Quick Thoughts on Kaepernick and Ellison’s Column at TheRoot.com

Charles Ellison’s Aug. 31st column at the Root.com came across my twitter feed today. He looks to make the “pro-Black” case for standing during the national anthem. To say the least I am disappointed in the column, because rather than do much to convince us that standing is right Ellison mostly tries to convince us that Kaepernick is wrong.

Not that I have any readers, since I so rarely write on this blog, but if I did they would surely know that Black folk will be all over the map on Colin Kaepernick’s ongoing refusal to stand for the anthem beginning during the 2016 NFL pre-season. (How long he remains on an NFL roster, frankly, is an open question.)

Here’s my take. Refusing to participate in a ritual is a *personal* form of dissent. By definition one size does not fit all. At the extreme, few of us, for example, would hunger strike. Had Ellison left things at “here’s why standing is what’s right for me,” I’d have no problem.

But nope. Ellison went for the speculative and disingenuous hit piece on Kaepernick. There was a point to be made, but ultimately the column devolved to respectability politics scolding some other presumably more “divisive” politics. Ellison effectively “All Lives Matter”s Colin Kaepernick. I wouldn’t question the man’s #wokeness because he stands for the anthem. I question it because pulls from the standard bag of cheap shots when writing about Black athletes.

  1. He plays pocket watcher. Despite clearly not know how much money Kaepernick has contributed to whom, Ellison gives us the salary details and the insinuation that he hasn’t or won’t write a check to “the cause.” If that weren’t sufficiently gratuitous, he followed it up with the already tired trope about Black athletes as mere Twitter activists. Ellison’s blurb says that he’s a “veteran political strategist.” I won’t inquire about the size of the checks he’s writing, or exactly to which causes, but I do wonder who he’s worked with and what they’ve done for the people.
  2. He lies by omission. This is part of a larger “Kaepernick doesn’t have an end game” critique. Kaepernick has stated clearly that he is considering additional actions and will announce them. Ellison could have easily said he doesn’t believe that, but was either not competent enough or honest enough to mention it. That was weak, but even that obscures a fundamental problem with this “no end game” line of criticism. Personal protest is supposed to be limited in scope. Hunger strikers aren’t trying to convince masses of people to hunger strike. They use an act of personal dissent to–at best–inspire others to engage in their own. That’s it. That’s all it has to be.
  3. He tries to own the legacy of Black protest. Ellison does exactly what we’ve seen conservative pundits do a million times when discussing race issues. Rhetorically, they are quick to invoke the iconography of MLK and try to make it mean whatever they want. Let them tell it, if King were alive today he would definitely be an immigrant-hating, gun-toting NRA member, and a reliably Republican voter. I’m not comparing Ellison’s politics to their’s, just his rhetorical device. Kaepernick is obviously now part of a long legacy of protest among Black athletes, yet Ellison blithely hand-waves away any such notion. Kaepernick is of course doing EXACTLY what Jackie Robinson claimed in his own autobiography to have done himself–refuse to salute the flag or participate in the anthem ritual. (Perhaps Ellison should actually read TheRoot.com.) John Carlos–of the “iconic” fist pump–has supported Kap’s protest without reservation and placed it in the very legacy Ellison would deny him.

There is mild tragedy in the missed opportunity. The pro-Black case for standing for the anthem is NOT because Kaepernick is wrong. He’s no more wrong than Frederick Douglas about the Fourth of July. But, neither are those who stand for flag or celebrate Independence Day. I stand for the anthem at sporting events, not out of any exaggerated sense of patriotism or even belonging. Like 99% of those at sporting events, it is purely perfunctory. Yet I am in no way troubled by this because there are lots of ways to express dissent. Within fairly broad ethical boundaries, the rightness or wrongness of any particular form is not something we can know straightaway. Sitting through the anthem is a perfectly legit form of dissent, but it’s only one. So is singing it as a long baroque love song, even though its not, like Whitney Houston and Marvin Gaye have done. As Sterling Stuckey reminds us, the rich and deep legacy of Black anti-racist resistance encompasses too many forms to count. It is patently silly to fall into the trap of declaring any one form THE right or wrong one.




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