The media has been abuzz in recent days regarding San Francisco 49er’s Colin Kaepernick’s decision not to vote in the recent presidential election. In response, popular sports journalist Stephen A. Smith lambasted Kaepernick repeatedly saying, “I don’t want to hear a damn word about anything he has to say.” This dismissal has fueled covert resisters to racial equality, allowing them permission to disparage Colin and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Kaepernick’s influence as a racial justice leader in response to the abusive policing in Black communities and the slayings of Black men has made him a household name. In particular, Colin has shown the power of not, by refusing to stand for the singing of the national anthem. Instead, he has quietly kneeled and his silent protest has alarmed the mainstream public who have seen his kneeling as a vehement offense. However, his actions have been powerful in shedding light on pervasive issues of criminalization facing Black communities.
Now, Colin has gone from not standing to not voting, sparking even more intense anger. Again, Colin has used the power of not and ignited further discussion, using his national bully pulpit to protest an unjust political system that is rife with systematic oppression and racism. Undoubtedly, Kaepernick is right that our political system is a mechanism of oppression that inherently disadvantages communities of color. His sentiments are widely shared among racial justice advocates. So why has his protest been met with such vitriol and immense anger?
One reason is that Colin violated a sacred artifact in the Black community, voting. For years, civil rights advocates and leaders struggled to pave the way for Black people to be able to participate in elections. Countless people died to make sure that this occurred. Long barred from doing so (even contemporarily through voter ID laws), voting is an important symbol of our participation in society. Further, voting itself has been portrayed as an act of protest and a virtue of Black nationalism by the late Malcolm X.
Even I, one of the most critical and cynical viewers of our political system, voted. Why? Because I was compelled to do so to support undocumented families and state initiatives that have a direct influence on the pervasive challenges facing communities of color, such as decriminalization and school funding. That being said, I respect Colin’s decision to extend his protest and use the power of not. Voting is a right and no one should be compelled to vote. Period. It is his choice as a man to make that decision and really the place of no one else to question it. Yes, he has the right to vote, but he also has the right to protest a system that is unfair and unjust.
However, what I am more concerned with than whether or not he chose to vote is how others, even in our own community, have ridiculed his decision, and the coded language they have used to do so. Instead of placing their anger on the large contingent of lesser-educated White voters who did not support Clinton, they have engaged in racist denigrating of Colin using language that is far too commonly used to disparage Black men. By default, Black men have become the scapegoat despite voting overwhelmingly for Clinton.
Take a look at the comments on news articles, social media, and blogs. Colin is being called “stupid,” “ignorant,” “dumb,” “lazy,” and many more racially-coded comments that are not appropriate for public consumption. Watercooler and breakroom talk is even more extreme. Too often, our men of color are disregarded in school, the workplace, and in sports for being academically inferior. This, along with the stereotypes of criminalization and those that pathologize Black people as lazy and unworthy are the ways of thinking that undergird the issues that Kaepernick has raised. It is these very stereotypes and this type of language that have led to police slayings of Black men, the school-to-prison pipeline, and disparate participation among African Americans in the workplace.
Rather than respecting Colin’s decision not to vote, people have immediately exchanged their critique of his protest for racially charged rhetoric frequently used to dismiss and denigrate Black men. And, what is worse is that another Black man, Stephen Smith, has further enabled these stereotypes to permeate and become acceptable ways of talking about Black men. He did so by using his national platform to render Kaepernick as “irrelevant,” “shameful,” “a waste of time,” and altogether unworthy of an opinion. This phraseology is all too familiar.
Smith hasn’t just lambasted Kaepernick but the racial justice movement as well. In doing so, he gave a carefully packaged present to closet racists who have seized this opportunity to criticize racial justice, Black men, and the Black community-at-large. It is crucial that we speak about one another with carefulness, recognizing that our words can be used by others to further extend marginalization in society. Our community must be able to disagree without denigrating, to critique without dismissing, and to question without delegitimizing. Otherwise, we do the work of those who oppose us for them.