To most Americans who oppose the NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem, their problem “has nothing to do with race.”
It’s about the flag. It’s about veterans. It’s about respect.
Or so they say. And, in all honestly, they probably believe that.
The thing is, those opposing these NFL players fall in a long tradition of opposing civil rights protests.
How is it, then, that many of the same people who say they oppose “taking the knee” would also say that they admire Martin Luther King, Jr.?
The answer is simple: had those people been around during the Civil Rights Movement last century, they probably wouldn’t have supported MLK and his contemporaries.
Civil rights protesters have always fared better in hindsight than they have with their contemporaries. While MLK, for example, may be a fairly uncontroversial figure today, his approval rating was 32% positive and 63% negative in 1966.
In 1961, 61% of Americans disapproved of the Freedom Riders.
57% thought that sit-ins and “freedom buses” would do more to hurt than to help “the Negro's chances of being integrated in the South.”
On the eve of the March on Washington, 60% of Americans held an unfavorable view of the demonstration.
Yet, all of these events are today held widely in esteem. What, exactly, has changed?
In a sense, many things have changed. But the most important among them is time.
In hindsight, it’s easy to be on the side of justice.
It’s easy to wave off the allegation of being opposed to civil rights protests (and the NFL demonstrations were civil rights protests, at least before the media firestorm changed their focus), because this opposition would imply that you (the opponent) are racist. And only bad people, after all, are racist.
In our collective imagination, racists are fire-breathing, gun-wielding bogey-men who toss around racial slurs and loudly profess their racial superiority. This is certainly one iteration of racism, but it is not the only iteration of racism.
In fact, a much more prevalent form of racism comes in the version of the individual who claims—and truly believes—not to be racist.
Racism does not refer only to antagonistic beliefs and behavior, but also to beliefs and actions that produce and prolong injustice and inequality on a racial basis. These thoughts and actions do not have to be conscious, and you don’t have to be evil incarnate in order to perform them. (Yes, this means many—if not all—white people, including myself, hold some guilt here.)
Many opponents of the Civil Rights Movement did not envision themselves to be racist either. Many critics of MLK, for example, simply thought that the time wasn’t right, his methods were too controversial, his actions unpatriotic.
If this sound familiar, it’s because they are some of the same criticisms being launched at Colin Kaepernick and other athletes who have used their national spotlights to protest injustice.
But let’s rewind again. A 1966 survey found that 85% of white respondents felt that protests actions by black Americans would hurt the advancement of civil rights. A survey three years later found that 70% of black respondents approved of the same protest actions an overwhelming 85% of white respondents said would be harmful.
Looking back, it’s easy to feel that black respondents were right and that the white respondents were wrong. And surely we would’ve been in that righteous 15% of whites who didn’t disapprove… or would we?
It’s worth noting that attitudes toward the NFL protests vary by race as well. According to a CBS/YouGov poll, only 28% of white respondents approved of NFL players protesting by kneeling during the National Anthem. Conversely, 74% of black respondents approved.
The parallels we see in how Americans are responding to the NFL protests and how Americans responded to the Civil Rights Movement are more than uncanny, and the patterns tell us a story.
The upshot of all if this is, if you don’t support the NFL players taking a stand now, you probably wouldn’t have supported MLK and his contemporaries a half-century ago. And if you’re upset that this makes it seem like you’re a racist, there’s really only one thing to tell you: it should.
Canton Winer is a freelance writer and a sociology Ph.D. student at UC Irvine. You can follow him on Twitter at @CantonWiner.