It was in early childhood when W.E.B. Du Bois––scholar, activist, and black radical––first noticed The Veil that separated him from his white classmates in the mostly white town of Great Barrington, Massachusetts. He and his classmates were exchanging “visiting cards,” invitations to visit one another’s homes, when a white girl refused his.
“Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil. I had thereafter no desire to tear down that veil, to creep through; I held all beyond it in common contempt, and lived above it in a region of blue sky and great wandering shadows,” Du Bois wrote in his acclaimed essay collection, The Souls of Black Folk. “That sky was bluest when I could beat my mates at examination-time, or beat them at a foot-race, or even beat their stringy heads.”
Du Bois’s upbringing as a black child was, in some ways blessed, particularly for the time. He received a good education, he had white teachers who believed in his potential. Yet despite growing up in a white town, far from the bloody, violent turmoil of the post-emancipation South, he learned from childhood that he was different, that a wall yet lay between himself and the other white children. We cannot know who Du Bois might have been had he been raised in a mostly black town or gone to a mostly black school. What we do know is that growing up around white people, with opportunities other blacks did not have, did not make white supremacy invisible to him––on the contrary,the intimacy of his early relationships with whites helped shape who he was.
Ever since 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick declared that he would refuse to stand for the national anthem, to refuse “to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," particularly in the form of police brutality, he has drawn personal and bitter responses accusing him of disrespecting the country, police officers, and military service members. Donald Trump, the Republican candidate for president campaigning on a slogan implying America has ceased to be great and whose broadsides against “political correctness” delight his fans, urged Kaepernick to leave the country for expressing the incorrect political views.
Other objections have focused largely on his background. Kaepernick is the son of a black father and white mother; the latter put Kaepernick up for adoption, and he was raised by white parents. Kaepernick is light-skinned enough to be potentially racially ambiguous to non-blacks. He is a professional football player with a $114 million contract.
And so Kaepernick’s detractors, when they are not insisting his protest is unpatriotic, or disrespectful to the military, mock his background, upbringing, and success. Photos of Kaepernick with his adoptive parents, mocking the idea that Kaepernick is “oppressed,” have been widely shared on social media. (The notion that Kaepernick’s proximity to whiteness renders him less “oppressed” is less a rebuttal of Kaepernick’s point than an unequivocal affirmation.)
Rodney Harrison, a former NFL safety, said that Kaepernick wasn’t black and therefore “can not understand what I face and what other young black men and black people face, or people of color face.” (Harrison later apologized and said he didn’t realize Kaepernick is black). “When did rich people become victims?” the conservative journalist Tucker Carlson asked on Fox News in disbelief, one of the rare moments a Fox News audience has ever been encouraged not to see a rich person as a victim. Sean Hannity, a Fox News host and adviser to Trump said Kaepernick was “a spoiled brat, out of touch, super rich athlete. He, in his own life, has suffered no oppression, he's free to share all the money he wants, he lives in the greatest nation on earth,” and speculated that the quarterback had converted to Islam, as though being Muslim would make Kaepernick less patriotic, or his protest less legitimate.
Yet none of these responses engaged the substance of Kaepernick’s protest, which is that black people are killed in disproportionate numbers by police officers who are rarely punished, no matter the circumstances. Also ignored are Kaepernick’s own statements on the issue, which make clear that his protest is not focused on his own treatment.
“This stand wasn’t for me. This stand wasn’t because I feel like I’m being put down in any kind of way. This is because I’m seeing things happen to people that don’t have a voice, people that don’t have a platform to talk and have their voices heard, and effect change,” Kaepernick told reporters in a press conference on August 28. “So I’m in the position where I can do that and I’m going to do that for people that can’t.”
There is nothing unusual in this. There is no tension, no hypocrisy, no contradiction, between Kaepernick being a black person of unusual status, fame, and financial success and his demand that the United States treat black people equally. African Americans are a hybrid people, he is nowhere near the first black man of mixed ancestry to protest against racism. Du Bois had white ancestors, Frederick Douglass believed that his father was the white man who owned his body, Malcolm X, with his red hair and light skin, was asked by a student why he identified as black upon his visit to Ghana. There is also the current president of the United States.
It is the nature of the color caste system in America that black people with close ties to whiteness are often those with the resources, education, and means to make vocal challenges to racism. It is not coincidence, it is not irony, it is the result of a racist history in which black people with lighter skin were more likely to be given privileges and opportunities than their darker brethren. And it is precisely because of those privileges and opportunities that they have the voice and platform to say what others are unable to. Growing up black in proximity to whiteness is more likely to open one’s eyes to America’s racial divides than to render them invisible.
Kaepernick’s true sin is his rejection of the faustian bargain offered to black people who reach elite status in America––that their success comes at the price of ceasing to criticize the racism in the system that allowed them to thrive as exceptions. Many Americans would prefer that black elites not remind them of America’s unfulfilled promise that all are created equal, but rather pretend it has already been realized, or be silent about the ways in which it has not. The only thing that would satisfy Kaepernick’s critics is apathy.
But by sitting wordlessly on the bench, Kaepernick has refused to be silent, and is now paying the price.