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The two voices of Colin Kaepernick

Black folk have long employed duplicity to fight racism and stay alive

Scorn and praise, last fall, besieged NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick when he launched his national anthem protest. I supported him despite inarticulable reservations gnawing at me. Kaepernick announcing he will kill his protest as he, now a free agent, hunts for another opportunity, has introduced clarity to my previous thinking. I now appreciate he’s fighting racism, consciously or not, like black folk have for centuries — being subversive when the situation allows for it, employing deception to shield himself when at risk. His initial subversion, though, might upend his career.

Chris Rock, in his 1999 HBO comedy special Bigger & Blacker, satirizes how old black men are two-faced to white people. Old black men, when white people are around, comport cordially: “Pleased to meet you, sir.” Yet when they leave, old black men declare their true feelings: “Cracka’ a– cracka’.” Old black men, in Rock’s routine, challenge their degradation to the extent they feel safe but no more. This is dishonest — white people never know old black men’s true feelings. Such performances of duplicity, nonetheless, enable black folk to escape the brutal lash of bigotry while still venting against inhumane treatment.

Kaepernick pursues something comparable — he attacked racism through dramatic means when he felt secure but now retreats to protect his personal interests. He, in other words, is challenging degradation to the extent he feels safe but no more. He will stand for the national anthem next season, he said, to avoid being a distraction, most certainly a pretext. This will be a performance of duplicity, a mendacious hymn black folk have sung since our feet first touched the shores of this continent. A discerning ear can listen to Kaepernick’s abrupt shift here and comprehend that similar lyrics echo throughout American history.

Enslaved people, when addressing their masters, peppered their speech with “sirs” and “ma’ams” to sound deferential. In the safe confines of their slave cabins, however, they would verbally unleash their true antipathy toward their owners. Booker T. Washington became the most influential black leader of his era by publicly notifying conservative and moderate white folk he harbored no desires to contest racial subordination. Yet, he clandestinely bankrolled civil rights legal challenges, hiring attorneys to articulate, before the Supreme Court, black grievances against disenfranchisement (Giles v. Harris) and peonage (Bailey v. Alabama). Black Southerners knew their white employers might fire them if their NAACP membership were revealed. Many responded “yes” anyway to pleas to join the organization while denying their membership to their bosses. Oppressed groups survive and progress this way — by asserting their humanity as much as circumstances allow while wielding chicanery to defend themselves.

Kaepernick follows this tradition, the tradition of speaking with two voices, an observation eluding his many detractors such as Stephen A. Smith, who said on ESPN’s First Take: “Colin Kaepernick is looking at himself and saying, ‘My career might be in jeopardy. I’m looking for a new contract to prolong my NFL career and this is a stance I need to change.’ … He’s not fooling anybody this way.”

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that Kaepernick decided to stop his protest because he “no longer wants his method of protest to detract from the positive change he believes has been created.” Aside from this, we have little insight into Kaepernick’s thought process. But the connection between his promise to stand for the national anthem and his desire to continue playing in the league is too difficult to deny. Jason Cole, NFL writer for Bleacher Report, tweeted that “several teams said they wouldn’t sign him if he continued his stance.” That Kaepernick’s NFL future requires him to discontinue his protest, I assume, almost certainly factored into his decision.

His about-face, however, warrants no criticism. Kaepernick must soothe risk-averse franchises by promising not to alienate their respective fan bases. Many fans agreed with Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney, who stated, in response to national anthem protests, “If you think everything in this world is so bad, and it’s falling apart, uh, you know, some of these people need to move to another country.” Kaepernick must temper the maelstrom this sort of fan will ignite should he sign with their team. Thus, he has spoken with his second voice.

Kaepernick’s detractors seemingly think he must follow the path of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, the former NBA player who refused to stand for the national anthem two decades ago. “Whether I go broke, whether they take my life, whatever it is, I stood on principles. To me, that is worth more than wealth and fame,” Abdul-Rauf told The Undefeated last September. The league blackballed him because of his unwillingness to cease protesting.

Abdul-Rauf, who deserves admiration, spoke with one voice. Yet, only the irony-impaired would compel Kaepernick to fight against social injustice to such an extent that he becomes its victim.

Kaepernick’s protest, coupled with his merely solid play last season, might dissuade teams from signing him. If Kaepernick fails to make an NFL roster next season, it will be because he spoke with two voices less cleverly than did black folk in the past who did so while also managing to avoid reprisals. Yet, we must acknowledge that Kaepernick’s intrepid dissent coupled with tactical withdrawal doesn’t signal opportunism or a lack of resolve, but rather tracks closely with how black folk have always fought racism.

Brando Simeo Starkey is an associate editor at The Undefeated and the author of In Defense of Uncle Tom: Why Blacks Must Police Racial Loyalty. He crawled through a river of books and came out brilliant on the other side.