One-on-one with history professor Derrick White
Derrick White is a history professor whose research focuses on modern black history and sports history. White sat down with The Dartmouth to discuss the recent NFL protests, which gained traction in 2016 after then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem.
How would you describe the roots of the recent protest movement in the NFL?
DW: I think in the years since Trayvon Martin, since his death and murder at the hands of George Zimmerman, I think black Americans have been grappling with what that means when a young person is murdered in an unjust manner. Black athletes have had these negative experiences with police forces before they became multimillionaires in their youth and into adulthood. They were provided a platform, and as these cases have evolved in which few of any police forces have been held accountable, athletes have taken an active role on protesting this.
It should also be noted that in the initial moment, it was really women — Megan Rapinoe in U.S. women’s soccer and women in the WNBA — who quickly recognized the power of the protests and saw the potential and message of the cause almost immediately. Somehow when we write the history of this movement in its aftermath, this gets left out for their positive response and engagement in the movement.
How does this movement compare to other similar and racially motivated protests in American sports? How is it different?
DW: In Miami after Martin[’s death], the Miami Heat, led by Dwayne Wade and LeBron James, publicized this issue by wearing hoodies and taking a photograph of them in the hoodies to demonstrate their support. After the incident in Ferguson, Missouri, the St. Louis Rams protested, using the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” message. After Eric Gardner[’s death], players in the NBA and WNBA called attention to this issue by wearing “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts. In some ways, Kaepernick is a continuation of that trajectory. However, what he has done is crystallize these movements. These ideas have come to a core idea and become synonymous with Kaepernick. Some of it is also because football is the sport — because its popularity has surpassed baseball — that has been draped in patriotism. It is also because football is the sport in which the players are faceless because they wear helmets. The game is not only rooted in patriotism but the players themselves are often viewed as interchangeable as pieces of the game. Very few black players have been able to become personalities in the modern age of football in the way that Tom Brady has, and most have been quarterbacks. Kaepernick as a successful quarterback and black quarterback in critical in this time. In many ways, he was positioned to draw attention to this issue in a way people expected other black athletes to play this role and use their own platforms.
What does the public’s reaction say about our country?
DW: Black Americans are in favor —a strong majority is comfortable using this platform to call attention to police brutality in urban communities, whereas many whites disapprove of this action.
What do you make of President Donald Trump’s reaction? How and why is he responding to this movement?
DW: Rather than as a way of critically engaging the issues raised by Kaepernick about accountability and urban policing, the president is using this issue as an opportunity to galvanize his political base. Blackness, in and of itself, is un-American. If you look at the politics of Trump, it’s racism and it courts active racism. What you see in his challenging of Kaepernick and other NFL players is a way of trying to enthuse his base to a presidency that is unpopular for most Americans, according to the polls. The question for the president is less about what the issue is, but how can he continue to rouse support and turn that into political ends in the election.
What about the NFL owners?
DW: The owners represent another issue. This is where the question of power comes in. As owners and billionaires in many cases, we know that many NFL owners had donated to the Trump campaign. Thus, they are sympathetic to Trump’s outlook on the world in some ways, especially his business outlook. They see Kaepernick as challenging their authority. Rather than listening to what Kaepernick and others are saying about what this protest is about, they see these young men, primarily African-American, as disposable bodies. This idea is somewhat rooted in the business model of the game — none of the contracts are guaranteed, and many of the players replaceable. In contrast, the NBA has embraced black culture as the source of its game and has moved away from trying to curtail this. They, too, are in a precarious situation in dealing with these protests, but rather than dictate to the players, they have tried to seek input and find a mutual resolution to the situation, beneficial for both parties. Players in the NBA have a say about these issues that NFL players don’t have.
How does this movement garner attention in football and how has that attention been affected by the anthem?
DW: The first football game in New York after 9/11 was a tremendous deal for the country as well as a piece of healing — there is this narrative of healing in athletics. The anthem, which has always had a very prominent role, now took on a new meaning in this war on terror. To use that platform, the NFL, to challenge the anthem, Kaepernick has stepped into a larger tradition in which African- Americans have questioned American ideals. If you think of the anthem in that manner, the real issue that comes to light and why whites are so uncomfortable is because it is questioning the ideas and ideals of America. That is the true tension. People have always questioned this kind of patriotism because America has often failed to live up to these ideals it holds so dear. The anthem as a symbolic representation of these ideals is the appropriate platform to challenge these assumptions.
What does the backlash from this movement say about race relationships between white and black Americans?
DW: The president and other white Americans alike are symptomatic and not necessarily a cause of a larger ethos of which large segments of mainstream white America is uncomfortable with black people who challenge the racial order. There is this idea that they should somehow be thankful and grateful for having the opportunity to be successful or reach the social statuses some African-Americans have acquired through athletics, entertainment and other disciplines. It’s the platform of the anthem where people view this movement unfavorably, but it is also the fact that as black athletes, they are expected to not say anything that challenges the American ideal. In some sense, black athletic success is tantamount to the American Dream—like only in America can you become Kaepernick, Muhammad Ali or Michael Jordan. Thus, black athletes should be thankful to be in that position and not dare call American ideals into question.
Eric Reid, Colin Kaepernick’s teammate on the 49ers, believes that Kaepernick has been painted to be “a radical un-American who wants to divide our country.” In what cases do you think that this may be true?
DW: Kaepernick is deemed un-American because his protest occurs at a moment in which we, in the United States, often ask unquestioned loyalty around the Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem. However, what makes Kaepernick so sophisticated is that his notion of kneeling during the national anthem is reminiscent of Muhammad Ali refusing to go to Vietnam when everyone was expected to play their part in joining the military during Vietnam War. It is not much different than Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists during the 1968 Olympics. What history says, and what will be made very clear, is that Kaepernick will be on the right side of history. If Ali can now become a famous American that we are all proud of, then that speaks to the fact that Kaepernick is justified in his actions and on the right side of history. Kaepernick is in the right, but the people who see him as un-American also really view any challenge to the kind of racial order, especially those who have been successful, as an affront to the American ideal.
Reid and Kaepernick decided to kneel because they believed it was a way to peacefully protest and still be respectful? Do you agree with this?
DW: I think that kneeling is a respectful gesture. We kneel to pray, we give thanks and ask for grace through kneeling. I believe there is a certain kind of humility in the gesture, but at the same time it is also suggested that the goals and aims that the anthem supposedly represents are incomplete. Kneeling has nothing to with the respectability of the actual protest. It doesn’t matter how or when the protest was conceived. People will be upset that Kaepernick or anyone else challenges the assumptions of America. Protests about blacks and other people of color will always be seen as anti-American — the Civil Rights Movement was seen as a communist conspiracy. The actual form of the protest is an interesting discussion, but it matters very little in terms of people’s reactions. The idea is that some people want these black athletes to stay in their place — as entertainment for consumption. The white fans don’t want their world interrupted by politics, especially black politics, while they watch football on Sundays, but they’re perfectly okay with black and white athletes bashing their heads in for their entertainment dollar.
Flag-burning has been established as protected speech — is the act of taking a knee during the anthem in the same category?
DW: I think that the Supreme Court’s ruling in regards to burning the American flag legally covers kneeling before the anthem. The issue that people have is that Kaepernick and other athletes alike make a large sum of money. Thus, the income they earn means they should not have the right to protest. I think people understand the right to protest is protected by the First Amendment. They have a problem imagining why one would protest when one has a wealthy livelihood because they have no understanding that for these black athletes that money does not protect you in circumstances where you are already assumed to be guilty, as seen with Michael Bennett’s experience in Las Vegas this earlier this month.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.