In the wake of a turbulent summer, neither Olympics nor vacation could shield us from an intense and evolving racial conflict that is again sweeping across the country. Amidst the chaos, a new buzz has emerged around an old problem, something to the effect of “We need to start listening to one another.” A simple statement indeed, but what a mouthful. Like every other outspoken American, I am a salesman. Right now, most of my days consist of selling history to seventh graders. Therefore, when I hear people turning a skill such as listening into a political catch phrase, I perk up. Unfortunately, the current use of the phrase contains about as much backbone as the chirp, chirp, chirping of “America needs change…” Such slogans are political gems because they bypass brains and get feet in motion. After all, a talking a parrot could protest, but that doesn’t make him any more human than a skydiver with a parachute is a bird. Listening is no doubt a problem, but before we go waving our protest signs, let’s see if we can’t figure out why it is such a problem. From what I can tell, our failure to listen to one another stems from a combination of the following:
- Distractions: some brains move so fast that they literally struggle to slow down for long enough to listen to incoming ideas. (I know, I know, Reader, this is definitely your problem).
- Some people are selfish, and they don’t care what others have to say.
- Some listen only for what they want to hear and exclude everything else.
- Some only listen to those who maintain a certain status that is appealing.
- People do not see the world for what it is, but rather, they see it for what they are or for what they wish to be.
The list could go on, but I stop with the above 5 because they are the sources of our topic today, and in fact, they are the sources that have polarized the latest actions by Colin Kaepernick, the backup quarterback in San Francisco who has been protesting the national anthem before games because he is, “not going to stand up and show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
We live in a world of perception. Most of us have heard or have even used this expression, but have we really taken the time to feel the gravity of its meaning? The scientific truth is that there are too many pieces of information flying at us at a given time for our brains to digest it all. Like a complicated algorithm, our minds absorb as much as they can and then start searching for patterns. They then use the patterns to fill in the blanks for the information that we failed to digest. Depending on our memories and personal biases, our vision of a given pattern may or may not be true to the world we think we see.
In the case of NFL star, Colin Kaepernick, many are watching, listening, and firing off responses at will. From what I can tell, however, most responses are being made without having really listened to the entire scenario, which has led to a lack of consideration for certain facts surrounding Mr. Kaepernick’s current situation. What follows is a combination of direct quotes and general sentiments that seem to be circulating through both social and mainstream media. Beneath each statement, I have attempted to fill in key circumstantial material that is lacking. Of course, I would be remiss not to admit up front that my own take certainly comes with the bias of my own view of the world I am seeing, so feel free to proceed with salt shaker in hand.
Take #1 – The Fellow Pro Athlete and Activist, Jim Brown
“It’s great to see athletes bring protest back to professional sports, when for so long, money and brand reigned supreme.” – Jim Brown
Fair enough, Mr. Brown. Nobody knows professional sports better than you do. However, there are a few facts that might be missing from your analysis. First of all, in 2014, Colin Kaepernick signed a 7-year, 126 million dollar contract. However, because of Kap’s flat ensuing performance, he was benched and is now the official backup quarterback to Blaine Gabbert, reducing the guaranteed amount of his massive contract to about 25 million dollars. To clarify, no matter what he does going forward with the Niners organization, Kap will likely walk away with neither a penny more nor a penny less than 25 million dollars. Given such circumstances, there are a few more questions that might be raised: How much is he really risking when he sits down during the national anthem? Would he be carrying on with these protests, risking the disjoining of his team and so forth, if he were the starter right now? And, after seemingly milking his brand as a poster-boy quarterback in the league for all it was worth, is becoming an athletic activist a way of stamping a new brand, a way of using his old celebrity to gain new celebrity?
Take #2 – The President of NAACP
“It’s not a stretch to compare Colin Kaepernick to Rosa Parks.” – Cornell Williams Brooks
See above: Rosa Parks never stood, sat, or otherwise with the thought that she would walk away with 25 million dollars. She made her move out of necessity, plain and simple.
Take #3 – The MLK Argument
Some are simply posting the following quote alongside Kaepernick’s name:
“First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate… who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action…” – MLK
Quoting MLK and expecting people to disagree is like quoting Hitler and expecting people to share his view, so I will tread lightly when I say that Colin Kaepernick protesting in favor of the sentiments being expressed by Black Lives Matter is in many ways incongruent to the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. One key factor, however, differentiates the BLM and MLK: violence. King promoted peaceful protest and even taught protesters how to fall limp to the ground when being met with force by police officers. Since 2014, BLM has accounted for 11 police officer killings and 9 officer injuries. Though most of the activists in BLM are preaching and practicing non-violence, the message of the movement is being muddied by murder, much to the injustice of those who would like their thoughts to be heard.
Take #4 – The Conservative Constitutionalist
“Veterans fight for our freedom to challenge the status quo, and Kaepernick is exercising that right.” – US Military Veterans (written in a collective letter)
Of all the arguments that support his actions, this may be the most sensible reasoning for Colin Kaepernick’s method of protest. However, an argument can be made that Mr. Kaepernick, too, is guilty of listening only for that which he wants to hear, only to that which gives him a reason to sit in protest of the United States of America. If he knew (and perhaps he does) that annual crime reports released by the FBI show that in excess of 90% of violent crimes committed against black people are committed by other blacks, and not police officers, would he be so quick to spread such a critical blanket over the entire country? In fact, Roland Fryer, an economics professor at Harvard University, and an African-American citizen himself, did a study of 1,000 different police involved shootings and found that there was ZERO evidence of racial bias in these shootings. Does Kap care to hear about any such statistic or study? Perhaps he has simply decided that it is okay to press a stereotypical stamp on law enforcement agencies across the entire country for actions that have unfolded in several isolated incidents. The hypocrisy, however, is that his protest serves to pigeonhole the entire country for its alleged pigeonholing of an entire race. Moreover, if he really believes what he is saying, then why stop with protests during the pre-game performance? Why not take off your football cleats, put on your work boots, and get down to the streets where the trenches are murky and the work is plentiful?
Perhaps the entire country – people of color and the white majority – have missed the mark in analyzing racial injustice. Perhaps what we have perceived to be issues about race aren’t really about skin-color at all. After all, can we imagine that Colin Kaepernick’s life of extreme wealth is really so different than that of Tom Brady, a fellow NFL quarterback with a large bank account who just happens to have white skin? And by the same token, does the life of a poor person really change so much from race to race? Certainly the U.S. is neither cleansed nor exempt from bigotry, but is life in America really so very bad? It is true after all, that the odds of a man dying at the hands of another man today are far less than ever in human history. It is also true that humans all over the world are living better than they ever have before, and America, as it has been for so long, is still a top destination for people who are looking for the land of opportunity. When we sit back and watch the news, perhaps another story is being funneled into our heads, but the truth is as it has always been: there are good people and bad people in the world, and in a melting-pot country with more than 300 million citizens and a diverse socio-economic and ethnic background, America has its fair share of both. Is it possible to stop there with the description? Do we really need the Colin Kaepernicks of the country to tell us where we stand (or when we should kneel)? I suppose I have been listening with perhaps as much of a flawed ear as anyone else but can say with certainty that a protest by the wealthiest backup quarterback in the NFL isn’t going to provide me with my moment of Eureka!
Matthew Thornton is an Austin-based artist and a history teacher. Originally from Corpus Christi, his wide-sweeping artistic interests range from writing and film-making to photography and painting. His work and studies explore patterns within the endless nuance of life as he remains constantly in search of the so-called, “big picture”.