They should be grateful: Black athletes and the right to protest
The culture wars have been in full force since Donald Trump attacked NFL players, calling them “sons of bitches” for kneeling in protest of anti-Black violence during the national anthem.
An interesting result of this attack on Black men utilizing their free speech has been the claim that they should instead be grateful for their opportunity to make millions of dollars and not protest the nation that has allowed them to achieve such greatness.
Trevor Noah pointed out this strange phenomenon on The Daily Show (check it out at the 2 minute mark).
Noah points out former Congressman Joe Walsh’s claim that Stevie Wonder, who was showing solidarity with the players, is “another ungrateful black billionaire.” He shows Fox News hosts who slam the players as “ungrateful millennial millionaires” and Republican politicians who claim that the players should be glad that they live in America and not in “North Korea where they would be shot in the head.” As if Black Americans don’t live with the threat of violence in the United States…
Additional criticism levied against the players is that they are disrespecting the flag itself and the veterans who fought for the flag. Let me remind you: Black. people. serve. in. the. military. Not all agree with this protest, certainly, but being an American citizen, being a veteran, and utilizing one’s first amendment rights to speak out against injustice are not and cannot be mutually exclusive categories. No one owes blind allegiance, without criticism, to the United States or the United States military.
This “grateful” rhetoric is pernicious as it suggests that these athletes have obtained something not earned in lieu of getting what they actually deserve. I wonder, what could critics and commentators believe is owed a Black person in America? Not much, I’d endeavor.
Black people do not have to be grateful for or to anything, no matter what they achieve. Black people face tough life circumstances in the United States, including racism, poverty, over-policing, lower life-expectancy, and other barriers to a good life. Often, even after reaching success, Black people who do not behave in a manner that is palatable to white folks are often accused of being “arrogant” or “uppity,” which essentially means that they act with a confidence that makes white folks uncomfortable. Those criticisms in particular were often levied at President and Michelle Obama during their time in the White House–for daring to embrace their positions, be themselves and strike back in the face of criticism.
Just because a Black person has achieved a pinnacle of success does not mean that they do not have the right to speak out about injustice. In fact, because successful people often have an audience and a platform it becomes more critical to speak out about the struggle and elevate the voices of those without a platform. I would argue, using one’s resources to help others in one’s community is the definition of good citizenship.
Further, blackness is a lifelong condition. Often fame and/or fortune does not save Black people from experiencing racism themselves. Remember when a store owner told Oprah she couldn’t afford a bag? Remember when police pulled over Michael Bennett? Defending the wealthy is not typically how I like to spend my time (no matter who they are–I think there are other things to talk about). However, because anti-blackness can affect anyone, from Oprah to a guy on the street, I think it is important to assert the common struggle all Black people, rich and poor, face.
Yes, wealthy NFL players have beaten the odds, but they do not owe allegiance or gratitude to white fans, white team owners, or anyone else really. They are grown-ups, capable of making their own decisions. They do not need your permission or mine to sit down, stand up, take a knee or anything else.
As soon as we understand that Black people don’t have to do anything and can do everything, the better off we’ll all be.