The oppressive seeds of the Colin Kaepernick backlash

Boxer Jack Johnson was relentlessly reprimanded for his arrogance and opulent lifestyle. But what was the criticism really about? Václav Soukup/flickr

Ever since San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he’s been in the media spotlight. Before every game, the TV cameras fixate on him as he kneels in protest. And with each passing week, more and more players around the league have joined him in an act of solidarity.

Colin Kaepernick (7) and teammate Eric Reid (35) kneel during the national anthem before a game against the Los Angeles Rams. USA Today Sports/Reuters

In addition to troves of internet trolls and media commentators, the fierce opposition has included a handful of NFL owners and a California police union that threatened to stop working at the home games. Even Donald Trump said his bit, suggesting that Kaepernick leave the country.

Some might think that Kaepernick’s words and actions, together with the subsequent backlash, represent a watershed moment. They don’t. Spanning back to America’s founding, there’s an entire history of blacks stepping outside of the social order – or protesting it – only to be told they can’t.

As a psychiatrist, I’ve long been interested in how racial identity affects mental health, and the chronic stress that racial minorities experience when they’re exposed to racist messages, particularly in the media. In the controversy swirling around Kaepernick, I see racially encoded messages about power, place and punishment of black people. Obviously, there’s a difference between antebellum lynching and social media outrage. But though the overt responses may have changed, the underlying hatred, disgust and impulses to punish prominent, “poorly behaved” black figures still remains.

Taming the black male?

During Reconstruction, blacks who stepped outside the social order risked their lives.

To enforce the racial hierarchy and police the boundaries of what blacks could say and do, whites often resorted to lynching. Although no one is exactly sure, it’s estimated that over 3,400 blacks were lynched or publicly murdered from 1882 to 1968. One of most famous examples was Emmett Till, who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly flirting with a white woman.

Economist Dwight Murphey has written that lynching was different from other forms of violence. Unlike, say, a domestic dispute or an act of revenge, it functioned to maintain the social order. It was, Murphey wrote, “motivated by a desire to vindicate the moral sense of community, and has as its target a specific person or persons.” In other words, it was used to enforce a racial hierarchy, foster a sense of community among whites, and ensure that black men knew their place.

Although the methods of lynching varied, it was common practice for white mobs, seeking to reaffirm the racial order, to hang or castrate the victim. (A number of psychoanalytic theories have sought to account for the phenomenon of castrations, but many scholars agree that castration served as the ultimate act of “taming” the black male, assuaging the fears and anxieties about uncontrolled black masculinity.)

As the number of lynchings decreased in the early 20th century, the mechanisms of enforcing the boundaries of black identity were reshaped. White majorities enforced social and civic confinement for most of the African-American community through redlining, voting restrictions and Jim Crow laws.

Jack Johnson put in his place

For the few black athletes who had become famous by the early 20th century, the boundaries of acceptable black behavior continued to be publicly policed through racist media portrayals, searing criticism and public outrage.

Boxer Jack Johnson, after defeating Tommy Burns in 1908 to become the first black heavyweight champion, was publicly shamed. One boxing magazine called him “the vilest, most despicable creature that lives.”

With his dominant beatings of his white opponents, brash personality and lavish lifestyle, Johnson was one of the first black celebrity athletes to defy the social mandate that a black man must be subject to the white man’s power. He was also often seen in public with white women, which was an appalling display for the time. After his defeat of Jim Jeffries (nicknamed the “Great White Hope”) in 1910, race riots broke out across the country. Some white men even committed suicide, resulting in the film of the fight being banned in many cities and states.

Johnson was eventually sentenced to one year in jail under the Mann Act, which had made it illegal to transport a woman “for the purposes of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.” In truth, he had saved a young girl from a life of prostitution. Using trumped up charges, police had leveraged the woman into testifying against Johnson, and an an all-white jury convicted him on basis of train tickets he bought for her.

But in truth, this case was about punishing Johnson for disobeying the racial order inside and outside the boxing ring; even the Justice Department lawyers decried his relationship with a white woman.

After Johnson skipped bail and fled the country, civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois prophetically wrote:

“Why then this thrill of national disgust? Because Johnson is black. Of course, some pretend to object to Mr. Johnson’s character. But we have yet to hear, in the case of white America, that marital troubles have disqualified prizefighters or ball players or even statesmen. It comes down, then, after all to this unforgivable blackness.”

The Los Angeles Times essentially demonstrated Du Bois’ point when it wrote to the black community, following Johnson’s win over Jeffries, “Remember you have done nothing at all… Your place in the world is just what it was.”

Throughout the 20th century, the media continued to relegate black athletes to a place of inferiority. Examples include sportscaster Brent Musburger calling the 1968 Olympic protesters Tommie Smith and John Carlos “a pair of dark skinned storm troopers” and Time magazine featuring a cover that darkened O.J. Simpson’s face to make him appear more menacing during his murder trial. Then there were the countless media portrayals of Muhammad Ali as unpatriotic for refusing to be drafted.

Michael Jordan, submissive superstar

On the opposite pole are the black athletes who are widely embraced by the American public and media. Not surprisingly, they are deemed “acceptable” because they are docile and uncontroversial (at least, off the court or field).

Perhaps the best illustration of this phenomenon is Michael Jordan, the NBA star who is arguably responsible for the basketball league’s global popularity. He’s the perfectly packaged ambassador for the sport.

The media portrayed him as apolitical, tame and well-mannered – an acceptable black athlete who was “black but not really black.” Image-conscious corporate advisers had effectively divorced him from inner city, hip-hop culture, placing him opposite from other more “street” players like Philadelphia 76ers star Allen Iverson, who was once described as the “living embodiment of hip hop in a basketball uniform,” a player who “refused to bend over backwards to accommodate the tastes of the mainstream.”

In 2011, long after Jordan’s playing career ended, a Nielsen and E-Poll Market Research study that measured appeal, public likability and awareness found that his personality attributes were off the charts: 93 percent of those surveyed said they liked him.

Yes, Jordan’s otherworldly talent explained a huge portion of his popularity. But it was arguably also due to his ability to be uncontroversial and seemingly disconnected from his race.

In 1990, when asked why he wouldn’t endorse Harvey Gantt, a black Democratic candidate for Senate in North Carolina, Jordan simply said, “Republicans buy shoes, too.” (In 2001, the Washington Post described Gantt’s opponent, Jesse Helms, as “the last prominent unabashed white racist politician in this country.”) When given the opportunity to use his power and influence, he reduced himself to a shoe salesman.

Michael Jordan displays an Air Jordan shoe during a 2007 press conference in Hong Kong. Reuters

Prior to his murder trial, O.J. Simpson was another superstar that exhibited appropriate, acceptable forms of black behavior. He was lauded as “the first [black athlete] to demonstrate that white folks would buy stuff based on a black endorsement,” while the CEO of Hertz rent-a-car, which featured Simpson in a famous TV ad, said he thought of the star running back as “colorless.”

Then there was Tiger Woods, who, before his marital infidelities, was worshiped as “The Chosen One” in Sports Illustrated and “A Universal Child” due to his multiracial identity.

Like Jordan, they had stuck to the same script: be humble, grateful and – most importantly – nonthreatening to the racial order.

Where are we today?

Just months before the Kaepernick saga started to unfold, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton found himself, like Kaepernick, weathering criticism for not behaving appropriately. First he was celebrating too much in the end zone. Then, after he lost the Super Bowl, he didn’t act like a good enough sport.

Critics of black athletes often claim they have “character” concerns – that they’re bothered by arrogance or poor sportsmanship. But I wonder if the same social and psychological processes that fueled the phenomenon of lynching are the undercurrent of so much public disgust with Newton and Kaepernick.

As Newton told the Charolotte Observer earlier this year, “I’m an African-American quarterback that may scare a lot of people because they haven’t seen nothing that they can compare me to.”

Cam Newton celebrates a touchdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2011. Chris Keane/Reuters

It’s almost like there’s a reflexive visceral reaction toward successful black males who step outside their socially prescribed boundaries. There is evidence that supports the pervasiveness of racial attitudes in the American psyche. In the 1990s researchers at Washington University and Harvard College developed a test to measure implicit, or unconscious, bias for a number of characteristics, including race. When a large nationally representative sample of people took the test for racial bias, investigators found the majority of people had preference for whites over minorities.

Today no one can lynch a professional athlete, so the pressure to conform must be exerted more subtly. In this way, old expressions of racism are simply being recrafted and reshaped in modern, more socially acceptable forms.

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