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My thoughts on Colin Kaepernick’s youth

On Friday, October 29, Netflix debuted “Colin in Black and White” a dramatic recreation of the early years of the NFL star turned activist Colin Kaepernick. He is famous for introducing the kneeling protest during the playing of the National Anthem before each game. Back in 2016 he issued the following statement by way of explanation:

"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color, … To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."

[For a timeline of Kaepernick’s actions including this quote see Tadd Haislop, “Colin Kaepernick kneeling timeline: How protests during the national anthem started a movement in the NFL” available at the Sporting News website]

The “bodies in the street” reference is to people like Eric Garner, (choked to death by NYC cops for selling untaxed cigarettes), Michael Brown (shot down in broad daylight and left to lie in the street for hours), Tamir Rice (a young child playing with a toy gun shot by a trigger-happy Cleveland cop who had been declared unstable and unfit for duty in a previous law enforcement job). Those deaths resonated with the black community, sparking the start of the Black Lives Matter movement. but did not stir white America as strongly as did the murder of George Floyd years later. And unlike the murderer of George Floyd, none of those killers were ever charged with a crime.

After the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the Washington Post began to collect data on police shootings of civilians. A summary article, entitled, “Fatal Force: 910 Civilians Have been Killed by Police so far this Year,” notes that though blacks make up 13 percent of the population but according to the article they are killed by police at twice the rate as whites.

The Netflix series helps us learn the path Kaepernick took to the understanding of systematic racism that led him to take what turned out to be a career-ending risk. Despite his clear skills, he has not taken a snap in the NFL since that 2016 season. The NFL basically acknowledged that they had conspired to deprive him of his livelihood and ended up paying him a hefty settlement --- though probably not enough to completely compensate for the income he would have earned as a quarterback.

[For an analysis of how much income he lost which led one writer for Forbes to estimate that the settlement might have been as high as $40 million, see Patrick Rische, “How The NFL's Settlement With Colin Kaepernick May Have Approached $40 Million.”]

The Netflix series (six half hour episodes) shows the emerging consciousness of Kaepernick by investigating many episodes from his youth – punctuated by comments from the adult Kaepernick. Adopted by a white family, he was brought up in a largely white environment. I totally identified with the story because Annie’s and my son is like Kaepernick, mixed race by DNA. As with Kaepernick, we adopted our son as an infant. Though our son grew up with a few close black friends, he went to high school in a pretty lily-white suburb. (Kaepernick appears to have had a similar high school experience, though he starred in two major sports – baseball and football, prompting interest from Division I college coaches. As with my son, he had a few black friends – and unlike my son he took a black woman to one of the major dances at his high school.

If the Netflix series is accurate, Kaepernick’s parents were loving but pretty clueless about racism. The series demonstrates that Kaepernick had to learn about racism by personal experience and to figure out what was going on his own. In a 2016 article about his parents’ support for Kaepernick’s kneeling he was quoted as saying, “I never felt that I was supposed to be white. Or black, either. My parents just wanted to let me be who I needed to be.” See “Colin Kaepernick’s Parents Break Silence: We Absolutely do Support Him.”

Unlike Kaepernick’s parents, Annie and I made sure that our son embraced and learned about his black heritage. This came naturally to us, given that my father wrote Strange Fruit and I spent much of my academic career teaching about the experiences of black America. Annie and I also grew up in New York City where we mingled with all different kinds of people. Nevertheless, despite our intellectual understanding of America’s racist past and present, there is a world of difference between learning from books and learning from life. Annie’s and my white skin privilege was no match for the racism we as a family experienced first hand. We could not protect our son from that --- we just had to stand there with him and fight it.

The very first week we moved into our rural home located in a suburb of Springfield, Massachusetts I ordered pizza from a local business. When I told the owner we had just moved “up the mountain” his response was “no black people up there” but he used the N word for “black” --- I was shocked --- actually blasted --- by his completely confident and casual racism. Luckily, I had the presence of mind to say, “Except for my son.” I had already paid for the pizza but you can bet I never went back there. I used that story more than once in class to tell the students that racism was alive and well in 1970s America – even in the so-called “enlightened” North. One of our son’s classmates called him that same despicably insulting name – Annie went in to the school principal and the kid was talked to. (I could go on with other examples but I assume readers get the picture.)

Luckily, our son only experienced a verbal assaults and never was the subject of physical abuse. He never had to worry about a cop stopping him while driving locally and putting his hand on his gun. Nevertheless, the casual racism of the community had a strong impact on both him and our daughter who was only one year older than her brother. Constantly, friends would use racist language around her only to apologize saying, they weren’t referring to her brother.

Despite his mixed race DNA, our son’s identification as a black American was never in doubt. This was clearly true for Kaepernick, even if he thought of himself as neither black nor white when he was younger. The series makes clear that by the time he had finished high school, he realized that in the eyes of the world he was black, no matter how he thought of himself. I know that since the days when Tiger Woods described himself as “Cablinasian” emphasizing his multi-racial background there is a lot of emphasis on encouraging multi-racial people to embrace all of their DNA heritages. But let’s face it – To most white people, if someone “looks” black --- skin color, shape of nose, hair --- they experience life as a black American. We wanted our son to know that and embrace all of it – the good and the bad.

And we are happy to report he did. He went to Georgetown University in Washington, DC, and fell in love with that city and has never left. (He did his junior year at Howard University and got a Masters from that institution as well.) He has worked easily with black and white professionals his entire adult life, serving a mostly black clientele. Meanwhile, Colin Kaepernick has found a profoundly moving and influential way to embrace his blackness and we in the United States are all the better for it. His actions have stimulated similar actions by athletes all over the country. The story of how his actions have impacted young athletes all over the country is presented in a fine book just written by Dave Zirin: The Kaepernick Effect, Taking a Knee, Changing the World (NY: The New Press, 2021). Kaepernick’s parents must have done a lot of things right! They gave him love and had him grow up with self-respect. His experiences clearly led him to a deep understanding of our country’s past and present and he is sharing it all with us both by his actions and by helping create this film series.

Michael Meeropol is professor emeritus of Economics at Western New England University. He is the author with Howard and Paul Sherman of the recently published second edition of Principles of Macroeconomics: Activist vs. Austerity Policies

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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