In America, there is a significant kind of public insistence that one’s “freedom” is fundamentally tied to one’s wealth.
Much of the country sees America through an aspirational and transformative lens, a colorblind, bias-free utopia, in which wealth conveys equality and acts as a panacea for social and racial ills. Once an individual achieves massive financial success, or so the message goes, he or she will “transcend” the scourge of economic and racial inequality, and become truly “free.”
Working in parallel with this respect for this colorblind version of the “American dream” is the belief that economic privilege demands patriotic gratitude. Across all industries and disciplines, Americans are told to love their nation without criticism, to be grateful that they are rare enough to live in a country that gives citizens the opportunity to reach astronomical heights of economic prosperity. .
For the nation’s Black citizens, there is often an additional racial conceit lurking just below the surface of these concepts: the notion that Black success and wealth demands public silence on systemic issues of inequality and oppression.
These are enduring and fragile ideologies that underpin the concept of the American Dream, enduring because they are encoded into the very fabric of American culture (most Americans, including African Americans, have readily adopted these ideologies as assumed facts); but fragile because it is all too easy to see that one’s economic privilege is a terrible barrier against both individual and systemic discrimination and oppression.
Consequently, African-Americans have also been among the most challenging of these ideologies, as we have seen recently with the Colin Kaepernick and NFL #TakeAKnee rallies. In a show of solidarity with the free-agent quarterback, professional football players, the vast majority of whom are black, have taken a knee during the National Anthem as a way to protest racial injustice and police brutality.
LOOK: NFL players unite in defiance and solidarity
In recent weeks, the President of the United States has drawn attention to the inherent tensions that define “American Dream” ideologies through his repeated public criticism of these kneeling NFL players.
“If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL or other leagues,” Trump recently tweeted, he should not be allowed to kneel. Calling the protesters’ actions “disrespectful” to the country, the flag and the anthem, President Donald Trump called for players to be fired, encouraged a boycott of the NFL, insisted the league pass a rule requiring the players to defend the anthem and mocked the protesters as “sons of bitches”.
In a dramatic ploy more befitting a scripted reality TV show, the president gloated that he ordered Vice President Mike Pence to leave an Indianapolis Colts game the moment any player took a knee. This was an orchestrated show of power and outrage, designed to send an outlandish political message given that Trump and Pence knew in advance that on that particular day, the Colts would be playing the San Francisco 49ers, the team that currently has the most protesters. The NFL’s announcement this week that the league has no plans to penalize protesting players is the latest event to draw the president’s fury; On social media early in the morning, he once again compared kneeling to a “total lack of respect” for our country.
As many have pointed out, the president’s moralizing outrage at NFL players is selective and deeply flawed: His apparent patriotic loyalty hasn’t stopped the billionaire politician from criticizing the removal of Confederate statues, attacking a Gold Star family, or mocking of Senator Trump. John McCain’s military service.
NFL players and their defenders have said repeatedly that the protests are meant to highlight racial inequality and oppression. They have also explained that their decision to kneel stemmed from a desire to protest peacefully and respectfully after a conversation with military veterans.
Trump has chosen to ignore these underpinnings and the structural issues of inequality that motivate the protests, instead proposing a narrative exclusively concerned with open displays of American patriotism and the “privilege” of NFL players. As one of the president’s advisers explained, by aggressively targeting NFL players, Trump believes he is “winning the culture war,” having made black “millionaire athletes” his new model. [Hillary Clinton].”
READ MORE: As ‘America’s sport,’ NFL can’t escape politics
It’s a cynical statement, revealing the president’s perception of the jingoism of his supporter base who see him as a crusader for American values and symbols.
By presenting black protesters as the antithesis of all this, Trump has branded the players as unpatriotic elites and enemies of the nation. For a president who has consistently groped his way through domestic and foreign policy since he was elected, one culture was between “hard-working” and “virtuous” middle- and working-class white Americans and black football players. rich and ungrateful Welcome public distraction.
Trump’s attacks on the NFL protesters are rooted in those conflicting tensions inherent in the American Dream: that wealth equals freedom; that economic privilege demands patriotic gratitude; and most importantly, that the individual economic prosperity of Black people overrides their concerns about systemic injustice and requires their silence on racial oppression.
Among protesters’ detractors, this has become a common line of attack, a way of disparaging the activism of black NFL players by pointing to their apparent wealth. The fact that systemic racism is demonstrably real and that individual prosperity does not make one immune from racial discrimination seems to go unnoticed by critics of the protesters.
His is a grievance that suggests black athletes should be thankful to live in this country; that racism cannot exist in America since black professional athletes are allowed to play and sign contracts for considerable sums of money; that black players owe the nation their silence since the United States “gave” them opportunity and access; that black athletes have no moral authority on issues of race and inequality due to their individual success; and that the success of black athletes was never theirs to earn, but was given to them and can just as easily be taken away.
This culture being waged over black athletes is not new. Black athletes and entertainers have long been hyper-aware of their peculiar place in American society as people loved for their athletic and artistic talents, but vilified the moment they use their public platform to protest systemic racial inequality. The parallels between the #TakeAKnee protests and the protests of Muhammad Ali or Juan Carlos and Tommy Smith they are readily apparent; There are also important similarities with the case of Paul Robertson.
An outspoken civil rights activist, college and professional football player, lawyer, opera singer, and actor, Robeson had his passport revoked in 1950 due to his political activism and speech, actions that nearly destroyed his career. The star athlete and artist, “who had exemplified American upward mobility” quickly “became public enemy number one” as institutions canceled his concerts, the public called for his death, and anti-Robeson mobs burned effigies of him. .
During a 1956 congressional hearing, the chairman of the House Committee on Un-American Activities struck up a familiar refrain with Robeson, challenging the artist’s accusations of American racism and racial oppression. He didn’t see any sign of bias, he argued, since Robeson was privileged, had gone to elite universities and played college and professional football.
READ MORE: Poll: Americans divided on NFL protests
Black athletes, even silent ones, largely understand that their economic privilege does not insulate them from the realities of racial discrimination. They also understand that their wealth and success are precarious and often depend not only on their athletic performance, but also on their remaining silent on issues of racial injustice, especially those that appear to question the “American dream” or implicate the American public for association.
It should come as no surprise then that Colin Kaepernick, whose protests made him a national outcast despite his talents on the field, has filed a complaint against the NFL, accusing the league and its teams of excluding him because of his political beliefs. . “Peaceful and principled political protest,” Kaepernick’s lawyers argued in a statement, “should not be punished and athletes should not be denied employment based on partisan political provocation by the Executive Branch of our government.” Whether the ostracized Kaepernick will win his grievance is unknown, but it is certainly telling that he and his attorneys have based their claims on controversial definitions of liberty and the precarious economic privilege of outspoken NFL players.
For the loudest and most vocal critics of black protesters, in particular, outspokenness equals treason, the reason for the harshest punishments. Perhaps they would benefit from a close reading of James Baldwin, who once argued, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and for exactly this reason I insist on the right to perpetually criticize her.”