Does Colin Kaepernick Have a Case?

by Benjamin Studebaker

San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick has drawn controversy for his decision to sit during the singing of the American national anthem. He 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. 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.

The protest undoubtedly puts the 49ers in a difficult situation–if they stand by their quarterback, they risk offending conservative supporters and if they repudiate him they risk offending supporters of Black Lives Matter. If they try to thread the needle, they risk upsetting all sides. From a football standpoint, protests like this are bad business. This is why Kaepernick makes no attempt to justify the protest from a football standpoint–for him, the issue is bigger than football. It takes a strong commitment for an athlete to do something like this. In 1996, the Denver Nuggets’ star point guard, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, also chose to sit during the anthem. He was fined $30,000 and traded to the Sacramento Kings at the end of the season, even though he had just had a career year averaging almost 20 points per game shooting almost 40% from three point range and 93% from the free throw line. All the Nuggets got in return was Sarunas Marciulionis, an ageing shooting guard who had been slowed by a crippling leg injury and averaged just 10 points per game for the Kings that year. Abdul-Rauf’s new team stuck him on the bench behind mediocre journeyman Anthony Johnson, and Abdul-Rauf was out of the league two years later. He was only 28. Three years later he attempted a brief comeback for the Vancouver Grizzlies–a Canadian franchise at that time–but it quickly fizzled. Abdul-Rauf was one of the greatest off the dribble shooters of his generation. Phil Jackson compared him to this year’s MVP, Steph Curry:

He infamously dropped 51 points on the Utah Jazz’s hall of fame point guard John Stockton, an elite defender with multiple all-NBA defensive team awards who holds the all-time career steals record (and it’s not close):

But in the middle of his prime he was cast aside for pennies on the dollar because the Nuggets did not want their brand associated with his politics. Abdul-Rauf received death threats for years, and in 2001 his home was burned to the ground–Abdul-Rauf suspects it was arson by the klan. That’s the risk Kaepernick is taking for his beliefs. He and his family may lose a lot of money and the safety of their property and persons may even be called into question. So I want to take what he’s saying seriously and consider its substance.

Kaepernick says that the United States oppresses black people and people of color, implicitly citing as evidence disparities in policing. When we think about oppression, we’re usually thinking about one of two things:

  1. Hard Oppression–distributive inequalities in resources, power, wealth, or opportunity that are socially produced and reproduced by institutions and policies.
  2. Soft Oppression–inequalities in social status–in the attitudes people have toward a group and the way the group is treated socially–that are less obviously connected to hard oppression.

Some argue that soft oppression can occur without hard oppression, but generally status is closely connected to power and wealth–groups with material power tend to own media outlets and shape the public discourse, so they will tend to produce a discourse that defends and expands their status in society, often at the expense of weaker groups.

It’s easy to see this when we think about class-based oppression. Poor people by definition lack material power, and if they face serious obstacles to climbing out of poverty that are created and sustained by institutions and policy, it is easy to see them as victims of oppression. They don’t run media outlets, and if they did run them they’d have to be paid too much money to count as poor for very long. For this reason, media outlets tend to ignore political issues that primarily concern the poor, and that shapes the entire political discourse. When the media doesn’t emphasize issues, voters pay less attention to them and so do politicians. For this reason, opponents of oppression often maintain that it is important for marginalized voices to be heard. Unfortunately, this is too simplifying–one of the consequences of oppression is that marginalized people tend to be under-educated, and consequently they don’t always understand their own oppression very well, much less how the government can go about putting an end to it. We see this with white working class Trump supporters–many of these people arguably suffer from class oppression, but their understanding of that oppression is limited because they have been denied the educational resources and opportunities necessary to comprehend their oppression. This educational deficit is itself an important form of the very oppression it impedes them from understanding. The more oppressed a group is, the harder it is for members of that group to understand what is happening to them. This is why Trump supporters back a candidate whose policies would arguably make class oppression worse.

So we cannot assume that anyone is an expert on racial oppression purely on account of background. But this does not mean we can discount people on account of their backgrounds either. Kaepernick’s view has to stand or fall on its own merits, and ad hominem arguments directed at undermining his personal authority are not germane to what he’s saying. Some people argue that the fact that some black people, like Kaepernick, become football players with high salaries proves that black people are not oppressed in America, but distributive inequalities are a matter of overall group performance. If in 1847 many black Americans were slaves but a couple of them were millionaires, this would not mitigate the oppression of slavery. Those black millionaires would be the exception that proves the rule. Nevertheless, this is an important distinction between race and class oppression–when racial or ethnic groups are oppressed, it is because these groups track class oppression and become associated with it. Groups that are disproportionately poor, even if they have some wealthy members, nonetheless become associated with poverty, and the negative attitudes people have toward the poor get attached to those groups. Poor people are more likely to commit crimes, be uneducated, be addicted to drugs, and if black people are more likely to be poor then they will become associated with these behaviors and the behaviors will be attributed to a “black culture” which even wealthy, highly-educated black people will find themselves identified with. That cultural identification can erode the status even of people in the group who are not suffering from hard oppression. So if black people are disproportionately poorer for institutional and policy reasons, that hard oppression would result in soft oppression even for wealthy blacks and that soft oppression could manifest in racial differences in policing, for instance.

If we look at real median household income, it’s clear that there is a material disparity between whites and blacks:

Proving oppression requires more than just a disparity–we have to establish that the disparity is created and sustained by institutions and policy. It’s clear that the disparity has been sustained over a long period of time, but we still need to posit a causal mechanism. There are four different kinds of explanations for this phenomenon that you’ll generally see:

  1. Racism Only–the disparity is created and reproduced by institutionalized racism alone. Government institutions and policy discriminate against blacks and employers discriminate against blacks and that alone is why blacks are poorer.
  2. Class Only–the disparity may have been created by slavery, but it is sustained by government institutions and policies that limit social mobility and keep poor people down irrespective of race.
  3. Culture Only–the disparity may have been created by slavery, but there are no longer any meaningful impediments to black success aside from black people’s own mentality, attitude, or culture.
  4. Hybrid theories that combine elements from two or three of the above.

If #1 is true or a variant of #4 that includes some of #1, the government is oppressing black people. If #2 is true, black people are oppressed in America but their blackness has nothing at all to do with it. #3 is the only explanation which does not involve any oppression, and it’s the explanation the right generally goes with.

In my view, #3 is a form of implicit racism–it attributes behaviors that are associated with poverty to black culture and then uses those behaviors to explain continued black poverty. There is of course a cycle of poverty, but the victims of poverty are not responsible for it and it should not be regarded as a cultural phenomenon. Cycles of poverty persist because government policy fails to break them–kids born in poor families are permitted to grow up with inferior educational resources and opportunities and when they disproportionately turn out poor they are blamed for it. Social mobility is not very high in the United States–if you are born poor, there are high barriers to climbing out of poverty because educational resources and opportunities are poorly distributed and government does not do much to correct this. Many countries do a significantly better job, which indicates that this is a policy choice rather than an economic necessity. There are also some countries with similarly low levels of mobility without significant black populations, so black culture cannot be the cause of low mobility:

Class is definitely at least partially to blame. That means if race plays a direct role, it plays it alongside class. Do we have evidence for an independent role for race? The short answer is yes–there is still a disparity in the unemployment rate for blacks and whites even when we adjust for differences in education:

Unemployment by Race

The disparity is historically generally significantly smaller for blacks and whites at a similar education level than it is for blacks and whites in total, which means race is not necessarily doing all or even most of the work–class plays a big role too. As far as policing goes, even in areas where blacks and whites commit crimes at the same rate blacks are still stopped, arrested, or incarcerated far more often.

Black Americans are in a poverty trap that is partially grounded in policies that limit social mobility for the poor, but as a result they have become culturally associated with poverty and those associations have perpetuated additional racial obstacles to their material advancement and damaged their social status, and one of the ways this status disadvantage manifests is through policing. At minimum, the government fails to remove these obstacles and at times it contributes to them or embodies them. This does not mean that black people are the only people who are oppressed in these ways in America–there are white people who are materially oppressed on class grounds and face status oppression because of their association with a “white trash” or “trailer park” subculture. We can recognize one without denying the other, and we need not deal with one at the expense of the other.

What then can be said in defense of the United States? The government does not necessarily intend to produce these outcomes. Most people and politicians who decline to support policies that would reduce these disparities do so because they misunderstand their basis as cultural and they do not recognize that blaming culture is racist–if you asked them, they would still like the disparity to go away, at least in principle. Many other people and politicians would like to change these policies but find that it is politically difficult to do so. There have from time to time been efforts by the government to eliminate some of these disparities that have succeeded through ordinary constitutional means. We should not forget that it was Lyndon Johnson–a white Texan–who pushed most of the 60’s-era civil rights legislation through congress. So while there is oppression in America that is produced and sustained by institutions and policies, this is not necessarily what the government intends to do, and the government is not constitutionally constructed in a way that necessarily opposes it to reform. This makes the contemporary United States very different from a country like apartheid South Africa, which was explicitly designed to oppress blacks. South Africa was an intrinsically oppressive state–the United States sometimes does oppressive things. This wasn’t always true historically by any means–during slavery and Jim Crowe, many individual US states were effectively no different from South Africa, and the argument could be made that the federal government was at minimum complicit and even participatory. But at this point our government is committed in principle to racial equality, even if it fails to achieve it because too many people misunderstand the problem as a cultural phenomenon and don’t support the relevant policies. This may mean little to blacks experiencing hard and soft oppression, but this does matter. A hundred years ago if you told the American government that it was contributing to racial disparities, its response was “Yeah. So what?” Today the government will pursue racism when it sees it. The political challenge is getting the state to see it and to see what it can do about it. That’s not easy, but it’s easier than convincing a state that openly and intentionally sponsors racism that it ought to stop.