“Of all Americans, Negroes distrust politicians most, or, more accurately, they have been best trained to expect nothing from them; more than other Americans, they are always aware of the enormous gap between election promises and their daily lives.” – James Baldwin (Notes of a Native Son, 1955)
Colin Kaepernick is not a novelty. Far from an anomaly, the 49ers quarterback is part of a storied history of Black political protest. From refusing to stand for the National Anthem, to exercising his right not to vote, Kaepernick’s actions are part of lineage of skepticism over mainstream politics. The presidential election, of course, represents the height of mainstream politics. Blackskepticism, however, should not be read as lack of interest in politics, but rather a struggle to expand what is meant by politics. Black skepticism says that if voting is the only way to be political, then we’re in trouble.
Colin Kaepernick is part of a tradition that predates the “Star-Spangled Banner,” the song that became the US National Anthem in 1931, and the ratification of the 15th Amendment which enfranchised Black men. This struggle predates Black folks fleeing the hellish conditions of chattel slavery being diagnosed by Dr. Samuel Cartwright (1851) as having a disease that he called drapetomania, to explain why Black people were risking their lives to escape antebellum oppression. Black people have been fighting for the human right to be free since the first Africans were kidnapped and brought to the North American colony of Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. From rebellions on slavers like the Amistad, to something as seemingly innocent as learning to read — our ancestors died not (exclusively) for the right to vote. Many of our ancestors were fighting against systems of oppression/oppressors for our right to be free.
So, no, Colin Kaepernick is not a novelty. And Just as George Wilson and Joe LaRoche — who opposed Denmark Vesey’s planned 1822 uprising (which would have the largest Black revolt in American history) were willing to side with the master class at the expense of those willing to fight for their freedom — not all Black people were willing to rebel against systemic forms of oppression in the this country.
Do not misread me. I am not suggesting that Colin Kaepernick is the Denmark Vesey of our generation. What I am saying that there are still Black people in 2016 that think the system is good to us.
So what does all of this have to do with Stephen A. Smith?
On August 29, 2016, Stephen A. Smith took to his televisual platform on ESPN’s “First Take” and spoke in support of Colin Kaepernick’s right to protest, noting that Kaepernick “personified what a protest is supposed to be.” Smith showed concern for Kaepernick, saying that “Colin Kaepernick may suffer because of this.” He added, “There’s a difference between bringing attention to something, and sacrificing. And I’m telling you right now, when you look at what Colin Kaepernick did, this was a sacrifice.” Worried about the impact of Kaepernick’s protest to bring attention to oppression/oppressors in the US, Smith went on to further express his concerns about Kaepernick and the potential effects of his stance, saying that:
The reason I don’t love it is because he’s opened the floodgates of being scrutinized for his intent … Colin Kaepernick, even though I don’t question it, there are those cynics out there who will bring into question the motivation behind all of this. Because he’s coming off a subpar year. They’re talking about how his skills have dissipated … So now because of those cynics who may not like what he did, they’ll use those other things on the field as an excuse. That’s why I didn’t love it so much. Because he’s in a vulnerable position.
Smith anticipated the acrimonious racial backlash Colin Kaepernick would face as he continued his steadfast stance against systemic oppression/oppressors. The problem is that Smith used his multiple platforms to Pied Piper of persecution, publicly leveling vicious attacks on Kaepernick’s political choices, player performance and all around personhood.
During the post-election day broadcast of ESPN’s “First Take,” Smith weighed in on the results of the 2016 presidential election, reflectively noting that, “We all know if we’re looking at the election here, it’s undeniable that you had a whole bunch of white folks who came out and voted for Donald Trump. Certainly he did better in the Black community than was anticipated …” Indeed he did. According to NBC Exit Polls, Donald Trump performed better than Mitt Romney among Black voters, claiming 8 percent of the vote, as opposed to Romney’s 6 percent. Barack Obama, the first Black president, carried 93 percent of the Black vote against Romney. Hillary Clinton came in five points below him against Trump. One obvious factor that contributed to this relative spike in Black votes shifting from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party is the lack of a Black candidate running for president. While this news may have been alarming to many people paying attention to the inflammatory racialized rhetoric repeatedly employed by Trump, this nationwide bump in Black support for Trump should come as no shock to Smith. Since at least 2010, Smith has publicly urged the Black community to vote for a Republican presidential candidate.
In 2012, Smith said that he would “strongly, strongly consider voting for Mitt Romney” on thebasis of the fact that, “the man knows how to make money.” During a 2015 talk at Vanderbilt University, Smith is quoted as saying that, “I dream that for one election, just one, everybody Black in America vote Republican.” He continued by saying that all Black America “has to do is upset the apple cart, by not doing what’s predictable, and it will force everybody to pay attention to us.” In a 2015 CNN interview following his comments at Vanderbilt University going public, Smith made the leap from a non-specified “one election” that the Black community should vote for the Republican presidential candidate, to specifically the “next election,” which would be the 2016 election between Trump and Clinton that just took place on November 8. Smith also added that:
When I’m talking to Black folks, and I’m thinking about what’s in the best interest of the Black community, it’s because you are suffering. The country could be prospering, but if Black folks have nothing to show for it … if Black folks are suffering, and we have been suffering for decades, upon decades, upon decades, and we’ve tried something, one thing after another, and it’s the same thing happening over, and, over, and over again, and it’s not reaping any results, then what do you expect somebody to do? You’re going to address it with the fervor, directness, and candor that it deserves.
Smith was urging “Black folks” to engage in non-conventional forms politicization, to avoid being predictable to address the systemic suffering taking place in the Black community. Systemic oppression takes on many forms, but one of the issues that the Black community was bringing global attention to while Smith was making that speech was fatal forms police-induced violence on Black citizens.
When Smith was talking to “Black folks” in 2015, young Black men were nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by police officers. Despite making up only 2 percent of the total US population, Black males between the ages of 15 and 34 comprised more than 15 percent of all deaths logged this year by an ongoing investigation into the use of deadly force by police. Their rate of police-involved deaths was five times higher than for white men of the same age.
The “Black folks” that were “suffering” systemic oppression, by way of fatal forms of police brutality in 2015, was a continuation of the terroristic policing of “Black folks” that has been going on, undisturbed, since its slave patrols roots for “decades upon decades upon decades, and it’s the same thing happening over and over and over again, and it’s not reaping any results …” As Smith asked, “What do you expect somebody to do?”
Why, then, was Smith perplexed on November 9, 2016, when he said on live television that, “We thought no way in hell would Black folks vote for Donald Trump.” In truth, based on Smith’s on previous assertions, I would have expected him to proudly poke out his chest, as a practice of peacockery, and not only say that he predicted Black folks voting with the GOP, but he also encouraged it, and Black America listened to him, and answered his call. Smith, by the way, claims he voted for Hillary Clinton.
If Smith feels like Trump supporters have the right to vote for “whoever the hell they want, with no explanation required to any of us,” and that when faced with the prospect of Americans being mandated to vote, he spoke of citizens freedoms to participate as voters, making their voices “heard,” or to flex their rights as citizens and exercise their “freedom not to speak,” and avoid (for whatever reason) voting. In light of all these claims, how could Smith be so upset with Colin Kaepernick deciding not to vote in the 2016 presidential election?
Smith said copious incendiary things about Kaepernick not voting that contradicted his stances on everything from Trump supporters having the right to do whatever they wanted to do during the election “with no explanation required to any of us,” to citizens having the right to avoid the polls during the election, devoid of scrutiny, because American citizens are not mandated to vote, to feeling empathy towards Kaepernick’s “vulnerable position,” because there are “cynics out there” that would “question the motivations” behind his protest. And here Smith is, leading the charge against the man that he has called “a flaming hypocrite” that can “go to hell” for his consistent, though not always popular, informed protest against systemic oppression, and the oppressors who reinforce it. I think that Stephen A. Smith is unaware of the meaning of being a”flaming hypocrite.”
Hypocrites feel entitled to point out (or invent) the most minor mistakes in others — and they’ll point them out repeatedly, to negate, conceal and excuse all of their own horrible actions. So, for example, when Smith exclaimed that, “Colin Kaepernick is absolutely irrelevant,” and that he did not want to “hear a damn word about anything that he has to say,” he became his own worst enemy.
He continued his hypocritical tirade by “personally making a request, to the media in this nation” to avoid talking about Colin Kaepernick, outside of the context of football, and proceeded to not only talk about him later on during his nationally syndicated radio show, he then tweeted about it to his 3 million followers, and came back the next day, after “personally making a request to the media in this nation,” to keep a tight lip on Kaepernick, and he came on television, radio and as ESPN’s “First Take’s” Twitter page tweeted out to its 1 million followers: “@StephenASmith is doubling down on his criticism of Colin Kaepernick’s decision not to vote.”
Stephen A. Smith is wrong, but he is not alone.
On November 21, in response to Kaepernick not voting, a veteran Los Angeles Times political columnist took to his platform to echo Smith’s hot take by saying that, “Kaepernick is the classic hypocrite. And a bad role model. He hasn’t been connecting the dots between griping and voting to fix what he’s griping about.” This is not to mention the legion of Twitter members that expressed Kaepernick’s similar sentiments.
The truth is that every American citizen, based on the 15th and 19th Amendments, should have the right to vote, but no citizen is obliged to do so. As Yale law professor Stephen Carter reminds us,
Participation in governance might be said to be obligatory, but voting is only one form of participation, perhaps not the most important one. Democracy at its best rests on a thoughtful, reflective dialogue among the citizenry. It’s the dialogue, not the vote, that matters most … trying to shame people into voting isn’t just creepy — it’s wrong. It seeks to deny the individual the basic liberal freedom to choose his or her own version of the good life.
Vote shaming veiled as patriotism relegates the citizen refusing to vote as ignorant and un-American when, in fact, the decision not to vote should interpreted as an actively informed political choice to not support candidates that one deems unfit to leading this nation. W.E.B. Dubois wrote a piece for The Nation in 1956:
“I shall not go to the polls. I have not registered. I believe that democracy has so far disappeared in the United States that no ‘two evils’ exist. There is but one evil party with two names, and it will be elected despite all I can do or say.”
Would the Stephen A. Smiths of the world have the unmitigated gall to say that Dubois was ill informed, ignorant or un-American? Would the Stephen A. Smiths of the world have an issue with Malcolm X, during his April 3, 1964, speech “The Ballot or the Bullet,” when he said, “I’m not anti-Democrat, I’m not anti-Republican, I’m not anti-anything. I’m just questioning their sincerity and some of the strategy that they’ve been using on our people by promising them promises that they don’t intend to keep.” Malcolm continued by urging the Black community, “Don’t be throwing out any ballots. A ballot is like a bullet. You don’t throw your ballots until you see a target, and if that target is not within your reach, keep your ballot in your pocket.”
My question for the Stephen A. Smith is this: Did Malcolm X have no right to discuss politics because he exercised his right not to vote? Is all of the work that Malcolm X did for Black people worldwide, dismissible?
I’m all ears, Stephen A.