Since San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick made his statement that he wouldn’t stand for the national anthem because he didn’t want to show pride for a country that oppressed black people and people of color, he has received widespread media attention. He kneels during the anthem before every game and more players across the league have joined him in solidarity.
However, the opposition to his actions has been intense, including criticism from internet trolls, media commentators, some NFL owners, and even a police union that threatened to stop working at home games. Donald Trump also weighed in, suggesting that Kaepernick leave the country. Some people may view this as a turning point, but there is a long history of black people protesting social order and being told they cannot.
As a psychiatrist, I am interested in the impact of racial identity on mental health, and I see racially charged messages about power, place, and punishment of black people in the controversy surrounding Kaepernick. Although the forms of response have changed over time, the underlying hatred, disgust, and desire to punish black figures who are seen as poorly behaved remains.
CAN YOU PLEASE PROVIDE SOME CONTEXT FOR THIS PHRASE? WITHOUT CONTEXT, IT’S DIFFICULT TO PROVIDE AN ACCURATE REPHRASED VERSION.
In the era of Reconstruction, African Americans faced perilous consequences for breaking social norms. The racial hierarchy was maintained by white individuals who utilized lynching as a means of policing and controlling the actions and speech of African Americans. Although the exact number is uncertain, it is believed that more than 3,400 African Americans were subjected to public murder or lynching between 1882 and 1968. A well-known instance is the tragic death of Emmett Till, who was allegedly killed in Mississippi in 1955 for simply showing interest in a white woman.
Dwight Murphy, an economist, noted that lynching was distinct from other violent acts, such as personal conflicts or retaliatory actions, in that its purpose was to preserve the existing social structure. Murphy explained that lynching aimed to uphold the community’s moral principles and was directed at particular individuals, making it a tool for enforcing racial hierarchy, fostering solidarity among white people, and reminding black men of their subordinate position.
White mobs utilized different lynching methods, but a prevalent approach was to hang or castrate the victim in order to reinforce racial hierarchy. While various psychoanalytic theories attempt to explain the occurrence of castrations, there is a general consensus among scholars that this act served as a means of subduing the black male and alleviating apprehensions and unease surrounding unbridled black masculinity.
During the early 20th century, the reduction in the frequency of lynchings led to a transformation in the methods used to uphold the boundaries of black identity. The majority of white people enforced limitations on the social and civic freedoms of the African-American community through the implementation of redlining, voting restrictions, and Jim Crow laws.
ONE POSSIBLE REPHRASED VERSION COULD BE: “JACK JOHNSON WAS HUMBLED.”
During the early 20th century, despite a few black athletes achieving fame, their behavior was still closely monitored and controlled through racist media representations, harsh criticism, and public outrage. Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, faced public condemnation for his dominant victories over white opponents, his bold personality, and his extravagant lifestyle. He also challenged the social norm that dictated black men were subservient to white men, often appearing in public with white women, which was considered highly offensive at the time. Following his victory over Jim Jeffries, race riots erupted across the country, leading to the film of the fight being banned in many places. Johnson was later convicted under the Mann Act for transporting a woman across state lines, but the charges were fabricated, and he had actually saved the woman from a life of prostitution. The real motive behind Johnson’s conviction was to punish him for defying racial norms both inside and outside of the boxing ring. Even the Justice Department lawyers were critical of his relationship with a white woman.
W.E.B. Du Bois wrote prophetically when he observed that Johnson had skipped bail and left the country.
“What causes this intense feeling of national disgust? Is it because of Johnson’s race? Although some may claim it’s due to his character, we’ve never seen the same reaction towards white individuals facing marital troubles, whether they’re prizefighters, ball players, or statesmen. Ultimately, it seems that the root of the issue is Johnson’s unforgivable blackness.”
The Los Angeles Times effectively proved Du Bois’ argument when it addressed the black community after Johnson’s victory over Jeffries, stating “Remember you have done nothing at all… Your place in the world is just what it was.”
Throughout the 20th century, the media consistently relegated black athletes to an inferior status. For instance, sportscaster Brent Mussburger referred to Olympic protesters Tommie Smith and John Carlos as “a pair of dark-skinned storm troopers” in 1968, and Time magazine used a cover that darkened O.J. Simpson’s face to make him seem more threatening during his murder trial. Additionally, the media frequently depicted Muhammad Ali as unpatriotic for his refusal to be drafted.
A POSSIBLE REPHRASED VERSION COULD BE: “MICHAEL JORDAN, A SUPERSTAR KNOWN FOR HIS SUBMISSIVE DEMEANOR.”
The American public and media widely embrace black athletes who are perceived as docile and uncontroversial, as opposed to those who are not. This is exemplified by Michael Jordan, the NBA star who is often credited with the league’s global popularity. The media portrays Jordan as apolitical, well-behaved, and an acceptable representation of black athletes who are not considered “too black.” Corporate advisers have successfully distanced Jordan from inner-city and hip-hop culture, positioning him as the antithesis of players like Allen Iverson of the Philadelphia 76ers, who is known for his hip-hop style and refusal to conform to mainstream tastes.
A study conducted in 2011 by Nielsen and E-Poll Market Research, long after Jordan had retired from his playing career, revealed that his personality traits were exceptional in terms of appeal, public likability, and awareness. The study found that 93% of the participants liked him. While Jordan’s remarkable talent played a significant role in his popularity, some argue that his ability to remain uncontroversial and seemingly detached from his race also contributed to it.
In 1990, Jordan was asked why he did not endorse Harvey Gantt, a black Democratic candidate for Senate in North Carolina. Jordan responded by saying, “Republicans buy shoes, too.” This statement showed that when given the opportunity to use his power and influence, he reduced himself to a shoe salesman instead of supporting a qualified candidate who was also black. Jesse Helms, Gantt’s opponent, was described as “the last prominent unabashed white racist politician in this country” by the Washington Post in 2001.
Before his murder trial, O.J. Simpson was seen as a model black celebrity who exhibited appropriate and acceptable behavior. He was celebrated as “the first [black athlete] to demonstrate that white folks would buy stuff based on a black endorsement.” The CEO of Hertz rent-a-car, which featured Simpson in a well-known TV ad, even claimed that he saw Simpson as “colorless.”
Tiger Woods was another example of a black celebrity who was highly praised before his marital infidelities. He was worshipped as “The Chosen One” in Sports Illustrated and celebrated for his multiracial identity as “A Universal Child.”
Similar to Jordan, Simpson, and Woods, these black celebrities all followed a specific script to be humble, grateful, and, most importantly, non-threatening to the racial order.
WHAT IS OUR CURRENT LOCATION?
Shortly before the Kaepernick controversy emerged, Cam Newton, the quarterback for the Carolina Panthers, faced similar criticism for his perceived inappropriate behavior. He was criticized for excessive celebration in the end zone, and for not being a good enough sport after losing the Super Bowl. While some critics of black athletes claim they have concerns about their “character”, such as arrogance or poor sportsmanship, there may be deeper social and psychological processes at play. Perhaps the same undercurrent that fueled the phenomenon of lynching is behind the public’s distaste for Newton and Kaepernick. Newton himself has suggested that his race may be a factor, saying to the Charlotte Observer, “I’m an African-American quarterback that may scare a lot of people because they haven’t seen anything that they can compare me to.”