It’s easy to reduce history to hyperbole. It’s human nature to embellish; when looking in the rear view mirror of time, people are always larger than they appear. Still, every now and then, the window of the past shines light on the present in ways that are impossible to understate.
A Woman Sat
Rosa Parks, then secretary of the local NAACP chapter, was not the first person in Montgomery Alabama to be arrested for refusing to surrender her seat on the bus. That honor would go to Claudette Colvin. Seven months later, Mary Louise Smith was arrested without fanfare for the same crime.
Sometime in-between Claudette and Mary Louise’s protests, in a city 700 miles away, a young boy named Emmett Till would be brutally murdered for the crime of (reportedly) whistling at a white woman.
Rosa’s refusal to stand in December 1955 coincided with the rising voice of a young, then largely unknown minister named Martin Luther King Jr. His gifts as an orator notwithstanding, Dr. King had the vision to convert moral outrage into civil unrest, civil unrest into economic pressure, and economic pressure into legal action.
A Town Walked
On the surface, it was as benign a protest as one could imagine. People of color getting up extra early for work: walking, biking, organizing car pools, instead of taking the bus.
The response? Membership in local white supremacist organizations doubled. Dr. King’s home was firebombed. Churches were bombed. Protesters were assaulted. Lynching might have been technically illegal, but in the Jim Crow South, racial terrorism was as commonplace as baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie.
After about a week of crippling financial losses, the bus company was ready to agree to terms. The city of Montgomery however, had different ideas. Originally, the boycott was only meant to last for a day. The case ended up going all the way to the Supreme Court, in no way because anyone cared about a bunch of black people walking holes in the soles of their shoes. The motive for change was purely economic. The result? After 381 days, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of desegregating busses.
Two days later, a shotgun was fired into Dr. King’s home. Four days later, buses were fired upon by snipers. Less than one month after the historic decision, five black churches were bombed in one day.
A Man Kneels
As the adopted bi-racial child of white parents in suburban California, Colin Kaepernick distinguished himself as a scholar athlete, maintaining a 4.0 GPA, and excelling at basketball, baseball, and football. Despite being drafted by the Chicago Cubs, he followed a dream he’d known since fourth grade: to play professional football. After a distinguished college career at Nevada state, he fulfilled his childhood dream, and was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers.
Without question this is a man of some accomplishment. But he didn’t become a household name until he made a controversial decision not to stand for the National Anthem, in silent protest to racial injustice. As innocuous as kneeling quietly for under a minute at the beginning of a football game might sound, many fans have responded with rancor, burning his jersey, and even sending death threats.
The result has been a significant decline in viewership. Since Kaepernick began his protest, NFL TV ratings are down a staggering 24%. The potential impact of this protest cannot be understated. With annual revenues of $12Bn, that’s a projected loss of $2.8Bn—not including ticket sales and merchandise—if losses remain flat. A more organized protest could be catastrophic: 67% of NFL players identify as African-American. If they all decided to sit-out for just one game, it would represent a loss of $750,000,000.
It is impossible to calculate the impact of individual actions removed from the window of time; impossible to tell the exact moment individual protest transforms into a platform for social change. Could a potential one-day loss of 3/4ths of a billion dollars spur the owners of the NFL to action? Might that inspire them to hire more minorities for general manager and head coaching positions? Perhaps they’ll recognize the not insignificant impact professional sports has on shaping the cultural zeitgeist? We’ve seen the NBA respond quickly to racism when it threatened their profits. Could economic pressure spur legal action?
At this point in time we are too close to know if Kaepernick’s refusal to stand will be a catalyst for lasting social change. It is entirely plausible that in 50 years, his name might be enshrined next to Rosa Parks. While it’s too early to see any definitive results, it’s important to remember: racism is always about money. Racism built (and maintains) the wealth of nations. While we may always have prejudice and bias in one form or another, if we can figure out how to make racism unprofitable, we just might make steps towards eliminating systemic inequity. Until then: kneel on Kaepernick. Kneel on.
Photo Credits: Getty embed
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The Good Men Project is a Participatory Media Company—we not only provide content you can read and share but we offer a multitude of ways you can actually participate in the all-important conversation about the changing roles of men in the 21st century. Now, we are taking our platform one step further, with the announcement of the plan to roll-out Social Interest Groups and Task Forces. This is a transformative new initiative that will take our conversation to the next level by forming communities that are organized around particular issues.
The #StopRacism group will identify some of the ways in which racism manifests itself in our institutions and our communities, and how this is reinforced, both economically and culturally. We’ll then talk about how to remove that reinforcement and support, in order to make racism, in a word, “unprofitable.” It will be led by GMP Editor’s Lisa Duggan and – the author of the above piece – Jackie Summers.