A special thing happened when the Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints took to the gridiron for a Monday Night Football matchup this past week.
In a moment of unity, the two rival teams joined together after the National Anthem to form a circle at midfield.
It was an amazing display of how together we can instill change in our nation’s mindset about the oppression that people of color experience in our society.
But, the entire display would never have been if it weren’t for the actions of San Francisco 49ers’ backup quarterback Collin Kaepernick, who started the national conversation by kneeling during the singing of the National Anthem in the final preseason game of 2016 and every regular season game since then.
Kaepernick’s protest was criticized by many who cited patriotism, nationalism and disrespect for the country as reasons why Kaepernick was wrong in his actions.
On the flip-side, Kaepernick’s actions have been applauded by military veterans who feel that his protest was exactly what they had fought for when they served to protect the freedoms of our country. There has also been a host of other NFL players and athletes who have joined Kaepernick in his protest during the National Anthem. Some kneel, some lock arms and some hold a fist above their heads to express their concern over the oppression of people of color in America. And, now, some form a unity circle with rival teams.
The whole thing started with Kaepernick, without his bravery we might have swept all of the ugliness our nation is facing under the rug and continued to look through a colorblind lens.
Colorblindness is not what we need. In fact, it may be one of the biggest problems fueling the oppression Kaepernick is protesting.
In her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, civil rights litigator and legal scholar Michelle Alexander highlighted how being colorblind to the oppression of people of color has led many Americans to believe that everyone is capable of upward mobility, given effort on his or her part. This assumption has formed a part of the national collective self-image, one that ignores the racial history of our country and avoids talking about race.
Alexander contends that the system does not require overt racially hostility or bigotry on the part of another racial group or groups. Instead, indifference is sufficient to support the system.
And, that is where the number 13 comes into play.
Many understand the over century-old 13th amendment to be the abolishment of slavery. Many would be shocked to know that the 13th amendment actually sets the stage for a different kind of slavery.
Ratified at the end of the Civil War, the amendment did abolish slavery as an institution, but included one exception to the rule: Slavery and involuntary servitude remain lawful “as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” In other words, according to this punishment clause, there is not much that the 13th amendment can do to stop you from becoming a slave of the state if you are pulled over with the wrong controlled substance in your glovebox or trunk.
Alexander’s book details the emergence of the convict lease system which exploited the punishment clause in the 13th amendment. Frederick Douglass described how this clause was used to subvert the noble intent of the 13th amendment.
“States claim to be too poor to maintain state convicts within prison walls,” said Douglass. “Hence the convicts are leased out to work for railway contractors, mining companies and those who farm large plantations. These companies assume charge of the convicts, work them as cheap labor and pay the states a handsome revenue for their labor. Nine-tenths of these convicts are negroes.”
Douglass further noted that law enforcement tended to target African-Americans, accounting for the large number of African-Americans in the convict lease system.
Shades of Douglass’ critique of the convict lease system still ring true to this day in the form of the War on Drugs.
African-Americans are incarcerated at six times the rate of white men, despite drug use being about even between the two groups. This trend is thanks in part to uneven enforcement and sentencing when it comes to the Drug War. People of color are much more likely to be searched, prosecuted and convicted than whites. They also serve longer sentences, according to government surveys.
Alexander argues that the War on Drugs is the latest form of systematic, institutionalized racism plagues our nation.
Perhaps, if we take off our colorblind glasses, we would be able to see the deep-rooted racist ideologies which have been perpetuated throughout our history in the form of governmental programs and laws since slavery was abolished.
In the 80s, as a child, I watched the crack cocaine epidemic take hold in the United States. I remember the “us versus them” mentality which permeated throughout the nation as we were subjected to commercials stating “Just Say No” which depicted people of color turning into reptilian monsters from crack cocaine use. Looking back now, I realize it was another subtle way the government tried to keep people of color oppressed. Coupled with the illogically longer sentences for crack cocaine, a drug found mostly in minority neighborhoods, versus the lighter sentences of cocaine, a drug found mostly in white neighborhoods, the War on Drugs has been a powerful tool for the continuation of oppression in our society of people of color.
All of this is why I have stood behind Kaepernick since his initial protest and why I continue to stand behind the message he is trying to convey.
Now is the time to take off the colorblind glasses which have kept us in the dark for so long to the deep-rooted and underlying racism that still exists in our society. Slavery – labor that dehumanizes one person for the profit of another – has no place in prisons, the Constitution or our civilized society.
For, what true American; one who believes in the ideal that all men were created equal; would want to be a contributive part of the injustice that has befallen people of color throughout history?
It’s time to discard colorblindness in order to witness the truth.
It is time to end the War on Drugs, give back humanity to people of color who have been robbed of it through the policies of the Drug War and start to heal and grow as a nation.
It’s time to follow Kaepernick, the Atlanta Falcons, the New Orleans Saints and the countless others who have protested in order to shed light on this issue.
Welcome to the light.
Please note that the views expressed by guest bloggers represent their own personal views, and not necessarily those of everyone associated with Peachtree NORML or any institutions with which the blogger may be affiliated.