Protests too spicy for white people

“The Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the the Ku Klux Klanner,” wrote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from the Birmingham jail, “But the white moderate … who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action.’”

49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick created a media firestorm two weeks ago when he sat through a preseason game’s national anthem and stoked the flames when he kneeled through the following week’s. Citing the numerous cases of black men and women being killed by police officers who nearly always go unpunished — such as the five officers who were acquitted in the Freddy Gray trial — Kaepernick stated he simply couldn’t salute the flag of a country that allowed such flagrant injustice.

Predictably, this resulted in a wave of hand-wringing by some white people who value the lives of their black neighbors as much as a nylon flag. Other white folk, even less concerned with racialized state violence, called Kaepernick a variety of names — communist, coward, cop-hater, bad football player.

Indeed, support for Kaepernick is deeply segregated. A recent YouGov poll found only 23 percent of white people support the quarterback’s actions, compared with 72 percent of black people.

White pearl-clutching in the face of black protest is nothing new. According to 1961 Gallup polls, 61 percent of Americans disapproved of the Freedom Riders, 57 percent thought sit-ins “harmed the Negro’s chances of being integrated,” and only 23 percent approved of the March on Washington, where Dr. King would deliver the speech that has been so heavily quoted by people looking to delegitimize black protests in the decades since.

Add this white antipathy to the formula of sportswriters — the same crowd who threw collective tantrums when Marshawn Lynch refused to answer their vacuous questions and when Steph Curry brought his adorable (if not slightly disruptive) daughter to what would have been a profoundly boring press conference — and the fact Kaepernick committed the cardinal sin of protest in a house of worship for America’s de facto religion, and you have a controversy with legs.

That this has turned into a debate over whether Colin Kaepernick hates the troops shows how unwilling white America is to address the issue of systemic racism. We have far too many gruesome videos of black people being gunned down by police. We also have Department of Justice reports filled with statistics proving what black residents of cities like Baltimore and St. Louis have been saying for a long time — that from housing and schooling to targeted policing, they’re not getting a fair deal. That agents of the state are seemingly allowed to murder them without recourse is simply quintessential white supremacy.

Donald Trump wants to make America great again. Hillary Clinton insists it already is great. But for millions of disenfranchised Americans, the America sold to them in ads and pregame shows is vastly different from the America they experience in their daily lives. By taking a knee, Colin Kaepernick is standing for them when few others will.