Are Black Men Americans?


Dr. Errington Thompson is a critical care trauma surgeon, author, and talk show host. Listen to the Errington Thompson Show, available through Podcast and download at:

by Errington C. Thompson, MD –

Have you seen this Toyota commercial in which this attractive woman is driving her car in the middle of some major city and she is being followed by a huge blow-up King Kong balloon?

I find the commercial creepy. The movie King Kong had many racial overtones. The gorilla was symbolic for the big, uncivilized black man who wants the white woman (Fay Wray, the original blonde heroine). A lot has changed since the 1933 film … or has it?

Right now the country is divided on whether or not a black athlete can protest police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem. Colin Kaepernick started these protests more than a year ago, and I have had discussions with tons of folks about this issue.

First, let me say that whatever the players are doing, it is working. Though more and more stories were written about black men, and even young boys, being shot by police or vigilantes, as a country we really did not care. There was Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Ezell Ford, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and host of other black men who were shot, choked, or somehow ended up dead after an encounter with police. The stories showed up on television for a day or a week or even a month, but nothing changed. There were marches; nothing changed. There were meetings with the police, and town halls, and op-eds … but nothing changed. At least now everyone is talking about this problem.

One recurrent argument against the players’ protest is that kneeling does not show the appropriate amount of respect for the flag and our country. I promise you that every one of those guys who are kneeling truly love this country. There is no other country on the planet in which you can play a game and make hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars for excelling at a sport.

Second, the argument is made that kneeling insults the military, as if the national anthem and the flag only belong to the armed forces, and not the rest of us. Baloney. They are symbols of our nation, and they speak to all of us—but they are still only symbols. The substance is the freedom they symbolize: the freedom to speak out, to dissent, to call attention to a cause, and yes, to pray.

Which leads to this: Thirdly, if you wish to say a sacred prayer in church, do you stand or do you kneel? If you ask God for guidance, or forgiveness, or help, do you stand or do you kneel? (Hint: in many churches, they even call the kneelers a “prie-dieu,” which means “pray to God.”) If kneeling doesn’t insult God, then why is it such a problem for conservative politicians?

What many of these conservatives hate is not the protest, not the kneeling, but the fact that the protest is working! They hate that these players are influencing Americans and causing John Q. Public to at least think about these issues.

Bob McNair, who grew up in North Carolina and went to college at the University of South Carolina, is a multi-billionaire. He sold an energy company to Enron in the late 1990s. He still owns several power plants and he owns the Houston Texans. This what he said about the protesting players: “We can’t have the inmates running the prison.”

Man, that sounds racist, doesn’t it? Sadly, he is simply reflecting the conservative view of this whole “kneeling” thing. Of course his comments have racial overtones: to him, and his fellow right-wingers, black men simply can not be expressing thoughtful dissent. To them, these ungrateful “criminals” have a lot of nerve to be protesting during a football game. Conservatives do not see these players has pursuing the American dream through hard work; they see them as outsiders. Criminals.

Conservatives do not understand—or if they do, they simply don’t care—that if you are born in the inner city the chances of getting the right combination of teachers to guide you to Harvard, Yale, or Duke are slim. Nor can your daddy simply write a check for the tuition and an extra “gift” to ensure admission, whether you have the grades to get in or not.

Yet even in the inner city you can get the right opportunities to succeed, if you have the talent. You can play ball in the inner city; you can lift weights, you can run until you throw up, and practice throwing, and catching, and lifting more weights. If you are truly lucky you will not blow out a knee (ACL tear) or a shoulder, you won’t get a concussion, you will get a sports scholarship, and you might get the opportunity to play in the NFL. That opportunity does not guarantee success, but it might be the only chance you, a kid from the inner city, have to make a success in this world.

In the U.S., though, we have a long history of treating our black athletes with contempt when they do not conform to social norms:

There was Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) who dared to join the Nation of Islam (turning his back on Christianity) and dared to speak out against the Vietnam War. For that, he lost his title and professional credentials and five years of his professional career. (He was also sentenced to five years in prison, though he never served, as he successfully appealed his conviction for “draft evasion.”)

There were the two sprinters, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, at the 1968 Olympics who raised the Black Power fist to protest segregation. They were thrown out of the Olympic Games.

There was Duane Thomas, a star running back for the Dallas Cowboys who protested his poverty wages. The Cowboys said there was no more money; Thomas refused to talk to the media, and was portrayed as an angry black man. He helped the Cowboys win their first Super Bowl and was traded immediately following the victory, so he never really got his payday.

There was the great sprinter Jessie Owens, forced to race trains and horses to put food on the table after his 1936 Olympic victories.

There was the national hero Joe Louis, who was in such constant debt that he had to work as a greeter at Las Vegas casinos to earn a steady income.

And there’s Colin Kaepernick, who has been blacklisted by every other NFL team since he became a free agent early this year, and will probably never play professional football again.

The troubles of the black athlete are in many ways the same as the ordeal of the average black male. If you are working and productive, America seems to tolerate you. But, if that black male gets injured (and can no longer “perform”), or speaks out against injustice, or steps out of line in any way, America does not seem to have any tolerance for him.

When you think about it, America has no patience for anyone who is not working or productive—within their allotted place. The pregnant mom with a steady job had to fight for maternity leave. All women are still fighting for gender equality. The line worker had to fight for a safe work environment and decent pay. Blacks and Latinos had to fight for civil rights—and are still fighting those who try to deny them the right to vote.

All black men have had to fight hard to carve out a space in the American Dream. Because we had to fight for everything that we now have, we have earned the right to protest any way that we want to … including kneeling during the National Anthem. After all, if there’s anything else that really is as “all-American” as apple pie and football, it’s fighting for equality.

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