Colin Kaepernick has done more than most to increase the urgency for criminal justice reform and racial equality. He has withstood being vilified by those who care more about a quiet state of injustice than an uncomfortable peace, including President Donald Trump. He has lost the ability to use his enormous athletic ability at the highest level because he’s refused to back down from a peaceful protest that has highlighted racial disparities and unjust police shootings. He has sacrificed for the greater good even when he could have chosen to just go along and continue making his millions.
That’s why he has been—rightly—lauded in numerous ways, including recently by Harvard University. But he still got one thing horribly wrong: he did not vote in the 2016 elections and said it didn’t matter who won.
“You know, I think it would be hypocritical of me to vote,” Kaepernick told reporters in 2016. “I said from the beginning I was against oppression, I was against the system of oppression. I’m not going to show support for that system. And to me, the oppressor isn’t going to allow you to vote your way out of your oppression.”
We now know how wrong Kaepernick was about voting not mattering. While there were legitimate reasons to not have loved the idea of Hillary Clinton as president—given her “superpredator” past—there’s little doubt that had she been in office the past two years, there would not have been a massive rollback of civil rights enforcement. Hillary’s Justice Department would not have pulled back on the kind of comprehensive oversight of police departments that began to take hold during the Obama era. It is unlikely so many immigrant children would have been stolen from their parents. Visits to the White House by high-profile actors and activists and presidents of HBCUs would not have simply been empty photo ops; they would have been real opportunities to press the Clinton administration to uphold the promises it made to black voters. And, of course, the Supreme Court would by now have likely included Merrick Garland and another Hillary appointee instead of a man credibly-accused of sexual assault.
Kaepernick is right that neither the Democratic Party nor Republican Party is perfect or has been ideal for the advancement of rights for black Americans. Each party has a history of supporting racist policies that have hurt countless people, as well as implementing a drug war and criminal justice tactics that have done the same. That’s been true since the founding of this country. It is true even today.
But it is also true that as of this moment, the parties are worlds apart. One is much more likely to push forward the kinds of policies Kaepernick, Black Lives Matter and other racial justice proponents crave, while the other elected a man who ran on open bigotry to win his party’s nomination, then the White House. That does not mean black people should rely solely upon political actors to get us closer to a state of equality. That would be a foolish bet, of that Kaepernick is correct. Still, it makes no sense to throw the baby out with the bath water. Until we see massive change from the GOP—and I mean massive—it is clear the Democratic Party is more likely to at least attempt to enact needed change.
We will still need the kind of on-the-ground, organic activism Kaepernick and the founders of Black Lives Matter have shown us, no matter who is in office. That’s true. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter who is in office—because it clearly does.