Neither Michael Vick nor Ray Lewis is a coon. They simply have no interest in going toe-to-toe with white supremacy. And Colin Kaepernick has no interest in being a well-behaved, respectable Negro to get a job in the National Football League.
Such behavior will not liberate black people, and he knows it. His stance is bigger than throwing the pigskin, which is what Vick and Lewis fail to grasp in their respectability-laced commentary about Kaepernick.
Vick’s and Lewis’ own muddled pasts with the law—like lying about running a dogfighting ring (Vick) and pleading guilty to obstruction of justice in a case involving the killing of two people (Lewis)—make them curious options to trumpet their respectable instructions to a man who has never been in trouble with the law.
But their murky pasts don’t disqualify them from embracing the respectable mores that have earned the respect of white NFL elites determined to punish Kaepernick for his activism.
In effect, Lewis and Vick have become a reformed version of respectability designed to keep black men like Kaepernick in their place.
To be clear, being respectable is not about “cooning.” Instead, it’s a well-meaning survival tactic, even if it often risks subjugating our humanity for white approval. When Vick advised Kaepernick to cut his hair (a statement he quickly walked back), I believe he was looking out for the player’s best interests. And Lewis’ Facebook video post Tuesday afternoon advising him to stay quiet about his off-the-field social justice work came from a place of sincere concern.
Just play football.
Get a roster spot.
You’ve done your part.
Don’t talk about that race stuff too much.
This is very typical, well-meaning, respectable advice that some black people have lived by for generations in hopes of not making white folks angry. Of course, detractors on social media have raked Lewis and Vick over the coals, calling the men Uncle Toms. Such responses are understandable but fail to flesh out the complex realities of how black people elect to survive in a country that wages a violent, nonstop campaign against our well-being. The chasm between Kaepernick and the respectable black men calling for him to recalibrate his approach stems from two very divergent outlooks.
Kaepernick is indicting white supremacy. Vick and Lewis are simply trying to survive in it. The two approaches will never reconcile; nor should they.
Black people are rarely aloof from the racism around them, and many work vigorously to fend it off the best they know how. These are people who tend to support civil rights movements in spirit but do not actively participate in the day-to-day machinery. There are some black people, like Vick and Lewis, who brace against the heavy blows of racism by trying to perfect their own behavior. They do not openly condemn the system. Focusing on the myth of “black-on-black crime” is their preferred method of dealing with racism, not taking on those who administer it.
Then you have the select few who dismiss the warnings of their friends and family members to march in the streets, stage sit-ins and, in the case of Kaepernick, kneel before a flag that falsely symbolizes justice and liberty for all Americans and call out that hypocrisy.
Such black people will never be fully embraced by wealthy white men who control payrolls or the black people who serve as their shepherds. It is perfectly clear that Kaepernick doesn’t desire white acceptance. Yes, he wants a job, but he will not sacrifice his devotion to the movement in place of it, either. Walking the road of black liberation that ultimately confronts the overseers of white supremacy is not for everyone.
This is not to say that Lewis doesn’t care about his community. He gives a lot of his time to charity and is “on the streets every day,” as he said in his recent video. Vick is beloved in his hometown of Virginia Beach, Va., for his charitable giving. But there is a stark difference between giving your time to charity or mentoring young people and sacrificing your career for the movement. The two are incomparable and cannot be measured on the same scale of devotion to our communities.
Black folk like Kaepernick who are willing to call out the barbaric practices of white supremacy and risk their livelihoods doing so have always been a high-premium breed in chronically short supply. Their respectable detractors, however, are plentiful and wholesaled for white supremacist consumption with Walmart efficiency.
Nyasha Junior, an assistant professor of theology at Temple University, said that Vick’s and Lewis’ critiques may be designed to undermine Kaepernick’s activism in favor of marketing themselves as the more preferable black male role model.
“One questions how much of this is a performance,” she told me. “How much of this is you not offering advice to Kaepernick, but performing in a way as to say, ‘I think blackness should be done like this and not this way. You should focus on the field and you need to braid up your hair. You need to spend your time and energy doing community service in these ways, but not in other ways’?”
Floyd Patterson personified the respectability that Lewis and Vick are performing in a 1964 Sports Illustrated article in which he vowed to “destroy” Muhammad Ali—whom he referred to as Cassius Clay, despite his recently announced name change—for not being a champion whom white people could respect. (Ali destroyed him in their 1965 fight.) Patterson went as far as comparing the Nation of Islam to the Ku Klux Klan.
“He denounced Ali as being racist, not representing what we are and being bad for the civil rights movement,” Louis Moore, an associate professor of history at Grand Valley State University, said. “What happens with these athletes, whether you are a Floyd Patterson or a Ray Lewis or a Mike Vick or these other guys who aren’t activist athletes, is that they are conditioned to be a certain way. If you step out of line, there is an immediate backlash.”
That backlash against Kaepernick isn’t limited to white Americans who insist on black people staying in their place; it’s also buoyed by black men like Lewis and Vick who have accepted theirs. In the white supremacist America that Vick and Lewis have accepted, Kaepernick is the criminal and they are the stewards of proper black male behavior. What both men are teaching the nation is that black men can fall from grace after committing or being accused of the most heinous of crimes and reclaim eligibility to be “good Negroes.” As long as they do not challenge the institutions of racism or the way the white men who sign their checks operate, they can have a seat at the table, which is exactly where Lewis and Vick desire to be.
How else can you explain how Vick, who was convicted for lying about running a dog ring, and Lewis, who was linked to the deaths of two people, are now the elder black men called on to instruct Kaepernick on how to be presentable to the white overlords in the NFL?
Zandria Robinson, an assistant professor of sociology at Rhodes College, told me that part of Vick and Lewis’ post-scandal rehabilitation is pushing against this notion that black male athletes are above the law, and are now accepted forms of safe, black male decorum, which consequently blurs the actions of a convicted felon and a law-abiding protester.
“They have become these race men where everything needs to be done in moderation,” she said. “Even if it’s protest. There is this idea about pushing back against the idea of the black male athlete as excessive: too big, too black, too loud, shimmying too much in the end zone. Unfortunately, they have put Kaepernick’s protests in a box that includes unnecessary roughness, and, implicitly, murder and dogfighting.”
That is not being a “coon” or an “Uncle Tom.” That’s just being a coward. It is easy to pressure Kaepernick. It’s another to take on the structures of police brutality, look its main culprit in the eye and risk it all for your community.
I hate to use a line from a Quentin Tarantino movie, but Kaepernick is that “one nigga in 10,000.” Lewis and Vick are part of the 9,999. Not everyone can fight the power. That is fine. But respectable Negroes should not weigh down Kaepernick with their own biases and discomforts about the movement because he’s willing to sacrifice for his people in ways they fail to appreciate. Kaepernick is in a privileged position to take stands that most of us cannot in our daily lives.
Do we speak up when we see racist hiring practices in our department and risk our jobs, or do we say nothing and play the game in order to preserve our paychecks? When an officer illegally pulls us over during a traffic stop, do we take the ticket, then fight it at the courthouse? Or do we pull out our cameras and document the injustice at the risk of getting handcuffed—or worse? How much racism we choose to deal with as black people really comes down to how we want to live in the world around us.
“Frankly, the majority are the people who are out there working every day and making their way the best they can and following the rules,” said Terri Givens, provost of Menlo College, whose research explores how white supremacy affects black people. “Like the women who relax their hair because they can’t wear their hair in a natural. The majority are the people who are following what their parents told them to do and doing the things that are going to get them by.”
Kaepernick doesn’t want to just “get by,” which is what Mike Vick and Ray Lewis are encouraging him to do. But I wouldn’t call them coons for that. Vick and Lewis simply have a different approach to helping liberate black people from the racism and humiliation that Kaepernick is fighting. Cool. Not everyone has the grit of an activist. It’s just unfortunate that Vick and Lewis are so willing to interrogate Kaepernick’s bravery against racism for white supremacist consumption in the process.