Why They Kneel: Injustice and Inequality in the Land of the Steelers and Buccaneers

Illustration for article titled Why They Kneel: Injustice and Inequality in the Land of the Steelers and Buccaneers
Image: Michael Harriot (iStock/The Root/FMG)

To examine the injustice and inequality that prompted some NFL players to protest during the national anthem, each week, for the remainder of the NFL season, The Root will explore the data behind racial disparities in the two cities represented in the National Football League’s premiere matchup—Monday Night Football.


Tonight, the Pittsburgh Steelers travel to Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla. to take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

On August 30, 2016, four days after Colin Kaepernick made that statement, a SWAT team burst into a home in Clair-Mel neighborhood of Tampa, Fla. looking for 22-year-old Levonia Riggins. According to the Tampa Bay Times, deputies alleged that undercover officers had purchased marijuana from Riggins, so they brought a SWAT team to serve a search warrant for the residence.

Riggins, who is black, was in bed and refused to come out of the bedroom. When the officers broke a window in the rear of the house, they could see that their suspect was under the covers. Riggins fell between a space between the wall and the bed and officers yelled for him to stand up and come out. When Wiggins stood up, Caleb Johnson, a 32-year veteran of the Hillsborough County, Fla. Sheriff’s Department, shot Riggins dead.

The sheriff’s department says that, before the incident, their “risk assessment” on Riggins concluded that he was a high-risk threat to officers. As a juvenile, Riggins was one of eight siblings who all ended up in foster care. He had been arrested on numerous occasions, but none of his past convictions involved violence or guns. Deputy Johnson, who is white and the nephew of a powerful Florida politician, was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing.

Police never recovered a weapon at the scene of Riggins’ death.

The SWAT team’s search turned up a minuscule two grams of marijuana.

This is why they kneel.

When discussing the disparities in police shootings, it is easy to dismiss incidents like Riggins’ or the case of Antwon Rose, the 17-year-old unarmed Pittsburgh teen who was shot and killed in June. While these singular stories might attract protests and media attention, there are those who don’t believe the tales of disproportionate police violence. For them, dead black bodies are as meaningless as the charred remains of discount bin Payless Nikes.


But when one looks at the available data, it shows that injustice and inequality are more symbolic of America’s treatment of black people than any flag or anthem could ever be.

Police Brutality

Instead of looking at the small data set on police killings, in 2017, the Tampa Bay Times sifted through news articles, police reports, lawsuits and autopsies to examine the numbers on all police shootings in the state of Florida from 2009 until 2014. When they collected every piece of evidence they could find, they discovered a few disturbing facts:

  • Of the 827 people who were shot by police officers in the state of Florida, 343 were black and 330 were white, even though whites outnumber blacks in the state 3 to 1.
  • When the Times removed the most obviously justifiable officer-involved shootings, the number of African Americans shot by law enforcement officers under questionable circumstances was more than double the number of whites shot by police officers.
  • Florida cops shot unarmed black citizens at twice the rate of whites, and black people were also twice as likely to be shot after being pulled over for a minor traffic violation.
  • Blacks were three times more likely than whites to be shot during a foot chase or for a minor crime like smoking or shoplifting.
  • African Americans were four times more likely than whites to be shot in the back.
  • In fact, between 2009 and 2014, police in Florida shot a black person under questionable circumstances at a rate of exactly once every month.
  • And while blacks make up 16 percent of the population of Hillsborough County, Fla, the county in which Tampa Bay sits, they were 38 percent of the people shot by police.

Now let’s compare that to Pennsylvania.

Oh, wait, we can’t.

Pennsylvania, like most states, does not report officer-involved shootings, so we can only examine the smaller data set of police killings, using various media databases. Here’s what we found:


But the protests are not just about the disparities in people who are shot and or killed by police. Both cities in the NFL’s Monday night contest have a long list of inequities when it comes to race.


When the Herald-Tribune did an extensive study on sentencing bias in Florida, it found that for every 202 days a white person spends incarcerated for felony drug possession, a black person spends 338 days in prison for the same crime. In a state with some of the most biased sentencing in the country, Hillsborough County, where Tampa is the largest city, ranks 26th out of Florida’s 67 counties when it comes to sentencing bias. In Tampa’s courtrooms, blacks convicted of felony drug possession get 35 percent more time behind bars than white drug dealers. Any 2nd-degree felony in Tampa will net a black defendant 89 percent more time than a white person who committed the same crime.


If you think Florida is bad, Pennsylvania is even worse.

Pennsylvania has the highest rate of incarceration in the Northeast, according to the ACLU of Pennsylvania. And while Florida incarcerates 3.6 black people for every white person, Pennsylvania locks up 8.9 black people for every white person it imprisons, reports the Sentencing Project. Despite both races having the same rate of drug use, African Americans in Pittsburgh are arrested for drug violations at five times the rate of whites, according to the University of Pittsburgh’s Center on Race and Social Problems.



According to Statistical Atlas, the median household income for a non-Hispanic white in Tampa is $63,000 per year, more than double the $27,400 median income of black families. In Pittsburgh, white families earn a median income of $51,200, while black families earn $26,100 annually.


Data USA looked at the five most common jobs in Tampa (miscellaneous managers, teachers, retail employees, and customer service workers and cashiers) and found that white workers earned more than black employees working the same jobs in each industry. Although the wage disparities were much closer in Pittsburgh, whites still out-earned blacks in four of the five most common jobs (miscellaneous managers, teachers, truck drivers and secretaries). However, the average black registered nurse in Pittsburgh made more than the average white registered nurse.

Much of this imbalance could be due to the education gap in these two NFL locales. A 2015 project by data scientist David Mosenkis revealed that, in Pennsylvania, the bigger a school’s black population, the less funding it receives. Many school districts in Florida are resegregating, according to the Leroy Collins Institute at Florida State.


“This is not just a numerical gap,” says the report. “But a gap in school resources, education quality, academic achievement, and the environment around the school.”

This phenomenon is evident in the areas surrounding Pittsburgh and Tampa, where students at schools right down the street from each other are separated by racial barriers, income, resources and—ultimately—test scores. Although cities all over America exhibit disproportionate funding in majority black schools, Tampa and Pittsburgh each used public funds to finance the NFL stadiums in their respective cities.


Exactly one year ago today, Mike Evans, who was regarded by Sports Illustrated as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ best player, and Desean Jackson, who SI listed as the Bucs’ second-best player, knelt during the playing of the national anthem. The same day in Chicago, every player on the Pittsburgh Steelers, except for Alejandro Villanueva, stayed in the locker room during the national anthem.


As the players knelt, Leon Ford prepared himself for the next day. He told a jury about the two cops who stopped him as he was driving in Pittsburgh because they thought he someone else. After Ford tried to tell them he wasn’t Lamont Ford, a gang member, and refused to exit his car, officer David Derbish shot Ford five times in the chest, paralyzing him for life.

At those games, and at every game since that day, NFL fans are still able to hear the national anthem in spite of the players’ silent protests. The demonstrations did not cause America to disintegrate into a cloud of dust. Not a single person was harmed, and the Constitution still stands.


And Leon Ford is still paralyzed.

And Antwon Rose is still dead.

And Levonia Riggins is still dead.

And that star-spangled banner still waves over the land of the free and the home of the brave.

World-renowned wypipologist. Getter and doer of "it." Never reneged, never will. Last real negus alive.



I knew it was bad but the looking at the numbers make it so much worse.