Workers Vanguard No. 1120
20 October 2017
Trump Bashes Black Football Players
The NFL, Racism and U.S. Imperialism
Donald Trump has declared war against black NFL players who refuse to stand for the national anthem. His white yahoo fan base ate up Trump’s September 22 call to arms, in which he denounced as a “son of a bitch” any athlete who “disrespects our flag.” After over 200 players engaged in anthem protests the next Sunday, rabid fans booed their own teams, a hostile display later topped off by a wave of jersey-burning. Two weeks later, Vice President Mike Pence staged a provocative walkout from the Colts-49ers game in his home state of Indiana. At one Missouri bar, a doormat was made out of the jerseys of Colin Kaepernick, who kicked off the anthem protests last season, and another protester, Marshawn Lynch of the Oakland Raiders. The jerseys were put together to read: “Lynch Kaepernick.” In the face of such blatant racist reaction, black athletes in the NFL and other sports courageously continue their protests, which have struck a chord among opponents of racial oppression nationwide.
The NFL is a multibillion-dollar business, its players almost 70 percent black, its owners and executives almost 100 percent white. Concerned that Trump’s in-your-face racism might provoke an uprising on their sports plantations, some of the filthy rich team owners, a number of them big Trump donors, linked arms with their players during the anthem. As revolting as it was cynical, this display of “unity” was not long-lived. The NFL masters, beginning with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, are now cracking the whip to get their players up on their feet for “The Star Spangled Banner,” the anthem of racist capitalist America, written by Maryland slaveholder Francis Scott Key.
On October 10, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell issued a letter to team executives and owners complaining that the dispute “is threatening to erode the unifying power of our game” and demanding resolution. Indeed, the whole purpose of playing the national anthem at sports events is to promote the myth of national unity, disappearing the stark class and racial divisions in this country, in order to rally the population behind the wars and military adventures of U.S. imperialism. The whole show in football was bought and paid for by the government, which shelled out millions to NFL owners and executives to promote an orgy of patriotism.
As reported by ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith, until 2009 players stayed in the locker room during the playing of the anthem. Moving them to the field was a “marketing strategy.” The Department of Defense, under President Barack Obama, paid the NFL $5.4 million between 2011 and 2014, and the National Guard paid $6.7 million between 2013 and 2015, to stage these patriotic ceremonies on the field.
The purpose of the spectacle is to facilitate roping in more poor and working-class youth to go off to fight the rich man’s wars against the downtrodden masses of the world. In 2010, the U.S. Army released a study titled Blacks in the U.S. Army, Then and Now. Pointing with concern to the decline of black recruitment, the study blamed so-called “Black influencers” for insufficiently motivating black youth to enlist.
Among the greatest of such “influencers” are those who have made it into the big leagues of American sports, one of the few professions where black people have the chance of making seven or eight figures in a few, short, brutal years. The price demanded by America’s racist rulers is that these players keep their heads down and their mouths shut. As NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar put it:
“As long as we keep shuffling and entertaining, express our gratitude and keep our mouths shut like small children, then we can stay. But if we mention the conditions of those people outside, we are threatened with expulsion from the white Garden of Eden.”
Such was the fate of Kaepernick, a former quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers. Over a year ago, Kaepernick defiantly announced: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.... There are bodies in the streets and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” This season the talented Kaepernick is out of a job, blackballed by NFL executives, many of whom have denounced him as a “traitor.” He has now filed a grievance charging the owners with collusion.
Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett, who was among the few NFL players to forthrightly defend Kaepernick’s protest against racist cop terror, is now the target of the police in Las Vegas after he visited the city for the Mayweather-McGregor fight. When gunshots rang out, the police grabbed Bennett, threw him to the ground, handcuffed him and held a gun to his head. After Bennett publicly protested, a letter to Goodell from the Las Vegas Police Protective Association demanded that the commissioner take action to silence this black player, noting his “disrespect for our Flag, and everything it symbolizes.” The NFL Players Association (NFLPA) must defend Bennett and all the anthem protesters.
In an appeal to his fellow players on October 13, Los Angeles Chargers tackle Russell Okung called for them to take collective action against racism: “As Kap’s message has now been distorted, co-opted and used to further divide us along the very racial lines he was highlighting, we as players have a responsibility to come together and respond collectively.” Indeed, the racial oppression of black people is the main weapon wielded by the capitalist rulers to divide the workers and weaken their struggles.
Many supporters of the protests argue that the protests themselves are an act of patriotism, an exercise of the right to freedom of speech and expression that is supposedly embodied in the “stars and stripes.” Typical is an October 11 NFLPA statement that professes “a tremendous respect for our country, our flag, our anthem and our military.” This country’s flag and anthem stand for the forcible subjugation of the majority of the black population at the bottom of this society, the raw exploitation of labor, and the carnage of marauding capitalist state forces, from the cops on the streets to the military overseas.
That reality isn’t going to change until the racist ruling class is brought to its knees by the multiracial working class—Teamsters, longshoremen, transit workers and so on—standing up and fighting. That means taking on the misleaders of the labor movement, whose loyalty is to U.S. imperialism. At almost every union meeting, members are expected to stand for the national anthem or the pledge of allegiance. This practice symbolizes the labor tops’ fundamental political outlook—their allegiance to the lie that higher profits for U.S. corporations will bring the good life to American working people. The red-white-and-blue trade-union bureaucrats must be ousted in a fight for a class-struggle leadership, one whose banner will be the red flag of international working-class solidarity! Such a leadership will prepare the workers for some hard-fought battles against the capitalist exploiters as part of forging a revolutionary workers party in which black workers will play a leading role.
For Black Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!
The reformist International Socialist Organization recently reprinted a column from the Nation by sports writer Dave Zirin, pointing to Trump’s full-throated racism, sexism and general megalomaniacal ravings. Zirin complains that Trump “belongs in a psychological textbook as a case study, not in the White House” (“Trump Spurs Athletes to Action,” socialistworker.org, 25 September). Actually, Trump is the id of racist American capitalism. That is, he expresses its most primal urges for domination without any hypocritical nods to “democratic values”—the cover for the dictatorship of the capitalist exploiters.
CounterPunch editor Jeffrey St. Clair, himself a radical liberal, incisively captured the Trump presidency in an August 18 column. Skewering the “mock outrage” from the bourgeois media to the Democratic Party over Trump’s apologias for the murderous armed fascist gangs that rampaged through the streets of Charlottesville with their swastikas, Confederate flags and torches, St. Clair pointed out:
“Trump is a familiar character to most of the world. He is the unvarnished embodiment of the American bully, who has stalked the planet for the last century taking what it wants and leaving corpses and ruin in its wake. There is in Trump no pretense to the humane, no guise of benevolence, or cloak of empathy.... The elites fear Trump because he gives the game away. He personifies the reality they’ve been working for decades to conceal.”
Barack Obama, in contrast, was a master at sugarcoating the brutality of American imperialist rule, at home and abroad. In 2016, he offered that while it was “tough” for the cops and military to stomach, Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem was “how democracy works.” Such pious pronouncements have made the Democratic Party the bourgeoisie’s preferred party to rally the nation for war. During Obama’s last year in office, the U.S. military bombed dark-skinned peoples in seven countries and had special forces in 70 percent of the world’s nations.
In the case of Charlottesville, even members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff issued statements denouncing “racial hatred” and proclaiming that “our diversity is our strength.” Behind the lip service to diversity stands imperialism’s need for its black soldiers: despite declining recruitment numbers, some 20 percent of active-duty enlisted personnel are black (well above the percentage of black people in the population at large). That is a fault line that America’s military commanders can ill afford to see ruptured by fascist gangs emboldened by the racist rants of the Commander-in-Chief.
Black soldiers have been part of every one of this country’s wars. Many black soldiers who served in World War I came home only to be lynched, many still in uniform, by white racist mobs. Black soldiers endured Jim Crow segregation in the military to fight in World War II, which the rulers lyingly claimed was a “war for democracy” against Hitler’s Nazis. When they returned, many black vets refused to go back to second-class citizenship. Robert F. Williams, a black Marine veteran, played a leading role in organizing members of his North Carolina NAACP chapter to arm themselves for self-defense during the civil rights struggles of the late 1950s. Hounded out of the U.S., Williams escaped to Cuba in 1961.
Amid the social upheavals of the 1960s, as younger activists rejected the pro-Democratic Party liberal politics of Martin Luther King Jr. and Co. and moved toward “black power” radicalism, black athletes became increasingly politicized. Muhammad Ali was stripped of his boxing title and livelihood for refusing to be drafted. Linking U.S. imperialism’s dirty war against the Vietnamese workers and peasants to the vicious oppression of black people in America, Ali defiantly proclaimed:
“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor, hungry people in the mud for big, powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me n----r, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father.”
Today, the mainly black football players put their bodies, and ultimately their lives, on the line to entertain heavily white crowds of spectators. Like a latter-day Roman emperor, Trump treats black NFL players like gladiators who should honor the U.S. imperialist empire by getting their brains bashed out on the field and be grateful “for the privilege of making millions of dollars.”
Ordered to respect the flag, black athletes are expected to ignore the vicious, racist reality of America. But it doesn’t ignore them or their families. If the cops can threaten to blow off the head of a millionaire sports star like Michael Bennett, if NBA superstar LeBron James can have the gate of his Brentwood mansion spray-painted with the “N” word, what black person in America is safe? But capitalism has not simply spawned victims. It has also created its own gravedigger, the multiracial working class, without whose labor the capitalist owners cannot reap their riches. Black workers, who remain a significant force in strategic industries, are potentially the most combative section of the working class.
The road to black freedom and to breaking the chains of wage slavery lies in the struggle to forge a revolutionary internationalist workers party that fights for a workers government. As we wrote in our article, “Salute Colin Kaepernick’s Protest Against Cop Terror!” (WV No. 1095, 9 September 2016), “The anthem of this fight will be the words of the ‘Internationale’: ‘No more tradition’s chains shall bind us; Arise, ye slaves no more in thrall! The earth shall rise on new foundations; We have been naught, we shall be all!’”