I remembered these bitter charges as controversy dogged the announcement this month that Jay-Z’s company, Roc Nation, had signed a contract with the National Football League to advise on live music, entertainment and social justice projects. Jay had stood up for former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. He wore Kaepernick’s jersey while performing on “Saturday Night Live,” advised other performers to boycott the Super Bowl halftime show and rapped on 2018’s “Apes---,” “I said no to the Super Bowl: You need me, I don’t need you/ Every night we in the end zone, tell the NFL we in stadiums, too.” Now he’s doing business with the organization that colluded to banish Kaepernick for kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice. Associated Press sports columnist Paul Newberry called Jay a “total sellout,” suggesting he’d buried his conscience in cash. Kaepernick’s lawyer said Jay’s “cold blooded” move “crosses the intellectual picket line.” Jay’s justification : “I think we’ve moved past kneeling. I think it’s time for action.”
Kaepernick and Jay-Z are not the modern-day equivalents of Malcom and King, but those pairs reflect an eternal tension — the outside agitators who apply pressure and the inside activators who patrol the halls of power, bringing knowledge and wisdom — in civil rights and black freedom movements. King worked with the Eisenhower, Johnson and Kennedy administrations to better conditions for black folk and to craft civil rights legislation. Jay, for his part, has advocated for social justice in his music and beyond the stage for more than two decades — by writing op-eds and creating an organization to lobby for criminal justice reform; by bailing out Black Lives Matter protesters; by supplying legal help for black victims of racism; by creating documentaries about victims like Trayvon Martin and Kalief Browder; and by speaking out about police brutality and racial injustice.
The choice between Kaep and Jay, between Malcolm and King, is a false one. We need all of them, and it is far too early to judge what Jay will make of this opportunity with the NFL.
Jay’s action fits into a tradition of social protest, forged by Jesse Jackson, that extends King’s work: You protest a company — say a shoemaker or an auto dealership — for its unjust practices; you force those involved to acknowledge their error; you negotiate for better terms of engagement; you interact with the folk you once protested in an effort to make progress. In 1996, after several Texaco executives were taped making racist comments about 1,400 black employees who had filed a class-action discrimination suit against the company, Jackson organized a picket protest, then forged connections with Texaco board members that led to a corporate mea culpa and an out-of-court settlement of more than $175 million with the company’s black workers.
This reflected a shift in civil rights strategy from street protests to suite participation. Jackson leveraged the threat of boycotts and the rhetoric of persuasion to get more blacks placed on corporate boards, compel banks and major companies to direct more business to minority-owned contractors, and help integrate more black and other minority folk into the nation’s economic power base.
It is true that the NFL did not explicitly acknowledge wrongdoing in Kaepernick’s case, though the league did settle his grievance lawsuit in February, suggesting that it recognized his claim of collusion as a real legal threat. Jay cannot make a team hire Kaepernick, and perhaps Roc Nation could have refused a contract until Kaepernick got a job, which would have been a just outcome. But it is also true that social justice doesn’t hinge exclusively on Kaepernick’s employment. The fact that many team owners support an openly racist president demands an attempt to grapple with them. And it may be a sign of progress that those same owners got into business with a rapper who calls President Trump a “superbug.” Jay’s noisy opposition to white nationalism is just as important as how his partnership may provide the league cover.
Jay did not write off protest when he said we are “past kneeling.” He simply cast Kaepernick as a runner in a relay race rather than a boxer fighting alone in the ring. The Players Coalition, for instance, was founded in 2017 by Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins and former receiver Anquan Boldin to tie kneeling to serious and thoughtful action. It promotes social justice advocacy, education and distribution of resources on the local, state and federal levels. When it accepted nearly $90 million from the NFL to advance its agenda in November 2017, then-49ers safety Eric Reid, Kaepernick’s courageous compatriot, called the thoughtful Jenkins a “sellout” and a “neocolonialist.”
But consider its efforts so far. As part of the $89 million that the players got the NFL to commit over a seven-year period, $8.5 million was allocated in 2018. Players identified key issues of racial and social inequality where they thought they could make the biggest impact, including police and community relations, criminal justice reform, and educational and economic advancement. Players led the working group that distributed millions to the Advancement Project, the Center for Policing Equity, the National Juvenile Defender Center, the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, the Campaign for Black Male Achievement, the Civil Rights Corps and VOTE. After Trump canceled a White House invitation to celebrate the Eagles’ 2018 Super Bowl victory, Jenkins skipped a traditional news conference and drew attention with a series of signs clarifying that player protests weren’t about the national anthem but about social inequality.
When white institutions and individuals sincerely ask for help, it is a good thing to supply it. (That sincerity may be doubted and only later revealed to be genuine, or the request may begin as insincere but evolve with more contact and better understanding.) Malcolm X once famously rebuffed a young white student who tracked him down in New York to ask what she could do to help the cause. His response took her aback: “Nothing.” It makes for great theater and dramatic storytelling, but it was the wrong answer.
Things are never ideal, and systems of white oppression co-opt us all: teachers, leaders, advocates, athletes, organizers. Look at me. I have spent nearly five decades — in speeches, books, my courses — advocating for social justice. I also work at Georgetown University, a school that sold 272 enslaved souls, including children, to bankroll its future. This is how the world works: All of us have blood on our hands and dirt beneath our nails, and we can scarcely afford to reject every institution we encounter as irretrievably tainted.
The charge of being a sellout, and the instinct to “cancel” people indicted in this way, often comes full circle. (Malcolm was later deemed a traitor to his cause and murdered by members of his own group.) The language of betrayal cannot provide lasting moral satisfaction. Instead, we need a vocabulary of moral accountability and social responsibility that is nuanced and capacious, giving us air to breathe and room to grow.
Jay’s deal with the NFL represents a valid and potentially viable attempt to raise awareness of injustice to black folk, and to inspire the league to embrace just action for the black masses. It may fail — and it certainly should not be used to diminish Kaepernick’s noble, iconic battle — but the effort is not a repudiation of justice. It is an attempt to make justice real for black folk far beyond the elite circles in which Jay and Kaepernick travel. Jay-Z, whose résumé is suffused with activism that cost him money instead of accruing him profit, has earned the right to try this. Even if Jay stands to make a tidy sum with the NFL, his history suggests that he has put his money where his ethics are — and declined to let his capitalist instincts outweigh his ethical imagination. Alongside scolding, resisting, protesting and cajoling, there is a need for strategy, planning, listening, learning and moving forward to test the application of principles embodied by people like Kaepernick.
Jay and Kaepernick will not be the last civil rights activists who represent different poles of the movement. This history is rich: King, Rosa Parks, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Freedom Riders, the Congress of Racial Equality and a host of other organizations occasionally bickered over methods and messaging and strategy. Iconic figures got bruised (James Baldwin, iced from speaking at the 1963 March on Washington, felt wounded but still kept up the freedom fight), swept aside (Ella Baker didn’t get her due when working with King’s sexist organization) or minimized (grass-roots activist Fannie Lou Hamer wasn’t universally applauded by black elites when she lived).
It is not wrong for Kaepernick to receive every nickel he has earned from Nike and the NFL, or for Reid and Jenkins to continue to get paid for their talents in the league they push to do the right thing. And it is hardly wrong for Jay-Z to do well while doing good. They are all motivated by grand ideals and good ends. Even Malcolm X, once he freed himself from his earlier narrow views, concluded that “Dr. King wants the same thing I want — freedom!” So does Colin Kaepernick. So does Jay-Z. And so should we.
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