“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
This quote by Martin Luther King Jr. provides the paradigm for black political engagement with these United States at the beginning of the 21st Century. In the struggle to liberate ourselves we must be ever mindful that our freedom will always be defined by all those who remain the most oppressed among us.
Over the last several weeks, President Trump has declared war on NFL players (75 percent of whom are African-American) and their 1st Amendment right to free expression. He also attacked the contraceptive freedom of American women. What do these two seemingly unrelated events have in common other than being precipitated by an emotionally unhinged, intellectually and morally deranged president?
The American lexicon has always given freedom or liberty a preeminent status. But at the inception of the Republic, the idea of freedom or liberty applied only to white men with property. African-American men and women were considered property, and white women had no civil rights to speak of but were totally subordinate to white men. The American psychology evolved with white men inherently feeling they had license over anyone or anything that was not a white man.
White men exercised this license by defining what authority people of color and women had over their bodies (none). The premise of American life at its inception was that people of color and women have no inalienable rights, so what they are allowed to do with their bodies is a function of what white men permit.
After 240 years, African Americans are no longer legally regarded as chattel property and white women can vote. However the American psychology presumes both of these as the largesse of white men, not the redress of crimes against humanity. The attack on black NFL players and the assault on women’s reproductive rights should be viewed from this perspective.
The NFL is to America what gladiators and the Coliseum was to Ancient Rome. On Sunday, black men risk life and limb in the arena for the financial benefit of rich white men and the entertainment of an overwhelmingly white male audience. The insistence by Trump and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones that these black players recognize their symbols of authority at the beginning of this death match is equivalent to gladiators facing the insane emperor and the Roman mob to proclaim, “We who are about to die salute you!”
Colin Kaepernick taking a knee to protest state-sponsored violence against black men is an assertion of his full humanity and ours. Gladiators could enjoy great fame and some fortune in their all-too-short lives, but history only remembers one. Colin Kaepernick is our Spartacus. The question is: How many NFL players are prepared to say, “I’m Kaepernick”?
Patriarchal cultures are based upon one governing premise: that men have an inherent right to control women’s bodies. The highest manifestation of this in America is right-wing, reactionary men making the claim that they, not women, have the right to determine when women may choose to become mothers. We should be morally outraged by the insane notion that men, who are biologically incapable of giving birth, claim the right to determine when women can. This speaks to pervasive and entrenched nature of male privilege in American culture.
Sexism and racism are intellectual rationalizations for the same political reality: white male privilege. The presidency of Barack Obama and the near election of Hillary Clinton were existential threats to that hegemony. The dismantling of the Obama legacy is nothing more the modern version of an ancient practice, attempting to eliminate the historical record. The attack on women’s reproductive health is an attempt at intimidating women to “accept their place.”
Because of this reality, black political leadership must create a political agenda that defines our interests in broad and inclusive terms. You cannot advance the interest of black Americans without standing up for the interests of all other oppressed segments of Americans society. We must come to know what Dr. King understood, or as James Baldwin wrote to Angela Davis, “If they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.”
Mike Jones is a former senior staffer in St. Louis city and county government and current member of the Missouri State Board of Education and The St. Louis American editorial board.