Do you want to make 1968 Olympic medalist John Carlos angry? Describe the iconic black-gloved fist that he pumped to the heavens as a “Black Power salute.” As he has explained to me often, “Black Power is a beautiful thing. But in 1968, raising your fist meant ‘power to the people.’ I wanted my fist to represent power to all oppressed people on the earth. I think the media has called it ‘Black Power’ because then the gesture becomes something that is just for black people and it segregates the message and the message is that we need to come together to rise up.”
Another way to upset John Carlos is to ignore the role of his dear friend the late silver-medalist Peter Norman in the protest. The white Australian did not raise a fist, but he stood with Carlos and Smith, wearing a button that read “Olympic Project for Human Rights.” Carlos says, “They write Peter out on purpose so white athletes don’t have him as a hero or an example.”
I thought about this when assessing the lack of white, male professional participation in Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protests against police violence. These athletic protests are going viral, yet while white women in the WNBA and white high-school football players and volleyball players have proudly joined their brown and black teammates, no white, male professional athlete has taken a knee or raised a fist as of this writing.
The opposition to Kaepernick’s protest—from the police unions to Beltway pundits to an online army of bigots—wants to ensure that this protest against police violence stays as segregated as possible. If high-profile white NFL or Major League Baseball players start to kneel in solidarity with the idea that Black Lives Matter, then the law-and-order crowd loses racism as the most effective tool in their kit to keep this movement quarantined.
But people should not confuse the inaction of white athletes with an absence of thought about what it means when people on your team, people you call “family,” are in pain. This past week there have been several comments that show that a small layer of white athletes are truly reckoning with what this movement means and how they can support it. Here are three notable statements.
Oakland A’s pitcher Sean Dolittle spoke to Doug Glanville of ESPN on the absence of activism in Major League Baseball and said:
As far as “I Can’t Breathe” or “Black Lives Matter” or the Kaepernick anthem demonstration, I feel uncomfortable speaking to that. I’d rather listen. Here are the facts though: The league is composed of over 60 percent white men. When so much of the league has a background or comes from a place where there might be more privilege and opportunity, it’s very difficult to relate to something they have never seen nor experienced. That’s human nature. People are slower to educate themselves and be informed about something if they have never experienced it. They might even downplay the level at which those problems exist. But that certainly doesn’t let people off the hook. My only experiences with police are when they stand guard in our bullpen or when they escort us to the airport. No one has ever questioned my legitimacy as a citizen or a homeowner or a pedestrian. But I can’t pretend it doesn’t happen just because it has never happened to me. If we are willing to have an open mind and empathize rather than immediately getting defensive, then maybe we can start a far more constructive dialogue that hopefully leads to addressing these problems.