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January 13, 2018

SHELBY STEELE: Black Protest Has Lost Its Power: Have whites finally found the courage to judge African-Americans fairly by universal standards?

The recent protests by black players in the National Football League were rather sad for their fruitlessness. They may point to the end of an era for black America, and for the country generally—an era in which protest has been the primary means of black advancement in American life.

There was a forced and unconvincing solemnity on the faces of these players as they refused to stand for the national anthem. They seemed more dutiful than passionate, as if they were mimicking the courage of earlier black athletes who had protested: Tommie Smith and John Carlos, fists in the air at the 1968 Olympics; Muhammad Ali, fearlessly raging against the Vietnam War; Jackie Robinson, defiantly running the bases in the face of racist taunts. The NFL protesters seemed to hope for a little ennoblement by association.

And protest has long been an ennobling tradition in black American life. From the Montgomery bus boycott to the march on Selma, from lunch-counter sit-ins and Freedom Rides to the 1963 March on Washington, only protest could open the way to freedom and the acknowledgment of full humanity. So it was a high calling in black life. It required great sacrifice and entailed great risk. Martin Luther King Jr. , the archetypal black protester, made his sacrifices, ennobled all of America, and was then shot dead.

For the NFL players there was no real sacrifice, no risk and no achievement. Still, in black America there remains a great reverence for protest. Through protest—especially in the 1950s and ’60s—we, as a people, touched greatness. Protest, not immigration, was our way into the American Dream. Freedom in this country had always been relative to race, and it was black protest that made freedom an absolute.

It is not surprising, then, that these black football players would don the mantle of protest. The surprise was that it didn’t work. They had misread the historic moment. They were not speaking truth to power. Rather, they were figures of pathos, mindlessly loyal to a black identity that had run its course.

What they missed is a simple truth that is both obvious and unutterable: The oppression of black people is over with. This is politically incorrect news, but it is true nonetheless. We blacks are, today, a free people. It is as if freedom sneaked up and caught us by surprise.

It threatens too many people’s rice bowls.