I thought integration was supposed to “fix” everything for black people but the NFL proves otherwise. Black players fought decades for full inclusion and today the league is about 70 percent black. But black presence has not translated into black power — ask Colin Kaepernick. The head of the NFL Player’s Association, DeMaurice Smith, is also black. Smith has been actively fighting for Ezekiel Elliott to get back on the field — a man accused of domestic violence — but is largely silent on the issue of Colin Kaepernick. Something is deeply broken and integration clearly isn’t fixing it.
Washington’s franchise was the last to integrate, having done so in 1962. As black people today are boycotting the NFL due to Kaepernick’s treatment, black organizations like CORE and the NACCP targeted the owner of the Washington team with boycotts during the 1950’s. The fight was to get black players integrated into a white organization and ultimately that fight was won. But what value is that victory when, according to Green Bay Packers tight end Martellus Bennett, players are afraid to speak out because “They fear for their jobs, they fear for their well-being?” Martellus’ brother Michael was just recently involved in an incident in which Las Vegas police, according to Michael, pulled a gun on him and threatened to shoot him. Michael likely represents just one more black NFL player who cannot depend on unqualified support from his colleagues. Ezekiel Elliott has no such worry because he represents the violation of a woman’s body and not white men’s unquestioned power over black bodies.
Whether we work for an NFL owner or a progressive nonprofit, black people wrestle with these same realities daily. How black can we be and still keep our job? How much “pro-black” stuff can we post on Facebook before we make our colleagues or a potential employer uncomfortable? When one of our black colleagues experiences an injustice, how wise would it be to stand with them? The NFL is simply a microcosm of daily black life. That is, we as black people are trying to navigate spaces in which our presence is thought to be the ultimate sign of progress. Even so, we are keenly aware that our presence must be muted if we are to maintain it. Daily we observe injustice and endure microaggressions but we understand that to advocate for ourselves might ultimately be our downfall. It is a quiet torture.
Like the NFL players Martellus Bennett described, many of us are afraid everyday of our lives. Those whom we work for and with have no clue. We may be employed but we are certainly not free. As Marvin Gaye so eloquently said, “This ain’t living.” All of this points to the need for black institutions. Yes, it is nice that black people can exist in white spaces in 2017 but existing and freely living are very different. Integration certainly opened up avenues of entry but it didn’t necessarily guarantee true freedom once inside. We shouldn’t forget that and we most certainly should not begin to believe that black institutions are unnecessary.
You may hate what Louis Farrakhan says but he speaks freely because he heads a black institution supported by black people. Charles Barkley on the other hand? Not so much. We must learn from that. I don’t care to enter into integrated spaces if the price of admission is to check my true convictions at the door and remain silent. That is too high a price to pay. Integration is fine and we should take advantage of it but we should also be clear that black institutions are truly a necessity today, just as they were before integration. We must choose to build our own and live freely.