Shelby Steele: Failed NFL Anthem Protests Show Black Protest Has Lost Its Power

AP-Matt-Dunham
AP Photo/Matt Dunham

Social commentator Shelby Steele recently wrote an editorial for the Wall Street Journal wondering if the protests by black NFL players during the playing of the national anthem, signals the end of any weight being placed on public protests by blacks in America today.

With so many whites turned off by the NFL protests, Steele wonders if white Americans have 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,” Steele wrote in his January 12 editorial. “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.”

Steele went on to call the player protests “forced and unconvincing” and said they were more “dutiful” than passionate. It was, Steele said of the protests, “as if they were mimicking the courage of earlier black athletes who had protested.”

Indeed, Steele said, past African-American protesters took on real-life risk with their actions. “Martin Luther King Jr., the archetypal black protester, made his sacrifices, ennobled all of America, and was then shot dead,” he noted.

But such protests once opened “the way to freedom and the acknowledgment of full humanity,” Steele said. And they were vital to the advancement of the black community.

But are they still? Steele doubts it.

“For the NFL players there was no real sacrifice, no risk, and no achievement,” he said.

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.

Steele goes on to note that there is still racism in America because “Racism is endemic to the human condition, just as stupidity is. ”

But he thinks the U.S. has finally arrived at a point where “that point already has been made” and where “racism has become anathema and freedom has expanded.”

Steele points out that blacks in America are now responsible for their own failings and that they can’t simply lay all their troubles on “white racism.”

To hear, for example, that more than 4,000 people were shot in Chicago in 2016 embarrasses us because this level of largely black-on-black crime cannot be blamed simply on white racism.

We can say that past oppression left us unprepared for freedom. This is certainly true. But it is no consolation. Freedom is just freedom. It is a condition, not an agent of change. It does not develop or uplift those who win it. Freedom holds us accountable no matter the disadvantages we inherit from the past. The tragedy in Chicago — rightly or wrongly — reflects on black America.

Steele then warns blacks not to fall into the trap of assuming that freedom is a mirage held out by racist whites to hide white racism. He calls on blacks to beware the lies of recent theories of “systemic” and “structural” racism, racist “microaggressions,” and “white privilege.”

He pleads with blacks to stop “giving victimization the charisma of black authenticity.”

Steele then slams the NFL protests as hollow protests that aren’t really about injustice.

“Instead such protests are usually genuflections to today’s victim-focused black identity. Protest is the action arm of this identity. It is not seeking a new and better world; it merely wants documentation that the old racist world still exists. It wants an excuse,” Steele wrote.

On the other hand, Steele wonders if the failed protests are a “harbinger of change”?

They elicited considerable resentment. There have been counterprotests. TV viewership has gone down. Ticket sales have dropped. What is remarkable about this response is that it may foretell a new fearlessness in white America — a new willingness in whites (and blacks outside the victim-focused identity) to say to blacks what they really think and feel, to judge blacks fairly by standards that are universal.

We blacks have lived in a bubble since the 1960s because whites have been deferential for fear of being seen as racist. The NFL protests reveal the fundamental obsolescence — for both blacks and whites — of a victim-focused approach to racial inequality. It causes whites to retreat into deference and blacks to become nothing more than victims. It makes engaging as human beings and as citizens impermissible, a betrayal of the sacred group identity. Black victimization is not much with us anymore as a reality, but it remains all too powerful as a hegemony.

Clearly, Shelby Steele sees a new day for blacks in the U.S.A. No longer are they assumed to be the oppressed underclass. Now they have to sink or swim under their own power because whites are no longer standing in their way.

Follow Warner Todd Huston on Twitter @warnerthuston.

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