On Monday, ESPN suspended SportsCenter co-host Jemele Hill for two weeks after she took to Twitter to recommend fans who disagreed with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’ stance on kneeling during the national anthem—Jones said that Cowboys players who “disrespect the flag” will not play for his team—should boycott the Cowboys’ advertisers. Regardless of whether you agree with ESPN’s decision or Hill’s statements, her suspension demonstrates how America is far more equipped to silence black voices than address our complex racial dynamics.
ESPN stated that the suspension was due to a second violation of their “social media guidelines,” and that employees will be punished for tweets that “may reflect negatively on ESPN.” Last month, Hill drew considerable heat when she called President Donald Trump a “white supremacist” on Twitter, but no apparent disciplinary action was taken.
In light of Hill’s tweets from last month, the White House has been on a crusade to silence Hill and further politicize the NFL. In the middle of September, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders recommended that ESPN fire Hill over her “white supremacist” tweet.
Later in the month, during a rally in Alabama for Republican Senate candidate Luther Strange, President Trump further escalated tensions when he said, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’”
At the same rally, Trump advocated that his supporters respond to NFL players taking a knee by staging their own protest and leaving the stadium.
The weekend after Trump’s “son of a bitch” comments many NFL players, coaches and owners showed unity and defiance toward Trump’s inflammatory statement by collectively taking a knee during the national anthem. Cowboys owner Jones even took a knee with his players.
Many viewed this act of unity as a progressive step in the right direction for the embattled NFL, but Hill’s suspension and the politically charged events that preceded her suspension demonstrate how the inherent hypocrisy of white privilege can be used to silence black voices and divide America.
When America praised members of the NFL community for taking a knee to object to Trump’s comments, we changed the discussion from one about racial oppression and police brutality into one about the socially acceptable parameters for taking a knee during the national anthem. White owners and black players taking a knee together to stand up to hurtful comments by the president had now become socially acceptable, and apparently not as “disrespectful” to the flag as black players taking a knee to protest police brutality and the killing of African Americans by law enforcement.
Without batting an eye, America had again normalized the oppressive status quo of requiring African Americans to obtain the approval of a white American to express their First Amendment rights. A black protest that had earned the approval of white Americans had become far more socially acceptable than a black protest without a thumbs up from white America. And not surprisingly, white approval only extended to issues that did not substantially impact the black community or challenge a white dominated status quo.
At this point, the meaning and the merits of the protest had become irrelevant, and the only thing that mattered was if the protest had obtained the white seal of approval. And by minimizing the original purpose of the protests, America further opened the door for other voices—most significantly Trump and his divisive rhetoric—to redefine the meaning and motivations of black players taking a knee.
According to Trump, and many of his supporters, black players took a knee to “disrespect the flag” or “disrespect the military,” and the voices of the black players remained essentially meaningless or illegitimate unless they stopped protesting or found a reason to protest that most of white America could approve of.
Obviously, the NFL was not going to protest the president every weekend, so the specter of black players protesting police brutally remained despite one weekend’s show of unity. Since Trump’s bully pulpit exceeds the NFL’s and the Republicans most likely won’t impeach Trump due to tweets that, “may reflect negatively on” the United States, he has a greater license to disseminate racially divisive rhetoric that aims to silence black voices.
Last weekend, Jones and Vice President Mike Pence—who flew across the country specifically to protest against African Americans who took a knee during the national anthem—became pawns in the racially divisive game Trump remains hell-bent on playing, which he articulated in Alabama.
And the complexity of Hill’s, those of black NFL players, and other African Americans who want to speak candidly about racial injustice extends beyond politics, and into the workplace. America has long condoned a business culture that concentrated power at the top and gave employees few protections.
Historically, this structure has marginalized minorities and relegated them to low-paying jobs, but now that things have begun to change many voices argue that minorities should be appreciative of their new bounty and remain silent. Minorities who challenge this political and business status quo by discussing civil rights and racial injustices, face the threat of lost employment, and the widespread misrepresentation and demonization of their actions.
The hypocrisy and dangers of white privilege allows for Trump to embolden a movement about stopping peaceful black protestors and “respecting” the American flag by appealing to Confederate sympathizers in the South. It allows for Trump to organize a peaceful protest and a boycott while also demonizing protests and boycotts organized by African Americans.
President Trump and his friendship with business leaders like Jones has rekindled the American formula for silencing and demonizing black voices. Political and economic pressure forced Colin Kaepernick out of the NFL, and countless NFL players confront the same threat. Hill’s tweets do not trouble African Americans, but they do peacefully challenge a white dominated status quo, and as a result, her career hangs in the balance, as American politicians and business leaders seek to silence her voice.