Kaeptain America?: On Respectability Politics

NFL quarterback of the Carolina Panthers Cam Newton has taken his already otherworldly existence and added an even more marvelous layer, his Superman persona.

In the Marvel comic book universe, where film adaptations have created a market boom in the industry, another superhero has risen to prominence—Captain America. The Avengers franchise along with Cap’s own films have bolstered the superpower Marvel holds in Hollywood over DC and Superman as well as Batman (who had been the shining dark star).

But in the comic book graphic universe, Captain America lost his youth and powers and was replaced by The Falcon, Sam Wilson—prompting me to ask Should We Marvel at a Black Captain America?  [1]

The essence of my question addresses using race superficially in that the new black Captain America simply becomes the jingoistic flag waving militant originally conceived in Eugenics who just happens to be black.

In the not-so-real world of the NFL, Newton still suffers under a parallel burden of the quarterback position being a white position, but Newton also represents another powerful and disturbing lesson about respectability politics, speaking as he has in the wake of Colin Kaepernick’s protests against racial inequity and racism.

Respectability Politics in the Era of #BlackLivesMatter

Before Kaepernick’s protests, Newton had already established himself among high-profile black race deniers and carriers of the respectability politics banner—Bill Cosby, O.J. Simpson, Clarence Thomas, Ben Carson.

And while Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem targets racial inequity, many have spent a great deal of energy policing how Kaepernick has chosen to protest, not what he is protesting. As a result, Kaepernick has unintentional exposed Newton, Shaquille O’Neal, Ray Lewis, and Rodney Harrison—all of whom have dutifully played the respect card.

Throughout the race equity struggles of the U.S., consider Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King Jr. [2], respectability politics has been employed as a tool for maintaining the status quo of white male privilege.

Blacks kept in their place; women kept in their place.

Respectability politics is a strategy to infantilize—to render childlike entire categories of people. I was raised in a working class home in the South where respectability politics was writ small: my father invoking “Do as I say, not as I do” and hitting me if I failed to respond always with “yes, sir” or “no sir.”

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale dramatizes how the dominant group uses some members of the oppressed group to maintain inequity. The Commander’s wife, Serena Joy, and the Aunts are women who control women:

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from, In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it….

We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice. (pp. 24-25)

The voice is that of a woman, but the words and ideas are pure paternalism: “you are being given.”

Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained also dramatizes how power uses some of the oppressed against the majority of the oppressed—although (as tainted as the film may be) reflecting a very real aspect of U.S. history that included the house slave (Stephen/Samuel L. Jackson of the film) tension with the field slave.

Newton, O’Neal, Lewis, and Harrison are convenient shields—like Captain America employs—for white privilege, and just as Atwood’s Aunts put female faces on male beliefs, they put black faces on a white message: free speech is protected unless it offends white fragility.

The Irony of the NFL’s Kaeptain America

The 2016 NFL season kicked off with a rematch of the previous season’s Super Bowl. Announcers during the game skirted around the Bronco’s Brandon Marshall kneeling in solidarity with Kaepernick, but even with his brave act, Marshall had to hedge:

“I’m not against the military,” Marshall said after the Broncos’ 21-20 win against the Carolina Panthers. “I’m not against the police or America. I’m against social injustice.”

However, the game offered a surprising irony: NFL referees taught Newton the very real fact and consequences of the systemic bias:

Cam Newton absorbed helmet hits several times in Thursday night’s season-opening loss to the Denver Broncos, including on a third-quarter sack that left him hurting on the sideline….

“It’s not my job to question the officials,” Newton told reporters. “I really like this officiating crew, so it wasn’t something I know they did intentionally, but it’s not fun getting hit in the head.”

Systemic racism—the kind Newton denies—is exactly that, often unintentional, subtle to the point of being easily ignored (by the privileged especially), but producing real and negative consequences nonetheless.

Newton, the sports talking heads are debating nonstop now, suffers unpunished blows to the head the NFL has explicitly announced are not to be tolerated, but he also benefits (a very loaded word here) from being allowed to remain on the field when he may be suffering from the concussions the NFL also claims to be policing rigorously.

It may be worth Newton’s time to acknowledge the large body of research showing that black males are viewed older than their biological ages—notably by police and teachers—and that the implicit bias that frames blacks as stronger and tougher is literally jeopardizing his career and life.

The NFL has a Tom Brady Rule—he who shall not be touched—but Newton, reigning league MVP, is repeatedly slammed on national TV.

But Golden Boy Brady is not the only Golden Boy worth mentioning here, especially in the context of the perverse relationship between the NFL and the military: recall Pat Tillman.

Pat Tillman, the NFL’s original Captain America, abandoned a dynamic NFL career to enter the military—but then that experience turned on itself.

Tillman was killed by friendly fire and then became the focus of a disturbing campaign to use the NFL star to trump up patriotism despite the overwhelming evidence that Tillman was not who he was often portrayed to be just as his death was falsely characterized in the beginning by the government.

The Tillman Story (2010) and ESPN’ Outside the Lines special Pat Tillman: 10 Years Later an Enduring Tragedy shatter the respectability myth now being used in an effort to police Kaepernick, the new Kaeptain America.

As the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks tiptoe toward protest, we can be certain of a few things throughout the season: Newton will continue to be the focal point of debate as proof of the exact bias he refuses to acknowledge, the exact bias the media shields themselves from behind the respectability politics of Newton, O’Neal, Lewis, and the backpedaling Harrison; and the NFL will continue to wrap its self in the flag while simultaneously claiming to protect the players and reaping huge profits on violence and, disproportionately, the backs of black men, who will be required to know their place.

We can also be certain that the NFL, the media, politicians, and the public will remain firmly entrenched in respectability politics because that is where the status quo of power and profit resides.

Now I am compelled to ask, Should we marvel at a black Kaeptain America if we police how he uses his free speech instead of listening to and then addressing what he is protesting?

See Also

Colin Kaepernick, Jackie Robinson and the ‘Appropriate Posture for a Black Man,’ Chuck Modiano


[1] See an expanded version here: Should We Marvel at a Black Captain America?

[2] MLK’s legacy has been tarnished with the passive radical myth, masking his true radical self in order to reinforce respectability politics.

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