TV Protests and King’s Wedge Strategy

Ryan Kang via AP

Members of the Houston Texans kneel during the national anthem during an NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks on October 29, 2017 

I have never known a black man who was not regularly pulled over by police. Being African American myself, this has been my experience. It doesn’t matter that I am the vice president of a continent-wide organization; that I have friends who are police, lawyers, and judges; or that I drive a late model car. Harassment is real and it’s shameful. 

But it’s the deadly traffic stops that appear to be racially motivated murders that keep parents up at night fearful that a son or even a daughter may be the next victim.

Ending racially motivated police brutality cannot succeed without the support of a broad swath of white Americans. Martin Luther King faced a similar challenge in his battle to end brutally enforced racial segregation. What stood in King’s way was the same thing that thwarts opponents of police brutality today: the racism and indifference of liberal and moderate whites. Outside of the South, white Americans did not strongly identify with southern whites, but they identified even less with blacks. 

King’s wedge strategy juxtaposed powerful positive images of black civil rights marchers with just as powerful negative ones of the white opposition. For liberal and moderate whites outside the South, this reversed or dispelled prevailing stereotypes and brought many of those voters to support civil rights for blacks. 

Today, NFL players’ efforts to end police brutality could employ an updated version of King’s strategy to bring moderate and liberal whites to their cause.

King was a student of the nonviolent campaigns for independence in British India led by Mohandas Gandhi. He knew that Gandhi had faced a similar conundrum. White Europeans tended to think of Great Britain as “civilized” and viewed their brown, black, and yellow-skinned colonial subjects as unruly, undisciplined, and primitive. 

Gandhi defied this by leading Indian peasants in a nonviolent march to the sea to engage in the traditional, but outlawed salt harvest. Along the way, they suffered British caning, jailing, and bullets. The contrast between the nonviolent Indians and their British overlords was stark. In this and subsequent campaigns, Indian protestors were depicted in the world press as disciplined, civilized, and morally superior. It was the British authorities who appeared as reactionary savages. It flipped the racial stereotypes on their heads and put immense internal and external political pressure on Britain to correct its hypocrisy.

King brought the same drama to the struggle for equal rights for African Americans. Like Gandhi, he structured his demonstrations to provide contrasting images for worldwide media. He juxtaposed brave, reverent, self-possessed African Americans, who carried themselves with dignity and moral purpose, with their white mob antagonists and police who behaved like thugs and murderers. 

But King took it further. He wrapped the civil rights movement in American symbols. Marchers often carried American flags. In fact, they did this so often that the opposing mobs retreated to the Battle Flag of the Confederacy, which made them even less sympathetic to many white Americans. In his “I Have A Dream” speech, King recited lines from the Declaration of Independence and My Country ‘Tis of Thee. He linked his dream for African-Americans to the American Dream.

Tuning in to nightly news, white Americans could not miss the contrast, which featured screaming, violent whites and helmeted cops with vicious dogs assailing passive marchers in their Sunday best, clergy among them, and even children, as in the Birmingham campaign. In strategic terms, these images and King’s words drove a wedge between southern whites and those whites outside the region in their view of equal rights for blacks.

At the start of the Civil Rights Movement, the stereotype suggested that whites needed protection from blacks. Eight years into King’s wedge strategy, many moderate and liberal whites came to believe that African Americans needed protection from a violent white populace and their corrupt white power structure.

King could have focused on the Constitution’s definition of African Americans as three-fifths of a person, or the Declaration of Independence’s references to Native Americans as savages. He would have been correct to say that racism is a part of our nation’s very foundation. Instead, he zeroed in on what could bring majority white support for black rights.

So what can NFL players and other sports professionals do? What will help a critical majority of white Americans to see police harassment and racially motivated shootings as un-American, shameful, and costly to the nation?

Change generally happens in four stages. In the first stage, campaigns must get attention. Black Lives Matter, followed by Colin Kaepernick’s and the NFL stars’ protests certainly achieved this goal. In the second stage, campaigns work to divide the opposition and bring public opinion on side.  King identified the third stage as moving from changing public opinion to mobilizing it to demand new laws. “[L]aw cannot make a man love me,” he said, “but it can restrain him from lynching me.” As legislation to help reign in trigger-happy racist cops at the state and local level has failed passage or failed to be enforced, such a campaign will be necessary. In the final stage, campaigns focus public opinion on passage of laws and support for enforcement.

The NFL protestors have now reached the point where they need to move on to the second stage. Now, they need to wage a media campaign that contrasts African Americans with the minority of cops who are racists—framed for liberal and moderate white audiences. For example, feature a black solider who braved bullets and bombs in Afghanistan but now is afraid of losing his son in a “routine” traffic stop. Show a black police officer who worries about the minority of white cops who refuse to recognize his authority and never have his back. Focus on a mom who worries about the rough, racially motivated stop-and-frisks her young son has to endure in white sections of his college town.

Finally, show a white veteran reacting to these stories: “I can’t imagine putting my life on the line in Afghanistan for freedom, only to come home to the reality we’ve seen in these stories. It’s not the America I fought for, the America in my heart.”

Stories like these can help moderate and liberal whites realize that to live in black skin in 21st-century America is sometimes like living in Communist East Germany or Apartheid South Africa. 

If our sports heroes pursue this approach, pressure will build on city and state politicians to take action.  The players could negotiate an end to the national anthem protest with team owners and broadcast networks presidents in exchange for airing these stories where white males reliably can be found: watching TV sports broadcasts.

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