If the NFL were a meritocracy, it’s hard to resist the conclusion of Aaron Rodgers (arguably the league’s best quarterback and undeniably one of its best players) that fellow quarterback Colin Kaepernick “should be on a roster right now.”
Last year, despite playing on a horrible team, Kaepernick threw 16 touchdowns and four interceptions, ran for 468 yards and two touchdowns, and had a respectable overall 90.7 passer rating (a common measure of the performance of passers), which improved to an even more respectable 96.5 after his first two post-injury, get-back-in-the-groove starts, and then over his last four games improved again to a very respectable 100.1. His interception rate (1.8%) is second-best in NFL history to only Rodgers.
Once merit (or lack thereof) is eliminated as an explanation for Kaepernick’s failure to find a place on a roster as at least a backup quarterback (he is statistically superior to half of the NFL’s backups), other explanations must be considered. His expression of his political beliefs by first sitting and then kneeling for the national anthem in protest—of racial oppression and of the lack of accountability for police who kill unarmed blacks—is the most convincing one.
But some Kaepernick critics contend that millionaire athletes like him lack the standing to rail against racial injustice in America, for in this nation class trumps race. Put differently, according to such critics, the wealth and status of successful blacks insulates them from what I call the black tax. The black tax is the price black people pay in their daily encounters because of racial stereotypes.
The concept of a “tax” captures several key characteristics of these stereotype-laden encounters: Like a tax, racial discrimination is persistent, pervasive, must be dealt with, cannot be avoided, and is not generally resisted. Taxes are commonly regarded as ineluctable facts of human existence, as in the old saw, “Nothing in life is certain save death and taxes.” Racism, too, is regarded by many blacks as inexorable. And just as the state stands behind the collection of the general taxes, blacks often have good cause to view state representatives, such as police, as Internal Revenue Service (IRS) agents for the black tax.
Wealth and fame evidently did not protect Seattle Seahawks star Michael Bennett from being profiled and subjected to a gunpoint confrontation by Las Vegas police following the recent Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor fight, however. Nor have my professional degrees and accomplishments shielded me and many other prosperous blacks from racial profiling. Those of us who parlay diplomas, athletic ability, or big box office into impressive portfolios and coveted zip codes are not spared.
To paraphrase one of Stevie Wonder’s most trenchant lyrics, “You might make big cash/but you cannot cash in your face.” And the face of crime, for many Americans, is black. These are the social injustices Kaepernick jeopardized his career and livelihood to protest, and it is morally obtuse to denigrate his sacrifices because of his celebrity status or personal wealth.
Jody David Armour is the Roy P. Crocker professor of law at the University of Southern California.