Opinion

Renée Graham

Kaepernick backlash: Burning your Nikes instead of confronting racism

Then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem before a 2016 game.
Ted S. Warren/Associated Press/File
Then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem before a 2016 game.

White supremacy is a hell of a drug.

It makes people forsake their God and their country. It elevates hypocrisy to a level once reserved for hallowed beliefs.

And it’s compelling someone somewhere right now to set their sneakers on fire.

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Not just any sneakers, T-shirts, or assorted gear. It’s Nike products some white folks are burning up, just like their equally obtuse forbearers once torched rock ’n’ roll records because of integration, Jesus, or something. They are butchering their socks and snipping the brand’s trademark “swoosh” from their shorts, all because Colin Kaepernick is the face of Nike’s 30th anniversary “Just Do It” campaign.

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Kaepernick has been with Nike since 2011. In the black and white ad, he appears in a close-up, looking both serene and determined. “Believe in something,” the ad reads. “Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

In response, some Nike customers are taking a match or scissors to once-beloved products and sharing their sartorial sacrifices on social media.

“First, the NFL forces me to choose between my favorite sport and my country. I chose country. Then Nike forces me to choose between my favorite shoes and my country,” one irate man tweeted. “Since when did the American flag and the national anthem become offensive?”

This was posted along with a video of his white Nikes — as well as surrounding grass — in flames. Nothing quite says “I love my country” like destroying a product you’ve already paid for, as a phony statement of defiance. Some have even pledged their new footwear allegiance to Converse — just don’t tell them the maker of those classic Chuck Taylors is owned by Nike.

Of course, Kaepernick’s detractors, including President Trump, know exactly why the young quarterback and others have taken a knee during the pre-game anthem. For two years, they’ve been clear that this is a silent protest against racial injustice and police violence. It’s Kaepernick’s critics — eager to change the subject because, for them, there’s never a right time to talk about racism — who have made this about the anthem and flag.

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A versatile quarterback who nearly won a Super Bowl while leading the San Francisco 49ers in 2013, Kaepernick has been unsigned since March 2017. Still, no figure has loomed more prominently over the NFL in recent seasons. Even off the field, his old jersey remains among the NFL’s top 50 best sellers, often spotted at various anti-Trump marches. He may now be better known for his activism than his interrupted career.

Kaepernick is suing the league for colluding to keep him out of the game. That’s the same league that, earlier this year, extended its partnership with Nike for another eight years, starting in 2020. That deal includes uniforms for all 32 teams, bearing Nike’s famous logo. Apparently, the NFL didn’t know about this campaign — or that news of it would break days before its regular football season begins Thursday.

Kaepernick isn’t going away. He shouldn’t. America needs him, as it desperately needs every group that has been systematically marginalized and disfranchised for centuries. Denied our rights, we are always fighting for democracy; therefore, we are always fighting for America. Racism stands against everything this country professes to stand for, and those who protest, agitate, and speak out against it are democracy’s most ardent champions.

You cannot defend democracy and uphold white supremacy. That is America’s failed experiment, now polluting the White House and the Republican party. Those committed to sustaining racial inequities, who shut down any discussions about its persistence, defile the flag and anthem they claim to hold so dear. They aren’t just burning an overpriced pair of sneakers; they’re setting fire to the eternal pursuit of a more perfect union, one that has yet to live up to its professed principles.

If these athletic-gear arsonists were half as upset about racism as they now are about their brand of sneakers, this country might finally find a way to eradicate its injustices.

Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.