I want to admire Colin Kaepernick, because Colin Kaepernick did something very admirable. He stood up to the NFL, one of America’s most beloved, familiar institutions, and caused a massive years-long scandal, but also a conversation, by taking a knee during the national anthem. It was a simple gesture, a peaceful protest against police brutality that was about as couth as could be in comparison to some of the more intense demonstrations we’ve seen lately, and the crazed reactions to his protest were gloriously hypocritical considering how the cultural right claims to uphold freedom of speech at any cost. By standing up to the NFL and being subsequently blacklisted from the league, Kaepernick became an instant martyr of sorts for the Black Lives Matter movement, and there is no doubt that his peaceful protest was highly effective in bringing attention to police brutality and sparking a national dialog around the existence of racism in all levels of society.
In 2018, when Nike signed Colin Kaepernick on as a new spokesperson about 2 years after he was benched by the 49ers, it was a cool moment because of how Kaepernick had seemingly been jobless since the NFL debacle — it felt satisfying that at least one major brand in America had the back of this man who was clearly cast out of his preferred profession because of his speech. With all the sexy photoshoots and moody monochrome stills of Kaepernick, it was easy enough to push the thought that Nike is hardly an enterprise of equality, or even a business that adheres to any labor standards whatsoever, to the back of the mind. But in fact, it wouldn’t be exaggeration to say that Nike perpetrates and benefits from slavery – yes, literal human slavery – to this day.
A recent report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute describes “A factory in eastern China that manufactures shoes for US company Nike is equipped with watchtowers, barbed-wire fences and police guard boxes” that employees Uyghur Muslims in China. The Uyghur are among the most oppressed ethnic groups by the Chinese government, with many human rights groups accusing the government of concentration camps and ethnic cleansing (many such allegations can be found in the ASPI report).
Clearly, though, it was easy enough for society to overlook this dark reality and celebrate on Kaepernick’s behalf anyway — surely he was just cashing out to make up for the lack of NFL money, and surely he was deserving of that, right? It is easy enough to see celebrity spokespeople as simply an instrument of a larger, more complex institution, which isn’t exactly inaccurate. It’s not like Kaepernick has any say over Nike’s horrific labor practices… Right?
Well, not exactly. But it does bring the conversation exactly back to where it began: human rights, specifically as they relate to a massive company. Colin Kaepernick protested the state-sponsered murder of innocent black Americans, and he did so resolutely, refusing to waver even when his career was in jeopardy. And mind you, this was while Obama was President, when it was slightly less obvious the extent to which racism still existed in this country and when many were pretending they lived in a post-racial America (at the time, BLM was not necessarily the safe, corporate-friendly position to take as it is now in the age of Trump). So, it does seem slightly hypocritical to go get paid by a company with equally problematic – albeit less domestic – human rights quandaries, without so much as a peep of protest directed toward said problematic practices.
With all that said, it was easy enough to overlook these uncomfortable details and move on. Nothing could take away the bravery of Kaepernick’s initial protest, and he was already quickly becoming a full-fledged celebrity himself, the Most Handsome Man in the Movement. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder this year, which sparked a national uprising, some have even called Kaepernick a modern day civil rights leader, perhaps akin to Muhammad Ali or even Martin Luther King, Jr.
Just yesterday, however, the news broke that Kaepernick has signed a massive “first-look” deal with Disney:
“Under terms of the pact, announced Monday, Disney and Ra Vision will emphasize scripted and unscripted stories that deal with race, social injustice and the quest for equity, and work to showcase directors and producers of color. Disney said the agreement would extend across its units, including Walt Disney Television, ESPN, Hulu, Pixar and The Undefeated, an ESPN venue that focuses on matters of race in sports,” according to a report from Variety.
This news was, of course, met with celebration and fawning praise from across the Internet. Praise not only for Kaepernick, but also for Disney. What a bold, progressive move from America’s biggest and most beloved mega-corporation! How exciting that black culture will soon be gobbled up by Mickey Mouse and digested through a long tract of corporate boardrooms that will eventually result in the dumbing-down and gentrification of everything unique, sacred or artisanal about black expression — the same thing that happens to just about everything that Disney gets its grubby hands on.
People celebrating this news are pointing to how positive it is that Disney, which controls around 40% of all seen media in America, will be telling Kaepernick’s story and is committed to platforming black creators. But they point this out without a hint of irony — as if it’s totally acceptable or okay that any one company has become so dominant — as if it’s just how it’s supposed to be that one mega-corp has the power to grant representation to an entire people.
And if you thought Nike was a problematic company… Disney is also not above sweat-shop labor to produce its cheap, plastic merchandise which you can purchase at exorbitant prices from their theme parks, as well as their garish Disney Stores in cities like Paris or Los Angeles. They do this while simultaneously destroying small businesses across the country, constantly threatening small cinemas and drive-ins by forcing them to play their terrible films for longer than necessary, by gobbling up beloved properties old and new, and by paying their workers not nearly enough to work in coronavirus-infested parks, or on movies and shows that only celebrities and producers will see any serious compensation from. The entertainment industry is notoriously exploitative, but Disney is a cut above the rest, perhaps the most innovatively cruel in their practices. They recently furloughed 100,000 employees, all while protecting $1.5 trillion of assets for bonuses for their top executives. Disney is a disgustingly bloated company that is a textbook example of what happens when a government allows capitalism to flourish unfettered, unchecked and untaxed.
It’s no wonder that companies like Nike and Disney are desperate to hire someone as supposedly progressive as Colin Kaepernick, someone who makes bold assertions such as likening the 4th of July to “a celebration of White Supremacy”. Multinational mega-corporations love to be associated with any movement that makes them look virtuous while allowing them to maintain their insidious business practices behind the scenes. In fact, such displays of virtue actually make it easier for them to continue said practices, because of all the praise lauded on them by influencers, celebrities, and by a culture at-large which rewards virtue-signaling over practically anything of actual substance.
And this is exactly why Colin Kaeperinick working for Nike and Disney is not only problematic, but it also makes Kaepernick complicit in their immoral capitalistic racket by helping them appear progressive and humanistic. By doing so, he is basically the token black man who comes into a racist company and “fixes” everything with corporate-approved techniques so that the company can say “everything’s fine!” and then go back to business as usual. And by doing so, he cheapens the entire struggle for human rights and solidarity amongst the lower classes, which are oppressed by a common oppressor: corporate capitalism and the caste system it has created of masters and worker bees. Essentially, and in a massive twist of irony, Kaepernick has gone from protesting the oppression of peoples to perpetuating it.
If you think I am going too far in my rhetoric, simply ask yourself: would Martin Luther King, Jr. or Muhammad Ali ever agree to work for Disney? These men devoted their lives not only to racial justice but also to fighting capitalism and the inequalities that it furthers: “We must recognize that we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power… this means a revolution of values and other things. We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together… you can’t really get rid of one without getting rid of the others… the whole structure of American life must be changed. America is a hypocritical nation and [we] must put [our] own house in order,” said Dr. King a year before his murder. Capitalism, especially multinational corporate capitalism, is simply antithetical to a vision of equality, and it has no place in any movement for justice.
By working for exploitative multinational corporations, Kaepernick not only hinders Dr. King’s own stated agenda, but also furthers the degradation of the American Dream itself. Over 40% of small businesses say they’ll be forced to close following the COVID-19 pandemic, and it seems people’s options are increasingly limited to working for unethical corporations like Nike, Amazon and Disney, companies that all claim to support equality. At least here in America we get to work in their sterile office buildings and marketing firms, instead of their filthy sweatshops in East Asia where slavery isn’t just still occurring, it’s the fucking business model.