It's difficult to lead a movement to end oppression and still be popular with the oppressor. Which is why I've spent the last two years viewing Malcolm Jenkins with a mixture of suspicion and confusion.
I wondered how Jenkins — an eloquent man with superior athletic ability — could credibly lead a group of NFL players in protesting racial injustice and lose nothing in the process. Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who began those protests by kneeling during the national anthem, lost his job after he was effectively blackballed from the league. Eric Reid, a former Kaepernick teammate who joined the quarterback in those protests, remained unsigned after becoming a free agent this offseason, until the Carolina Panthers picked him up last month.
Jenkins, on the other hand, never missed an NFL paycheck, even as President Trump scored political points by accusing the protesting players of disrespecting the flag and the military. At the height of the controversy, Jenkins and former NFL receiver Anquan Boldin led negotiations with NFL owners, eventually striking a deal for team owners to donate nearly $90 million to antiracism organizations in exchange for an end to the protests. At the time, Eric Reid (who was originally part of the players coalition) and some of the other protesting players objected to the deal.
On Sunday, Reid confronted Jenkins on the field. After the game, Reid castigating Jenkins, calling him a "sellout." As an Eagles fan, I was upset that an opposing player had come to our home field and spouted such vitriol against one of our own.
As a black man, however, I understood Reid's rage.
While Kaepernick and Reid were filing suit against team owners after protests cost them their employment, Jenkins was being identified in the Washington Post as the "new face" of the NFL protests.
With that moniker being thrust upon him by the mainstream media, Jenkins had become The Acceptable Negro — the character who so often shows up in the midst of movements for black rights. Anointed by the oppressor as the spokesman for the rest of us, The Acceptable Negro is often viewed as less dangerous and more malleable than his more radical counterparts.
Perhaps that's why I viewed Jenkins' ascent as an activist with some trepidation. We've learned, as African Americans, not to trust those whom the white community dubs as black leaders. Too often, such leaders are not acting in the interest of black folks. They are acting in the interest of the power structure.
Our mistrust, however, goes deeper than our assessment of the individual. Our mistrust is a byproduct of slavery and oppression. In a society that constantly reinforces the wrongheaded message that blacks are unworthy of leadership, we fight every day against the urge to see each other as incompetent.
I often wonder whether that's why our leaders spend so much time fighting each other, instead of fighting those who would oppress us.
Perhaps if our leaders stopped fighting one another, The Acceptable Negro wouldn't continue to rise from the ashes of our internal battles to strike deals that are not always in our interests.
We've seen it again and again.
As Frederick Douglass sought to bring about an end to slavery through the pursuit of abolition, black slave owners such as William Ellison traded individual success for the continued oppression of African Americans.
As W.E.B. Du Bois sought to improve the condition of blacks through scholarly pursuits and economic empowerment, Booker T. Washington sought to maintain the status quo through training blacks to engage in menial labor.
As the Black Panthers sought to uplift black people through community programs while protecting them from police brutality through the legal use of firearms, the FBI used black infiltrators to destroy the organization from within.
We see the same kind of infighting in the Black Lives Matter movement, and I suspect we'll see it in future movements as well.
That's why, as much as I respect Malcolm Jenkins for the work he's tried to do to address issues such as mass incarceration and criminal justice reform, fighting for liberation always comes at a cost.
Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid have already paid the price.
I'm waiting for Malcolm Jenkins to do the same.