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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 October 2018

Blasey Ford and Kaepernick: twin symbols of America's deep divisions 

Both have fought against exploitation and discrimination, but the issues that energise Democrats are likely to drive Republicans in the opposite direction

Christine Blasey Ford and Colin Kapernick have both taken a stand, or a knee, for justice. EPA
Christine Blasey Ford and Colin Kapernick have both taken a stand, or a knee, for justice. EPA

Colin Kaepernick is an African-American sportsman at the centre of a row about racism. His signature protest, which he began in 2016 while playing for the San Francisco 49ers, was to kneel when the US national anthem was played before NFL games. Mr Kaepernick’s stand − or rather his refusal to stand − is just a small symbol of the deep and bitter cultural divisions that exist within US society. Similar fissures have also made Washington DC the world’s most dysfunctional major capital.

Across the globe, we have been watching another peculiarly American phenomenon – the televised, real-life drama of US President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Unless compelling contrary evidence appears, which I very much doubt will happen, I wholeheartedly believe his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, who says that Mr Kavanaugh sexually molested her in a Washington DC suburb when they were teenagers.

Lawyers always ask, in Latin, “cui bono?” – who stands to benefit? Ms Ford has nothing to gain by volunteering to so publicly re-live her trauma. Judge Kavanaugh, however, clearly benefits from angrily denying everything – at risk is a top job for life. For justice to be served, the Supreme Court nomination should be put on hold. But this is unlikely to happen. The reason is brutal power politics. November’s Congressional elections loom and Republicans desperately want Mr Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court. They are willing to overlook serious allegations, which, if proved true, will render him unfit to sit as a judge anywhere. Democrats scent blood and want to frustrate a president they loathe.

This, in other words, is not about justice. It’s about power. The Kaepernick story is, at its heart, the same.

Mr Kaepernick is protesting against America’s original sin – that of racism. Many more African-American males meet violent deaths at the hands of US police officers than their white counterparts, many more young black men are caught up in the criminal justice system, and once in that system many claim that they are treated more harshly, too. As part of the wider Black Lives Matter movement, “taking a knee” is a peaceful and, you might also argue, respectful protest. It also forms part of a tradition of black athletes using their public platforms to advance political issues that affect their community.

During the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, where they won gold and bronze medals respectively, the US sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos famously bowed their heads and raised gloved fists in a black power salute. In an interview to commemorate that event, Mr Smith told me that this display of pride and defiance had cost him dearly. He received death threats and his athletics career was placed in jeopardy.

“It had to be done,” Mr Smith said. “No one else had the platform that I had to do what was necessary … Did I want to do it? No. But I had to.”

Mr Kaepernick has also received threats to his career in ways similar to Tommie Smith 50 years ago. But things are changing. The sportswear company Nike, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the “Just Do It” slogan, controversially signed Kaepernick as a brand ambassador. Mr Trump and others protested. Some even burned or cut up their Nike clothing and shoes. Nike’s sales went up and the company’s shares hit new highs.

Underneath all this theatre is a serious point. Mr Kaepernick has exposed once more the profound racial and political faultlines in American society. Ms Ford has done the same for the issues of power and gender politics. To some Americans, both are heroes, willing to put themselves on the firing line in the brave hope of making a better America.

To others, Mr Kaepernick and Ms Ford are simply tools of the political left, trying to discredit or weaken the Trump presidency. This is a sour continuation of the culture wars fought in America since the 1960s, but both sides need to be careful. Republican politicians already face a widening gender gap with declining appeal among women voters. Democrats face the risk of a backlash based around issues of race. As Steve Bannon, the right-wing ideologue who was once Donald Trump’s key political strategist, put it: “The Democrats, the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”

Mr Bannon makes an important point. The issues that energise Democratic voters move die-hard Republicans in the opposite direction, and vice-versa. Optimistic Americans once spoke of their country as a melting pot, in which different cultures came together. The motto on US currency says “E pluribus unum” − out of many, one. But from football fields to Senate hearings, the opposite is true.

Americans may believe they are “one nation under God”, revering the same flag, anthem and constitution. But the flag, anthem and constitution mean very different things for these two wildly divergent camps. In 1935, the African-American poet Langston Hughes wrote: “America never was America to me.” Despite this initial sentiment, he ended optimistically, hoping that one day “America will be.” For many today, it’s been a long time coming.

Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and television presenter