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Trump inviting Kaepernick to participate in race summit rings hollow

Let’s not forget how much the president seemed to take a special delight in helping to torpedo the quarterback’s NFL career

The first time I felt certain that Colin Kaepernick would never play in the NFL again was March 2017, when the embattled quarterback was just beginning his free agency.

Donald Trump, who at the time had only been president for a few months, said this of Kaepernick to a raucous Louisville, Kentucky, crowd: “It was reported that NFL owners don’t want to pick him up because they don’t want to get a nasty tweet from Donald Trump. Do you believe that? I just saw that. I just saw that.”

But before dropping that not-so-subtle threat to NFL owners, Trump referred to Kaepernick as “your San Francisco quarterback. I’m sure nobody ever heard of him.”

In the time since, Trump has become so familiar with Kaepernick that last week he reportedly gave his approval to invite Kaepernick, along with noted historian Kanye West, to the White House for a series of conversations on race involving athletes and musicians.

The initiative, however, was announced not by Trump but by Rev. Darrell Scott, a Cleveland pastor who has developed a close relationship with Trump.

“It’s going to be unscripted, unfiltered, blunt,” Scott told Politico. “No topic is off the table.”

If that’s the case, then let’s be blunt about why asking Kaepernick to participate in this summit rings especially hollow.

There is something to say for Trump seeking greater understanding of complex racial issues, especially considering he has often come off as dismissive of the impact of racism on marginalized people and seemingly revels in encouraging intolerance.

But we’re a long way from giving Trump a cookie, as it can’t be forgotten how much Trump seemed to take a special delight in helping to torpedo Kaepernick’s NFL career.

Even before he was president, Trump used Kaepernick and the NFL player protests like a racial chew toy, stoking his base with consistent and frequent attacks on the NFL and Kaepernick.

Those verbal attacks reached their apex last September at an Alabama rally, when Trump said the NFL should have suspended Kaepernick after he first knelt for the national anthem. He also referred to NFL players as “sons of b—-es” and encouraged league owners to fire any player who wouldn’t stand for the anthem.

Trump hijacked Kaepernick’s original message — which was never about disrespecting the anthem, but rather holding this nation accountable for subjugating people of color to oppressive systems — and helped turn Kaepernick into public enemy number one.

So unless the president is willing to admit how much his words have contributed to Kaepernick being seemingly blackballed by the NFL, how could Kaepernick and Trump even begin to have a truly open conversation about race?

But there’s another side to this too. Could Kaepernick actually benefit from having a dialogue with Trump?

I’m sure an argument will be made that perhaps if Kaepernick explains to Trump personally why he began his protests, it could persuade Trump to either soften his criticism or stop it altogether. A meeting with Trump could also get Trump’s base, many of which are NFL fans, to dial down their vitriol toward Kaepernick. And maybe that persuades an NFL owner that he can sign Kaepernick without facing intense backlash.

That’s a nice theory, but it’s not really rooted in reality. You can’t blame Kaepernick or any athlete who has opposed Trump and his administration for viewing this invitation skeptically.

For one, it’s interesting that this summit seems to be built on the participation of musicians and athletes, instead of people of color who have immense expertise and experience in examining race.

Don’t worry, I’m not going Laura Ingraham here. Of course, athletes and musicians have plenty to contribute to any racial discussions. My concern is that this summit is just a front to exploit the players and artists for their popularity. They’ll become a talking point or a campaign strategy, used as evidence that some of the intolerance we’ve witnessed from this administration isn’t so bad.

Already, Scott is framing this summit in a divisive way, insinuating that the athletes or musicians who don’t attend are scared to have an open dialogue with the president.

“A lot of people have spunk and courage on Twitter,” Scott said to Politico. “I wonder how many will actually show up.”

It’s certainly true that if we are to ever have even the slightest chance at racial healing, it’s going to require bringing together people who haven’t always been in the room with one another.

But it’s not that simple in this case. Trump has spent a lot of time attacking and criticizing Kaepernick without ever acknowledging or addressing Kaepernick’s concerns. Kaepernick, who recently received Amnesty International’s prestigious Ambassador of Conscience Award, has done the work.

Can the president say he’s done the same?

Jemele Hill is a Senior Correspondent and Columnist for ESPN and The Undefeated.