Lewis Hamilton kneels with the words ‘Black Lives Matter’ written on the front of his T-shirt. On the back of it, ‘End Racism’ can be read in thick white writing. Thirteen other drivers are kneeling around him, the words ‘End Racism’ written on the front of their T-shirts.
Formula One is not only taking a visible stand against racism, but behind the scenes it is putting in place clear and well-funded measures to tackle its glaring problem in its lack of diversity. To assist this, owners Liberty Media came up with the slogan #WeRaceAsOne to unite the grid and tackle the issue head on.
The only issue is that the six drivers who decided that taking a knee wasn’t for them reflect the complete opposite of what that message is supposed to convey.
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Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen announced on Twitter before Sunday’s Austrian Grand Prix that they would not be taking a knee. Antonio Giovinazzi, Carlos Sainz, Daniil Kvyat and Kimi Raikkonen – the most experienced driver on the grid and who this season will overtake Rubens Barichello for the highest number of starts in the history of the sport – joined them in remaining on their feet.
Leclerc said in his statement that he believes that “what matters are facts and behaviours in our daily life rather than formal gestures that could be seen as controversial in some countries”. Verstappen said that he feels “everyone has the right to express themself at a time and in a way that suits them”, with 2020 apparently not the right time to take a visible stand against racial inequality.
Both of these tweets, as well as Giovinazzi’s, ended with #WeRaceAsOne, yet by choosing to oppose the point of taking a knee, these three drivers in particular have shown why the sport has a problem to tackle. It was stressed that each driver would be left to their own individual decision, and this is exactly the message that they conveyed: a group of individuals choosing what was right for themselves, not a united front trying to demonstrate what is right for the greater good. There should never be a bad time to tackle racism.
Black Lives Matter is not about any political stance. By taking a knee, you do not choose to support a side in the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. By taking a knee, you do not back calls to defund police. By taking a knee, you are not displaying a gesture that should be deemed “controversial in some countries”. And by taking a knee, you are not demonstrating a symbol of subjugation and subordination.
By taking a knee, you are demonstrating a belief that a black life means the same as a white life, and that those two lives should be able to live without fear of oppression, prejudice or injustice. No one should have to live with the knowledge that their profession will differ because of their skin colour, or that they are more likely to be mistreated or murdered by authorities because they are not white.
Hamilton attempted to explain this after his fourth-place finish at the Red Bull Ring. “Certain people are making it more political than it is and then there is UK Black Lives Matter that has spoken some more political issues,” he said.
“But the people at rallies and the people out there marching are fighting for one cause and that’s for equality. It is not a political thing for them.
“When I wear the shirt, that is what I am supporting. I am not necessarily supporting the political movement. That is something completely different so it is important to try to keep them separate.”
By choosing to stand, what these six drivers have done is reduce Formula One’s visual stance against racism to an empty gesture. Before Sunday afternoon’s conflict of opinion, what the sport and its leading individuals have put in place to tackle racial inequality has been applaudable. Hamilton, the sport’s only black world champion, has started his own commission to boost under-represented groups in the sport. His aim is to open the doors at grassroot levels to encourage black, Asian and minority ethic children to dream of becoming the next generation of drivers, technicians and mechanics. Before Sunday’s race, the FIA announced that it will give one million euros (£900,000) to a new foundation created by F1’s chief executive Chase Carey, who himself has pledged a $1m donation to start things off, with a similar target to Hamilton’s to increase diversity across motorsport.
These are not empty gestures, this is positive action designed to tackle a glaring problem in a white-male dominated sport. Taking a knee was never designed with Marxism in mind, contrast to a conspiracy theory that has been so widely shared, or with any antisemitic connotations. It was started by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick during the US national anthem, after he discussed the matter with fellow player and military veteran Nate Boyer so he could protest racial inequality without offending US servicemen. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour,” Kaepernick said, before being rapidly exiled by a sport that still has just two minority-ethnic franchise owners.
It is a stance that has become so powerful that it is recognised the world over, not a meaningless gesture that a dozen or so drivers elected to perform at the start of the 2020 F1 season without any thought.
The irony comes in that little over four weeks ago, Leclerc deemed it appropriate to take a visible stance in supporting Black Lives Matter by joining ‘Blackout Tuesday’ on Instagram.
It would be intriguing to learn what has changed since the Ferrari driver felt necessary to show he was behind the movement, compared to now.
Meanwhile, if Verstappen had looked over his shoulder while he was standing, he will have seen his entire Red Bull pit crew taking a knee around his car. If it was right for them, why was it not right for him? If Formula One is not going to race as one, then drivers need to stop telling us that they are. Otherwise, when they tell us that they are “very committed to equality and the fight against racism”, how can we truly believe them if their actions suggest otherwise.
The Bame population within motorsport needed to see 20 drivers on Sunday united in sending a message that racism will not be tolerated in their sport. Instead, what they got was further evidence that below the surface lies a white privilege that is happy for the status quo to continue, so long as it continues to suit them.