A photograph of former NFL star and civil rights activist Colin Kaepernick, originally taken by the Miami Herald, was doctored and used in a GOP fundraising email to show the African-American quarterback with significantly darkened skin on his face and arms.
The National Republican Congressional Committee used the photograph in an emailed advertisement to help sell coffee mugs featuring a 1770s-era American flag, an apparent reference to Nike endorser Kaepernick’s successful boycott of a July Fourth shoe sold by the company that featured the so-called Betsy Ross flag.
Kaepernick reportedly took issue with the flag’s connection to an era of slavery and its use by extremist groups.
“Do you kneel with Colin Kaepernick?” reads the subject line of Wednesday’s email to contributors. “Show your support for the USA.”
It features side-by-side photos of a smiling Donald Trump in front of an American flag and the darkened photo of Kaepernick kneeling before a game against the Miami Dolphins in 2016 to protest racial injustices and police brutality.
Democrats quickly criticized the use of the photo as “classic race baiting,” while the NRCC disavowed knowledge of the alteration, saying that a graphic design vendor purchased the original through Getty Images.
“The image was not altered in any way by the NRCC,” spokesman Chris Pack wrote in an email to reporters. “The image was published as-is from a graphic design vendor.”
Kaepernick inspired a protest movement in the NFL beginning in 2016, sparking racial and political tensions and turning him into a high-profile target for conservatives — including President Donald Trump — who consider him anti-American and disrespectful of the U.S. military.
By kneeling during “The Star-Spangled Banner” before football games, Kaepernick — and, later, dozens of other football players over a nearly three-year span — said they were calling attention to the plight of African-Americans in the U.S. and later to the alleged blacklisting of Kaepernick, who has remained unsigned by an NFL team since the 2016 season.
Kaepernick and former teammate Eric Reid settled a collusion lawsuit with the NFL in February, but the protest ignited intense conversations surrounding race and patriotism in America.
The original photograph was taken by Herald staff photographer Al Diaz on Nov. 27, 2016, when the San Francisco 49ers — where Kaepernick previously played — visited the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens for a regular-season game.
Louisiana Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Democrat and former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, called the NRCC’s Kaepernick advertisement “classic race baiting by Republicans.”
“They knew when they did it that it was a racist move intended to raise money off the fear of dark skinned people, black people,” Richmond told the Herald. “This was a deliberate act to darken him up and perpetuate the fear of darker skinned people. That act is racist.”
The NRCC’s Pack told the Herald in a subsequent email that the group did not tell the vendor, the GOP-connected Targeted Victory, to doctor the photo. The vice president of Targeted Victory, Matt Gorman, previously worked as the communications director at the NRCC, a political committee aimed at helping get Republicans elected to the U.S. House.
Targeted Victory did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the Herald. The newspaper is working with Getty to determine the circumstances surrounding the photograph’s purchase and subsequent alteration.
In a statement issued Thursday afternoon, Miami Herald managing editor Rick Hirsch said the Herald did not provide the photo to the NRCC.
“Under no circumstance would we give permission for the image to be altered in this way,” Hirsch said.
Getty’s content license agreement, which licensees must agree to before purchasing content from the photo news service, prohibits the alteration of editorial content.
“Content marked ‘editorial’ may be cropped or otherwise edited for technical quality, provided that the editorial integrity of the content is not compromised, but you may not otherwise alter the content,” the agreement states.
The darkening of the skin of black men has been used as a tactic in mainstream media and politics before.
In 1994, Time Magazine was criticized as having stoked racist fears for altering a cover photograph of disgraced former NFL star O.J. Simpson to make his skin appear darker.
During the 2008 presidential race, the campaign of the late Sen. John McCain used photos in political advertisements in which Obama’s skin tone appeared to be darkened, according to a study conducted by Stanford researchers and published by Public Opinion Quarterly.
Richmond said it was “sad but not surprising” that the GOP would target Kaepernick in the advertisement.
“Instead of uniting the country, they’re purposefully dividing the country based on race,” Richmond said. “What they’re doing is taking the lead from their president.”