“I don’t understand what’s un-American about fighting for liberty and justice for everybody, for the equality this country says it stands for… To me, I see it as very patriotic and American to uphold the United States to the standards that it says it lives by.”[i]
During the National Football League (NFL) pre-season this year, San Francisco 49ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand as the National Anthem played before each game started. American football fans and non-followers alike erupted in uproar because of the supposed disrespect Kaepernick showed to the United States and the veterans who fought for freedom. His actions struck more of a chord than the meaning behind his decision.
As a professional athlete in the most popular American sport, Kaepernick chose to use his celebrity platform to protest police brutality and the senseless killing of hundreds of black men and women. In the month after he started his protest on August 26, police killed at least fifteen black people according to a Huffington Post article.[ii] Yet, many Americans of all races care more about his kneeling than the blacks being killed by police as shown by the lack of public outrage from those white conservatives over black deaths compared to Kaepernick’s actions.
Other athletes, who range from professionals to high school players of all sports to peewee football players, followed his lead as Kaepernick gained more attention from the media. Shaun King, a founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, regularly shares images of them kneeling during the anthem.
His criticizers refer to his actions as un-American and unpatriotic; however, they confuse patriotism with nationalism. Patriotism means devoted love, support, and defense of one’s country whereas nationalism means excessive patriotism and chauvinism. Charles de Gaulle explained the difference succinctly, “Patriotism is when love of your own people comes first; nationalism is when hate for people other than your own comes first.”[iii]
Colin Kaepernick wants the United States to stop oppressing black people and chose to kneel because he loves his people.[iv] He desires to make the country better and used his status to bring attention to the need for reform.
In contrast, his criticizers evoked nationalism with their reactions. They consider his actions against the law; yet, the United States Flag Code never specifically deemed not standing or not putting your right hand over your heart illegal actions (§177. Conduct during hoisting, lowering, or passing of flag). In fact, it says,
Men not in uniform should remove their headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart. (author’s emphasis)[v]
The codes, however, warn against certain actions (§176. Respect for flag) now condoned by society, such as:
(d) The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery.
(i) The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever. It should not be embroidered on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs and the like, printed or otherwise imprinted on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard.
(j) No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform.[vi]
If society interprets not standing during the National Anthem as illegal, then it needs to immediately stop its manufacture of apparel, bedding, drapery, costumes, and uniforms with depictions of the American flag and punish the offenders with “a fine not exceeding $100 or by imprisonment for not more than thirty days, or both, in the discretion of the court” (§ 3. Use of flag for advertising purposes; mutilation of flag).[vii] Instead, society uses the American flag for commercial and capitalist purposes and inherently disrespects the symbol it criticizes Kaepernick for “disrespecting.” This contradiction reveals the blatant cherry picking of Americans to only heed what pertains to their argument and disregard the rest—negationism. In other words, they act no different than Holocaust deniers who refuse to see the historical evidence that proves the Holocaust occurred.
Their criticism of Kaepernick and his “unpatriotic” actions deflect from the true issue at hand—treatment of blacks in the United States. They refuse to acknowledge racial tension and inequality continue to exist in America. Since these problems fail to affect them, racial oppression remains nonexistent in their political discourse and therefore must be imaginary.
Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery By Another Name reveals another aspect of United States history little known to mainstream American society—convict leasing after the Civil War. Law enforcement arrested black men and women for vagrancy, actual crimes, or for no reason then sold them to corporations for whom they worked in worse conditions than antebellum slavery. Their employers forced them to live in inhospitable housing, starved them, regularly punished them, and worked them often until they died of exhaustion. Because the employers paid little money for them, the black workers could easily be replaced unlike in antebellum slavery where they cost hundreds and thousands of dollars and therefore became investments.
Whites, for centuries, treated blacks as inhuman, and to this day, whites collectively treat them as secondary citizens. A standard of racial superiority continues to exist as seen in the political rhetoric of the Republican and Democratic parties and in both the liberal and conservative medias.
Kaepernick is no less an American than anyone else simply because he refuses to stand during the National Anthem.
[i] Nick Wagoner, “Bills fans boo Colin Kaepernick, chant ‘USA’ before he kneels,” ESPN, October 16, 2016, http://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/17807180/buffalo-bills-fans-chant-usa-coin-kaepernick-san-francisco-49ers-kneels.
[ii] Travis Waldron and Julie Craven, “Here’s How Many Black People Have Been Killed by Police Since Colin Kaepernick Began Protesting,” Huffington Post, September 20, 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/colin-kaepernick-police-killings_us_57e14414e4b04a1497b69ba6?.
[iii] Romain Gray, “To Mon Général,” Life, May 9, 1969, 29.
[iv] Steve Wyche, “Colin Kaepernick explains why he sat during National Anthem,” National Football League, August 27, 2016, http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap3000000691077/ article/colin-kaepernick-explains-protest-of-national-anthem.