Everyone seems to have an opinion on Colin Kaepernick and his actions surrounding the national anthem. Kaepernick has helped start a national discussion on the question of how Black people are treated by police officers in our country, by first sitting during the national anthem at 49er games, and then moving to kneeling. In his words, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
More athletes have joined in with Kaepernick, and while many people supported them, many more have been critical and disapproving.
I started writing this in response to Dabo Swinney’s comments but since then, I have seen lots of other people posting similar comments to his. So instead of singling him out, I will instead call this “Six Problematic Things (mostly) White People Say.”
“This is disrespectful to our military personnel and people who have served in the armed forces.”
The flag and the anthem represent far more than our military forces. They stand for our entire country and all the citizens in it. Kneeling, or sitting, or standing with raised fist in order to draw attention to the way that many citizens do not enjoy the same equality of treatment is not criticizing or demeaning the contributions and service of our armed forces. It is calling attention to the fact that many do not experience “freedom and justice for all” in the way that our principles as a country proclaim. It is calling for people to notice, understand, and empathize with the situation, and to work for change where we don’t live up to the phrase “the land of the free”.
I have seen people “disrespect” the anthem and the flag by paying attention to their cell phones, eating snacks, arranging their seats, talking to their friends, etc., many times. I have never seen any uproar about that, even though it is far more widespread, and has no higher purpose or concern other than it was what that person wanted to do. It is their right to ignore the flag and the anthem, as they choose; it is the right of these athletes to exercise their right to free speech as regulated by the Constitution, to kneel, sit, or stand with raised fist.
[Side note: the national anthem has been criticized as having a racist third verse, in which Francis Scott Key lauded the death of slaves. I realize that we do not sing that verse, and most of us are unaware of it; however, it gives further weight to the choice of those who would desire to not sing it or give honor to it.]
“It’s not good to use the team as a platform; he should call a press conference instead.”
“He is just an entitled entertainer. He should keep his mouth shut, since he has been successful.”
How is calling a press conference *not* using his team or his stature as a football player as a platform? And isn’t it a good thing to use one’s celebrity/resources/place in the public eye to draw attention to issues that you think need it? Sports figures do this all the time, for all sorts of issues. The entire NFL does it during October for breast cancer awareness, for example. Celebrities (whether they are experts on a subject or not) go to Congress to testify about things that they think need attention, with the hope of getting some results. Philanthropists donate money and hold fundraisers and use what privilege and opportunities they have to bring attention to needs. We seem to think that it’s okay for those issues. We laud people for using their time and resources to help those who do not have the same resources. So why not on this issue? Why shouldn’t those with a platform draw attention to the problem of the disparity of how, in far too many instances, people of color are treated by police officers ?
The point of a protest is to get people’s attention. If no one pays attention, then it is not an effective protest. Kaepernick got people’s attention, and got them talking.
“This is causing division.”
Kaepernick’s protest is not causing division, but rather exposing the divide that already exists.
“Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured. “
–Martin Luther King, Jr.
Speaking of MLK….
“Martin Luther King, Jr. would be appalled. He never did anything like this.”
Many people like to appropriate MLK now, with little to no understanding of what he said when he was alive. He promoted peaceful demonstrations, but he also understood the hopelessness and rage that gives way to violence. He himself was committed to non-violence, and yet he was killed by violence. Since so many feel free to speculate on how Dr. King would act and what he would say, were he alive today, I will offer my opinion: he would be deeply grieved that we have gained so little ground in the struggle against systemic racism. And while there has been individual progress in many individual lives (which people like to point out as proof: look at Oprah! Look at all the black athletes! Look at President Obama! Things are so much better!), there is still deep systemic racism that affects Black people, not the least of which is the implicit (and sometimes explicit) bias of police forces against people of color. (This list by Vanity Fair gathers in many studies and analyses of data that demonstrate this.)
But don’t take my word for it. Let Dr. King’s words speak for themselves.
You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham [edit.: or Charlotte or Ferguson or Baton Rouge or… ]. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails so express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative. –Dr. Martin Luther King, Letter from a Birmingham Jail
And here are his thoughts on not-so-peaceful demonstrations:
But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear?…It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.” -Martin Luther King, 1968
“It’s not a skin problem, it’s a sin problem.”
I don’t know why this is such a durable saying; perhaps because it has some truth, and perhaps because it rhymes. (We love a good simple truism that rhymes.) But there’s a problem. While it is true that racism is a sin problem, it is because it IS a skin problem. If that weren’t the case, it would not be called racism. There wouldn’t be anything to call it, because it wouldn’t exist. The “sin problem” IS the problem that people have with other people’s skin.
Let’s apply this saying to other social ills.
“It’s not an abortion problem, it’s a sin problem.” So…we shouldn’t work to change laws/policies regarding abortion; instead, we should only focus on people’s hearts?
“It’s not a sex trafficking problem, it’s a sin problem.” So….we shouldn’t try to rescue those who are being sexually trafficked and abused, but instead just try to change the hearts of those who are buying their services/pimping them out?
“It’s not a child/spouse abuse problem, it’s a sin problem.” So…we should allow people to beat on their spouse and children, and just pray for their hearts to be changed?
Racism is both individualistic and systemic. While we do pray, and communicate with individuals and try to change hearts, we also work within systems to correct problems and root out the issues within existing systems—just as we do for all of the other social problems.
“I support their right to protest, but it’s the wrong place/time/method.”
Honest question: what would be the right place/time/method? Because it seems like people are never happy with a protest, unless it does not disrupt them in any way, shape, or form.
This is one of the most peaceful types of protests that one could do. It does not disrupt the game. It does not prevent people from doing their jobs. It does not remove anything from anyone.
It gets people to think about injustice in the United States. It may offend some of your ideas or beliefs. But that is what it is meant to do. As stated above, a protest is meant to elicit a response. It’s meant to point out a problem, and get people talking, thinking, and acting on what an appropriate solution to the problem might be.
I am glad that Colin Kaepernick has used his privilege as a highly talented, highly paid professional athlete to shine a light on the continuing problems that we have in our criminal justice system. I support him, and all others like him, who are willing to sacrifice money, reputation, and the adulation of fans to help their fellow human beings in the quest for equal treatment under the law.