“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…” “[I will continue my protest until the American flag] represents what it’s supposed to represent.” Colin Kaepernick.
His protest is in keeping with the larger arc of what limited social and moral progress we have made as a nation. When our nation was founded, the freedoms and rights many believe set us apart from all other nations were by law or by practice limited to a select group of rich white landowning men. For marginalized groups in the U.S. the very freedoms and rights we are told should be a source of national identity and pride for all citizens have not even applied to us. The moral and social progress we have made in this country has most often come from marginalized groups fighting for these rights and freedoms to extend to them as well. They have essentially asked, “Can we be included in America too?”
Kaepernick’s desires are also neither extreme nor absurd desires. He is expressing a desire for our society to address systemic racial injustice and for police accountability. Is it problematic to call our nation to address persistent injustices? Is there any community in our country that would suggest that the police who patrol their neighborhoods should be above the law?
This protest is also not opposed to the freedoms and rights guaranteed to any citizen. In fact, standing firmly in the tradition of those before him, Kaepernick is asking that the very freedoms and rights the flag is supposed to represent be applied to all people. He has not disparaged our ideals, but called us to actually live up to them.
And just like those before him, this protest is unpopular. Just as the majority of citizens were against Dr. King’s marches and boycotts, so today Kaepernick’s protest is not well received especially among White people.
This is to be expected. No protest is popular because by their nature it is going to be a group calling attention to something most people are comfortable ignoring. More to the point, every time that marginalized groups have asked “Can we be included in America too?” there has been a majority of their fellow citizens (especially White, male, Christian, Conservative citizens) who simply and loudly said, “No!”
This isn’t about the flag…
Many of Kaepernick’s detractors have tried to make this protest about something that it is clearly not. They have tried to make it about respecting the flag and the flag code, even when this code doesn’t even apply, the code is violated by the NFL and is ignored routinely in our society. They have tried to make this about the veterans, who have never been on the receiving end of a disparaging remark by Kaepernick and who has actually engaged with and listened to veterans, leading to him kneeling instead of sitting. They have tried to make this about Trump, when it started before him. They have tried to make this about Black wealth, explicitly or implicitly saying that Black people who have money should be grateful for what they have received and silent on social issues.
The use of these and other deflections shows that many in the U.S.A. desperately want to get away from the central claim that Kaepernick is making in his protest: that racial injustice, especially in regards to policing, is an ongoing issue in the USA. But why?
…This is about us.
This claim is not about the moral merits of a flag, a symbol of our nation, our values and of us, it is a claim about the moral merits of us. This claim is saying we live in and abide by a society where systemic forms of racism persist and Black and Brown people are denied equal protection under the law. This claim implicates us. It requires a response from us. It requires that we consider our personal culpability or thoughts around the issues of race, justice, and America. For many, it is far easier to pretend this entire protest is something that it is not, and rabidly consume the words and comments of politicians and media mouthpieces who agree with these deflections, than to contemplate what this protest asks of us.
#TakeAKnee or #TakeASeat
Kaepernick’s claim, that racial injustice and unequal protection under the law exist in our society, invites us to choose a response. Broadly speaking I think there might be four general options people can choose.
We can ignore it: We can choose to ignore this whole situation and try to avoid it so we don’t have to think about it. However, burying one’s head in the sand like a human ostrich doesn’t seem responsible and is increasingly difficult to do given our national conversation and media attention to this issue.
We can reject it, and attempt to claim he is factually wrong.: One could hear out Kaepernick’s claim, but claim that it is false. However, the arguments against this increasingly well-studied and publicly acknowledged reality, the arguments that we essentially live in a post-racial society, never stand up to scrutiny and are undermined by the wealth of evidence for Kaepernick’s claims. Furthermore, if one really wants to argue this point, they will almost inevitably forced to adopt racist arguments (ex: “Ethnic minorities are over-represented in prisons because they are more prone to commit crime so they get caught for it more; White people are genetically more law-abiding” “Ethnic minorities are poorer because they don’t understand how to generate wealth; White people are genetecially superior when it comes to wealth generation”).
We can accept it, and see it as the way things should be.: An alternative would be to accept Kaepernick’s claim but resist his call to change because we believe that racial injustice and unequal protection under the law are acceptable. However, people generally don’t want to go down this route because overt racism is unfashionable in the U.S.
We can accept it, and agree with his call to change: We can agree with Kaepernick’s claim, the evidence behind it, and agree that we, as a nation, are not living up to our values. This requires that we accept that we, as a society, need to change. This requires we reflect on if we are complicit in the unjust status quo, what we can do to help change it, and what we need to do differently tomorrow.
Which category does your response fall under?
So if your response to Kaepernick’s claims fall broadly within the last option please #TakeAKnee and stand in solidarity with him. If your response to Kaepernick’s protest is one of the first three, at least publicly own the decision so your community knows where you stand and can respond to you appropriately. If you are still trying to distract yourself and other people from Kaepernick’s claim by making this about Trump, the flag, or veterans, please just #TakeASeat until you are ready to deal with the elephant in America’s dining room that is race.