Why I Don’t Agree with Colin Kaepernick, but Support that You Do
Why I Support Kaep, but Probably Not Your Opinion of His Protest
Last week 49’ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick made headlines in choosing to sit down rather than stand for the national anthem. The story has dominated the recent news cycle and social media with strong opinions on all sides. It is an issue that hits on the nature and message of a protest, custom vs regulation, and even the latent racism that remains in the fabric of our national songs and documents. To me as a sociologist, all that discussion makes the protest positive and productive, especially given its peaceful nature. But from the beginning I’ve been in disagreement with Kaep and many of his supporters for a few specific reasons. Before I explain why, though, a quick statement of my principals:
I DON’T believe he should be fired, benched, or otherwise punished for taking this or any political stand.
I DO believe it’s right and fair for anyone who disagrees with his stance to express their disagreement, anger, and/or offense, and note that that offense is not necessarily derived from a support for the racist structures against which he’s protesting.
I DO think it’s ridiculous that folks inside the NFL (owners, et al) are denouncing Kaepernick so strongly when they regularly, warmly welcome back domestic abusers and other criminals.
I DO believe he should probably be cut because he’s bad at football. (Inexplicably, really. I mean, he once looked to be the face of the franchise for the next decade… but I digress…)
I DON’T agree with and, in fact, can’t stand the plethora of memes saying something to the effect of “Cops kill people every day no one bats an eye, one quarterback sits down and everyone loses their minds”. People all over our country HAVE been talking about, paying attention to, protesting, and debating the scourge of police brutality. Whether any meaningful change has yet been made is subject to debate (spoiler: it hasn’t), but claiming that no one gives a shit would be pretty hard to factually substantiate. Also, he’s a celebrity in one of the most popular forms of entertainment in our nation and we’re Americans – we’re going to over-talk the actions of our celebrities.
This is not to say that racial inequality is an issue of the past and that Kaepernick’s protest is ill-founded. It is also not to say that because he is a multi-millionaire athlete he has no ground to speak on oppression. I actually believe there are far too few Kaeps out there willing to use their elevated platform to speak on important issues.
No, I have two contentions with Kaep’s protest and the first is this:
it is an act of disrespect that many folks would like to pretend is something less. It is custom, certainly not law or other regulation, that dictates we stand during our national anthem (or that of any other country, as we were recently reminded with the Rio Olympics), expressing our love for the country that has given us (at least in theory) an environment of freedom and prosperity and expressing our respect for those that have dedicated their life to protecting those notions and values. But it being custom only does not make adherence or ignorance of it mean less. Not standing is not a passive move as many a meme would want us to believe. Yes, it is entirely his right and his choice. Anyone debating those points is off-base. But it was also an intentional and principally loud statement, to which many, especially servicemen and women, take strong offense. And yes, I’ve seen the #VeteranswithKaepernick, I know they exist. But that still says nothing about the many (and I’ve heard from many) who are indeed angry and offended. It’s not jingoistic rhetoric.
But that alone is not the issue. I have no problem with Kaepernick making an incendiary and disrespectful statement as a form of protest. But acting like it is something less than that, pretending that Kaepernick’s was not a direct affront is us on the Left wanting to have our cake and eat it too. We want our heroes to take strong stances but ‘America does not deserve my respect’ is too sharp a statement for some so we try to soften and curve the edges. Which makes my issue with Kaep’s stance really an issue with a portion of his supporters, the Facebook philosophers who achieve righteousness through repetition. They believe a protest against one evil is a stance against all evils.
This brings me to my second issue with Kaep’s protest: in my opinion, it seems empty. Given that the offense is not directed at the police departments whose brutality would seem to be the center of his protest, in my opinion his choice seems misdirected and, frankly, vague. Which of our many problems must be fixed and how for the QB to regain respect for his home country? Or is that simply impossible? Is it the racial disparity of police brutality that he’s specifically fighting against or racial inequality as a whole?
One additional point: in my opinion, saying that Kaep was right not to stand because the national anthem is, y’know, kinda racist anyway is simply clouding the issue. TheRoot.com’s article is certainly not the first public discovery and denunciation of the song but few of us have ever heard of the movement against the anthem which has grown in passion over the last week due to its reference in the third verse about slaves whom the British hired to fight on their side in exchange for their freedom:
“No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave..”.
Eliminating indoctrinated racism and other sanctioned oppression is a noble and worthwhile pursuit and if folks feel strongly about changing the national anthem to something more inclusive I think that is a worthy conversation to be had. But that’s not what Kaepernick was protesting.
We are a nation founded on the oppression and pillage of other peoples and the process of shedding that bigoted skin often seems stagnant. I’ve not yet seen us, though, selectively eliminating the works of our slave-owning, bigoted Founding Fathers based on that context. Perhaps Francis Scott Key was as vile an individual as the brave and eloquent Shaun King has extolled, but that alone doesn’t make the song he wrote worthless. So much of what we have in this country was designed and built by bigoted men. That doesn’t mean I don’t like living here, or that I wish they hadn’t created it, and that their works are nullified by personal stances that I hope a 1700’s version of myself would find reprehensible (but who’s to know?). I’m not much one for advocating tearing at the walls until you have some plan what you want to build in their wake.
And just for reference, freed slaves fighting for the British in the War of 1812 was not out of some noble notion of humanity, it was military strategy. England didn’t outlaw slavery until 1833.
I think Kaep’s protest and the ensuing dialogue this week speaks more to me about us on the political Left than it does about those on the Right clamoring for Kaep to be fired (or worse) based on taking a sociopolitical stance. As I said above, those folks are off-base. It is both his lawful right and ethical choice and any discussion we have on the matter concerns only our opinions of his action and nothing more. But there are those of us on the Left who believe that in times of injustice any action is the right action, that simply calling attention to a problem is sufficient. In these times, when the “good old days” crowd is rising in volume, I don’t think that’s enough. If we want to make the move from Twitter liberals to real progressives, I believe we need to start being more clear what we’re fighting against and what we want to build after we’ve torn down the old, bigoted, white-only systems. Shaun is pretty clear, and others are with him, about wanting a new national anthem. That is a concise and tangible goal in the battle for greater equality and inclusion, albeit perhaps difficult to achieve. Anybody got any ideas (no Kanye or Kenny Chesney please)? Who wants to take up that process or do we just hope that someone in the government we definitively don’t trust is just going to handle it?
The ardent liberal in me supports Kaepernick’s protest, encouraged by someone with spotlight status putting the national dialogue about racial inequality and oppression on an elevated platform. But I also think there are too many of us who want to burn without building, decry problems without solutions, and rally just as quickly into ideologue camps as our narrow-minded opponents on the Right. The statement made by Kaep’s protest is, “America is not deserving of my respect, at least not right now” and if we’re going to discuss that statement let’s do so without shying away from its harsh truth and with a focus on how we collectively create something better.
Now that we’ve all talked about it, Colin, what comes next?