By Bomani Jones, The Undefeated
Friday night, in a league whose business is Americana, Colin Kaepernick took a stand rarely seen in pro sports. It wasn’t from his seat on the sideline, where he paid no regard for the national anthem in its favorite game. It was after — when Steve Wyche of the NFL Network asked why he sat while others stood. Kaepernick was strident, unflinching and unapologetic. When reporters surrounded his locker Sunday for more, he gave it to them.
The attention he’s received was ineluctable, but he hadn’t courted it. Had he done so, more than one reporter would have noticed that he stayed seated and asked him about it. Or asked after the previous game, when — though he didn’t play — he did the same thing. But he did not hide when confronted, as New England Patriot Tom Brady did while giving airtime to GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump via conveniently placed campaign paraphernalia in his locker. With more to lose than Brady, he made himself clearer.
There’s an undeniable nobility in what was an impactful — but ultimately harmless — display, even if one disagrees. Kaepernick didn’t do this in a crowd, surrounded by thousands. He sat alone, wearing a red, white and blue shield on his jersey. The NFL takes many of its cues from the military and has encouraged the idea that reverence for the military is a citizen’s requirement, not choice. The draft is gone, but we’ve all been conscripted as unquestioning devotees whose gratitude can be demanded by anyone at any time. Kaepernick wasn’t addressing the military, but that was widely and predictably inferred. In spite of this, Kaepernick had the audacity to sit in opposition to what he felt he’d stood for too long.
This wasn’t what Carmelo Anthony and Friends did at The ESPYS, a moment that was important but took great pains to make a statement that offended no one. It wasn’t what the belated Michael Jordan did on this website when he announced he was donating money to groups representing the interests of black people and the police. To paraphrase Peter Tosh, they asked for peace while Kaepernick cried out for justice. That distinction is both subtle and significant.
Kaepernick even went beyond the WNBA players who stood in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and asked their league to do the same. He made no plea to both sides, nor did he make a call for unity. He’s not concerned with whether his team or his league has his back. When he could have smoothed over any pending reaction to his actions, he focused squarely on racism, the most consistent and overpowering impediment to black success in America, and the thread that connects every era of its history. While the major party candidates for president spent the week pointing at each other with charges of who is or isn’t the real racist, Kaepernick pointed at the flag and, by extension, every person who takes pride in the American flag. And he did so alone, fully aware that backup might never come.
This is what a stand looks like. For better or worse, stands that demand people come together rarely have that effect. And contrary to popular belief, stands do not create divisions and fissures. They amplify them. The whole point of a stand is to put them on display, to ask the world to confront and examine their hypocrisies and ask why they’re on one side and not the other. Protests that don’t offend aren’t worth the effort. The ones that do are the ones that can change the world.
Now let’s be clear: Kaepernick’s stand will not change the world. Neither did Muhammad Ali’s, nor have very few individual actions. The dramatic acts of individuals sound good in history books, but rarely seem so in real time. What Kaepernick did won’t change America or even the NFL.
That’s not his fault, though, and that’s no excuse for minimizing what he chose to do and say. America’s remarkable stability is the product of a structural resistance to fundamental change and its history is interwoven with racism that was once self-evident but now operates with winks and nods that few in power are willing to fight. To oppose racism is righteous. To deny its existence, no matter the reason, is cowardice. To treat a peaceful protest like an act of war against whiteness or America — notions used interchangeably in this debate, which is problematic — is hypocrisy.
The easy question to ask is whether one agrees with Kaepernick’s manner of protest — thus allowing respondents to ignore the substance of his thoughtful, measured critiques. The most disingenuous answers tend to come from those who defend his right to ignore the national anthem while making sure the world knows there were better ways for him to make his point, while, of course, stopping short of addressing the point itself.
The meat of the issue is his words. Kaepernick declared that this country oppresses black people and its law enforcement officers kill black people with impunity — often receiving pats on the back for doing so. Both history and the newspaper support his belief. We’ve seen Americans give from their own pockets to police officers known only for killing black teenagers. Even George Zimmerman took in hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from strangers, and he wasn’t even an officer of the law.
To ignore the national anthem for those reasons is to challenge the very notion of what America is. It’s to ask whether what he’s fighting against is represented by the flag rather than thriving in spite of it.
It’s the flag that flew when slaves were freed, but that took nearly a century. It’s the flag blacks fought for all over the world, upholding a notion of freedom they wouldn’t experience themselves. And now, in 2016, it’s the one cowards wrap themselves in while promoting the decidedly un-American notion of exclusion.
That’s why the flag generates conflict in many blacks, while white people have the luxury of saluting it without scrutiny. It’s also the banner, in theory, that affords Kaepernick the right to pay it no mind. In line with essayist James Baldwin’s assertion that his love for the nation is what drove him to critique her mercilessly, Kaepernick’s challenge to America is actually the most American thing he can do.
So many of those who have demanded our nation earn their respect loved it the most. Jackie Robinson loved America and served in the military, but wrote in his autobiography that he would not stand for the national anthem. Paul Robeson’s patriotism was questioned by Joseph McCarthy, but it drove his fierce demand to be treated as a true citizen. There’s nothing American about settling for good enough, let alone being satisfied with not-as-bad-as-it-used-to-be.
And there’s nothing American about muzzling a dissenting voice, especially one whose life is the sort of story people cite as an example of the American dream. A black child adopted by white parents becomes a rich celebrity, praised for his talents and giving credence to the idea that anyone can make it. But nothing in that heartwarming tale has protected him from racism, nor will any of that make him safer when he’s pulled over by the police. His parents may be white, but that didn’t matter a bit when cops pulled a gun on him, a story Kaepernick relayed Sunday.
What should protect him is American citizenship, and there’s too much evidence to indicate that’s not working for him and millions of others. If a man willing to risk his livelihood to say so can’t get his country to even consider what could bring him to that point, how could anyone honestly dismiss his point?
There seems to be no objective argument that makes Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the anthem — which will continue, he says — wrong, even if one doesn’t think it was right. Just as one can oppose the war in Afghanistan and respect Pat Tillman’s decision to fight there, one can respect Kaepernick’s much smaller sacrifice. The only way one can’t is if one sees no nobility in his cause. And if someone struggles to see the merit in standing for the black and brown people who have been continually mistreated in this country, perhaps it is that person’s patriotism that should be questioned, not the man willing to stand before his country and take whatever comes next.