Colin Kaepernick is a Patriot. And Your Respectful Disagreement Makes You One Too

I want to begin by saying that disagreement, political disagreement, is healthy and useful, but that I worry about the way in which we as a society carry ourselves. Conservatives are seen as racist idiots and liberals are seen as bleeding heart idiots. It's a situation that doesn't get us anywhere. So I'm offering my thoughts on this issue with total respect for thoughtful, contrary opinions. I haven't ever lost someone to war, but I've had the privilege of knowing several military families, and I see the enormous sacrifices they make. I respect and honor their service. But I also have some deeply held beliefs that have come from studying the United States and from trying to make sense of some of the uglier truths about the United States. I say this with both modesty and respect, but this is what I've learned:

The United States has long stood for two things, above all else: freedom and equality. And I think that Colin Kaepernick's protest is, at heart, about both of these profound U.S. values. Our military's job, since its inception, has been to protect that collective freedom, but they have done so with the support of all of us whether in the form of taxes or whether in the media campaigns to get them the equipment they need or in the form of protests to bring them home safely. The larger society has supported, through taxes, institutions like the VA hospitals and, when these have been derelict in their duties, the media has held them accountable while the rest of society has offered the appropriate anger to pressure politicians into doing what's right to try and fix them. In other words, I believe that all of us have a stake in this idea of freedom and that many of us, in our own way, have made efforts to protect and do honor to that freedom.

But I also think we have to be honest about our country. We remain a beacon for democracy and yet we have a political system that now functions on huge sums of money. Candidates for office have to have deep pockets or they need to have friends with deep pockets and there seems to me something decidedly un-American about this. This fact means that our politicians are often far, far, far removed from the daily realities of life in the U.S. Most have not felt what it's been like over the last forty years for jobs to move overseas. Most have not felt what the rise in gas prices, along with the rise in food prices, the rise in health care prices, have done to family budgets. And most have certainly not felt what it's like to be a minority in our society. And this is where it gets tricky because, in truth, I don't think most of us have any real sense of what that's like.

We live in a segregated society. Not legally segregated, but socially segregated. We live in neighborhoods surrounded by people that look like us. Our kids do after-school activities with people that look like them. And even our facebook friends tend to be copies of ourselves. When we disagree with someone politically our first instinct is to "de-friend" them so that we don't have to face our differences. My line of work as a professor of Latino Studies, means that I look closely at the lives of communities of color. And I've learned a lot about those communities. And this is, finally, where Colin Kaepernick comes in.

He is protesting something real. While all of us middle class and working class families have suffered over the last few decades, communities of color have suffered more. And his protest has been 100% about bringing attention to the fact that the United States, which remains a symbol for both freedom and equality throughout the world, still has a long way to go. Now, in 2016, we remain a place where you will be treated differently if your skin is dark. Police will treat you differently. Schools will treat you differently. The legal system will treat you differently. Banks will treat you differently. Potential employers will treat you differently. It doesn't matter, or it shouldn't matter, what side of the political spectrum you're on. These are facts. They have been documented time and time again. But in an era of sensationalist media whose primary job is attracting viewers and advertising dollars, we don't talk about these facts. We stay silent about the lives of Latinos, of African Americans, of Asian Americans and of Native Americans left to their hopeless poverty on reservations and in ghettoes, and in forgotten rural corners.

Colin Kaepernick, to my knowledge, does all the right things: he has contributed large sums of money (more than most of us ever will) to community initiatives. He works in the community. And he supports those who work with communities in need. But he also decided to protest a deeper reality: We don't want to talk about racism in the United States. We don't want to think about the fact that 150 years after slavery and 50 years after the civil rights movement, we remain a place where your skin color determines your future. And so he decided to kneel.

He has been accused of a lot of things, but think about this: He didn't make a press announcement. He didn't shout or make noise; all he did was kneel during the national anthem. When we want to pray what do we do? We kneel. When someone is injured on the field, what do we do? We take a knee. Kneeling, in its own way, is a sign of respect. And I think that in Kaepernick's case it is both a sign of respect and a sign of protest. And I think it's incredibly elegant. If I understand the situation correctly, he had been kneeling for several weeks before the media picked up on it. He did it silently and on his own. A quiet respectful way of enacting both of our most deeply held beliefs: the freedom to protest the lack of equality in a nation that imagines itself as the most egalitarian place on earth. With all due respect to those who disagree, I simply can't think of a more respectful form of protest.

You can love the U.S. (as I do) and still hold it to a higher standard. We do this all the time with the people we love. We do it with our kids, we do it with our parents and, if we're brave enough, we do it with ourselves. We love, but we expect better. I no longer watch football. I can't get past the idea that the long-hidden dangers of concussions have made football a modern-day equivalent of the Roman Gladiators, men who put their health and safety, and their future well-being on the line for our entertainment; but I respect Colin Kaepernick. I respect someone who is willing to assume intense criticism and even hatred (in the Bills stadium they were selling t-shirts with his picture in the crosshairs of a rifle. Does his protest really mean he should be shot!?) for his or her beliefs.

And I believe that protest never feels "right". The British protested the Tea Party protests as the "wrong" kind of protest perpetrated by savages. We criticized the Civil Rights Movement for being the wrong kind of protest at the wrong time, and now we criticize the Black Lives Matter movement for bringing our attention to a legal and judicial system that has failed whole communities. The time is never right and the form is never right, and so I think this protest, in this moment, couldn't be more right.