What shall we make of a country where people who have never experienced racial discrimination object with moral indignation to an act of peaceful protest by a man whose people still do not benefit from America’s promise of equality?
What shall we make of a president who says that American citizens exercising their right of free speech are sons of bitches who should be fired? Or a president who repeatedly ignites division in America merely to toss some fresh red meat to his base?
In the first instance, we should be deeply disappointed in us. In the second, we should be deeply disappointed in him. Before the disappointment grows, let’s get a few things straight about Colin Kaepernick’s decision to take a knee during the National Anthem.
The American flag is not a sacred object. It is a piece of cloth. When we salute it, we are not honoring the flag, we are honoring what it is supposed to represent: a nation based on high ideals that include equality and freedom for citizens, regardless of their color or creed.
Similarly, the National Anthem is not a hymn. It is a song selected to remind us that our flag is soaked in the blood of Americans who have fought for those ideals since the birth of the nation. There is no law or moral obligation that requires us to stand for the Anthem or to salute the flag, nor should there be when choosing not to practice these traditions is an act of patriotism.
In my view, Colin Kaepernick’s decision is such an act. As Thomas Jefferson and other of our Founders pointed out, it is an obligation of citizenship to protest when the nation or its leaders show a lack of commitment to its ideals. Kaepernick’s protest has been a dignified and nonviolent statement that America is still not living up to the promise that all men and women are created equal and all should have the opportunity for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
In this regard, we might ask whether Kaepernick and his teammates have a legitimate reason to protest. The answer is obvious in a time when white supremacists and Nazis march in our streets and when white police officers are exonerated in case after case after they have shot and killed unarmed Black men.
There is empirical as well as incidental evidence of systemic racial discrimination in America. While Donald Trump boasts that our unemployment rate has dropped to 4.4 percent, it was 3.9 percent among white Americans last month compared to 7.7 percent among African Americans.
Black Americans still lag far behind whites in income, wealth and home ownership, according to the Pew Research Center. Black Americans are twice as likely as whites to live in poverty. This is not due to a lack of ambition or hard work. In 2013, the most recent year reported by Pew, white households led by someone with a college degree had median wealth of more than $300,000, compared to $26,300 for households led by college-educated African-Americans.
Another complaint from the president and on social media is that Kaepernick’s protest shows disrespect for the men and women in the military who have fought to defend America and its principles. It is important to remember that those soldiers include the more than 2 million Americans who served in the Union Army during the Civil War.
I can speak with more authority about the Vietnam war because I was in it. The men and women who participated in that war included the highest percentage of African-Americans to fight in any previous conflict. I served alongside them. Insofar as any of us served with a sense of duty, obligation and patriotism, we did not fight for a flag or a song. We fought for the American ideal and in faith that we are nation that tries hard to achieve it. By taking a knee during the National Anthem, Kaepernick is reminding us that we still have a lot of work to do.
For these reasons, it is clear to me that those who criticize Kaepernick and his teammates for a lack of patriotism are actually guilty themselves of false or mistaken patriotism. True patriots are those who fight for America either on foreign battlefields or at home in acts of conscientious objection to and nonviolent protest against inequality and injustice.
There is nothing patriotic about Donald Trump’s criticism of Kaepernick. He has merely found another way to make headlines that please the false patriots in his base. In this nation that elected Trump to the presidency and that has tolerated all that has happened since, I would take a knee with Kaepernick if I had the chance.
Author’s caveat: This post contains my personal opinions. It does not represent the views of my project or anyone who is associated with it.