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Colin Kaepernick and a False Dichotomy

(Michael Zagaris / San Francisco 49ers / Getty)

It probably also guarantees he will not be standing anytime soon, given that these are highly charged social issues which are deeply complex and are probably not going to be ‘fixed’ in the foreseeable future.”

Colin Kaepernick has generated much attention since his decision to kneel during the playing of the American national anthem. It was not unexpected, then, that Kaepernick’s reaction to the horrific and tragic death of George Floyd while in police custody made news this past week: “When civility leads to death, revolting is the only logical reaction. The cries for peace will rain down, and when they do, they will land on deaf ears, because your violence has brought this resistance. We have the right to fight back!” 

As quoted by Georgetown sociology professor Michael Eric Dyson, Kaepernick has said he is “going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed. To me, this is something that has to change, and when there’s significant change – and I feel like that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent, and this country is representing people the way it’s supposed to – I’ll stand.” 

Kaepernick’s statement is broad and wide-ranging. It is also vague about what constitutes a state of affairs where the flag “represents what it’s supposed to represent” and the “country is representing the people the way it’s supposed to.” People can have a multiplicity of opinions about what state of affairs would prevail when the flag “represents what it’s supposed to represent” or the “country is representing the people the way it’s supposed to.” I am not prepared to grant Kaepernick (or anyone else) the role of arbiter on when it is permissible to stand for the anthem.

Nevertheless, his statement was originally motivated by a concern about police brutality, specifically the shooting of black civilians by police officers. His concern has since come to encompass a more inclusive set of racial injustices. This is a courageous act which jeopardized, if not entirely ended, his NFL career. It probably also guarantees he will not be standing anytime soon, given that these are highly charged social issues which are deeply complex and are probably not going to be “fixed” in the foreseeable future. Even the nature of the problem can be a matter of dispute. 

One prominent study by economist Roland Fryer found “no racial differences in either the raw data or when contextual factors are taken into account” in the likelihood of being shot by a police officer, though it did find that “[o]n non-lethal uses of force, blacks and Hispanics are more than fifty percent more likely to experience some form of force in interactions with police.” This is only one study, but other examples of research suggest that, while blacks are more likely than whites to be ill-treated by police officers, blacks are not necessarily more likely than whites to be killed by the police. It is also simply not true that “the names change but the color is always black.”

It is a society that is prosperous and free and rife with ongoing conversations about justice, the light of which never dies in spite of the inevitable cross winds of reaction and discord endemic to the human race.

The United States has much to atone for, but it also has much to celebrate. Its constitution has endured for more than two centuries, providing an institutional framework of checks and balances within which various factions fighting on behalf of various interests have been able to pursue the cause of justice, however long they have taken to succeed. It survived a civil war that brought an end to slavery. It is a society that is prosperous and free and rife with ongoing conversations about justice, the light of which never dies in spite of the inevitable cross winds of reaction and discord endemic to the human race. It spearheaded the effort to defeat forces of evil in World War II. It won the Cold War. It has produced some of the finest leaders the world has ever seen, among them George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The United States is also a country that has shown a remarkable capacity for self-examination and self-improvement over the course of its history, and it is rightly criticized from within not because the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to which it aspires are not worthy, but because those ideals were denied to black Americans for so long. But Professor Dyson, in arguing that “Kaepernick’s situation highlights just how little progress we’ve made in this country in confronting the brutal legacy of racism,” distinguishes between patriotism and nationalism, claiming that “[m]any who oppose Kaepernick because of patriotism are really opposing him because of nationalism,” which he describes as “the uncritical celebration of one’s nation regardless of its moral or political virtue.” 

Nationalism, Dyson writes, “is a harmful belief that can lead a country down a dangerous spiral of arrogance, or off the precipice of political narcissism,” and demands “that no matter what one’s country does, it must be supported.” Thus, “[i]f a nation practices racism, homophobia, sexism, xenophobia or the like, it must be celebrated and accepted at all costs.” In contrast, Dyson writes, “[p]atriotism is a bigger, more uplifting virtue.” It is the “belief in the best values of one’s country, and the pursuit of the best means to realize those values. If the nation strays, then it must be corrected. The patriot is the person who, spotting the need for change, says so clearly and loudly, without hate or rancor. The nationalist is the person who spurns such correction and would rather take refuge in bigotry than fight it. It is the nationalists who wrap themselves in a flag and loudly proclaim themselves as patriots.”

The distinction between nationalism and patriotism gives us pause in our criticism of Kaepernick. Certainly there are many who choose to ignore (or simply forget) the failures of America in their rush to attack Kaepernick. But Dyson’s distinction is limiting. One is not necessarily either a patriot or a nationalist. Those who would like to see Colin Kaepernick continue to respect the flag can be patriots who celebrate America’s achievements, while also engaging in thoughtful critiques of America’s shortcomings. And just as there are “nationalists” who lambaste Kaepernick while ignoring the failures of America, there are “patriots” who support Kaepernick for highlighting the failures of America while refusing, or forgetting, to acknowledge the successes of America. Dyson’s generalization is a false dichotomy.

There are unlimited ways in a free society to advance the conversation on progress. There is the Black Lives Matter movement. There is a vibrant discourse among public intellectuals and university academics to improve our understanding of socioeconomic racial disparities. Georgetown University has implemented a policy to give admission preference to the descendants of slaves. Meanwhile, Kaepernick has created a media storm that will likely have more of an impact on him (good and/or bad) than it will have on “justice,” while dishonoring the ideals and successes that the flag represents (and that the anthem is meant to celebrate). 

That ideal has not always been honored in the actions of an imperfect humanity. But we can honor the flag to show respect for a country in which the discourse on progress is able to continue. 

Kaepernick’s form of protest is a muddled response to the issues he says he cares about and serves more to antagonize than to engage. Instead of addressing specific injustices with concrete plans (though it must be acknowledged that Kaepernick has admirably pledged to donate $1 million to “organizations working in oppressed communities”), Kaepernick is targeting an anthem and a flag that represent the very ideal of freedom that allows him to voice his concerns. That ideal has not always been honored in the actions of an imperfect humanity. But we can honor the flag to show respect for a country in which the discourse on progress is able to continue. 

Standing during the anthem is about respecting the institutions that guarantee the right to criticize those institutions. America has its failures, but it has its achievements as well. That is why I honor athletes like pole vaulter Sam Kendricks, who stopped in the middle of his run down the runway during the 2016 Olympics to stand at attention because the anthem began to play, rather than Colin Kaepernick.

Jonathan David Church is an economist and writer. He is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell University, and he has contributed to a variety of publications, including Quillette and Areo Magazine.

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