Three of America’s most incendiary issues—race, patriotism and sports—have ignited into a bonfire of controversy. Soon, we’ll be seeing “America: Love it or Leave it” bumper stickers again.
And if we reduce race in America to bumper-sticker mentality, we’ll miss a splendid opportunity to advance as a nation.
Unless you’re on a mission to Mars—and how are you reading the Baptist Standard?—you probably know the background: San Francisco 49ers backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick has kicked off the National Football League season by refusing to stand during the National Anthem. He is taking a knee to protest racial injustice, he said.
“I think it’s become so obvious that athletes and people in general have to react,” Kaepernick told ESPN. “At what point do we do something about it? At what point do we take a stand and as a people say, ‘This isn’t right’?”
Since Kaepernick began his protest, some other NFL players have joined him, and reaction across the league has been divided. Not surprisingly, the protest has become a factor in the presidential campaign.
If you’re of a certain age or you studied America’s response to the Vietnam conflict, this feels like déjà vu all over again. While our troops fought a real war overseas, people back home fought a verbal war, at least in part, over the meaning of patriotism.
Then, as now, some people equate saluting the flag and singing the National Anthem—and, since 9/11, “God Bless America”—as true patriotism. This is understandable, because the flag and the National Anthem are prominent symbols of our shared legacy and democratic ideals. When we glimpse Old Glory or sing “… Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave,” we still get goosebumps.
Two wrongs make … two wrongs
It’s not that simple, of course. In fact, it’s wrong-headed on two levels.
First, some people love our nation passionately, and they want it to improve. So, they choose strong symbolic protest—such as refusing to stand during the National Anthem—as a way to get people’s attention. They’re kneeling on a seismic, volatile platform to point out where and how America needs to rise to its patriotic ideals.
Although their criticism can be labeled as disloyalty, it’s often the truest form of loyalty. It’s the kind of loyalty that risks rejection, condemnation and scorn for the sake of higher ideals. In the case of Kaepernick and his fellow protestors, it ranges from censure and ridicule, to potential loss of endorsement funds, possibly even to shortened careers. Even if you disagree with their methods, you have to admit they’re embracing one of our most patriotic principles—personal sacrifice—for the sake of their cause, racial justice.
Second, some people wave the flag and bellow the National Anthem as validation of their patriotism, and yet their daily, ongoing actions undermine their professed love our nation and the principles for which it stands. Their lips say, “yes, yes,” but their actions shout, “no, no.”
They fashion themselves as “patriots,” but their behavior belies their braggadocio. They do and say things that perpetuate racial division and injustice. They undermine the rights and equality of blacks, Latinos, Asian-Americans, Muslims, women, the LGBT community, and just about anybody who is “different.” Actions that harm and oppress minorities of any kind desecrate our national flag, which stands for liberty.
(An aside: Don’t you find politicians’ criticism of Kaepernick & Co. ironic when those same pols lament how terrible America is these days? Maybe it’s OK to run down your country to scare up white votes but not to secure black equality.)
Detracting from teachability
The loud declarations over the NFL-sideline protests distort the issue and detract all of us—whatever our race, ethnicity and national origin—from the teachable moments that should be taking place on Sunday afternoons across America.
Rather than dismiss protesting athletes as pampered, high-paid jocks who should just shut up and play football, we should ask what propels them to risk their reputations and careers. If we look past the bumper-sticker answers, perhaps we will see they have a point. We need to improve racial equality in America. And even if we don’t agree with their method of protest, that doesn’t mean we dismiss their point. We still need to do something about racial inequality in America.
Baptists, of all Americans, should be sympathetic to the right to protest. We were born in dissent 408 years ago. During the colonial period, we were the outcast protestors, despised for our outlying religious beliefs. During the foundational years of this young nation, we championed the First Amendment—the very document that guarantees both our religious expression and Kaepernick’s protest. Across the generations, with some shameful exceptions, we have been the champions of rights for all kinds of minorities and dissenters, as well as thorns in the side of the otherwise comfortable.
It’s time to stand up for the rights of young men who kneel during the National Anthem. And it’s time to demand we all listen to the reasons they choose to kneel.
Follow Marv on Twitter: @marvknoxbs