Over the last few weeks, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick ignited a cultural firestorm by continuing to sit during the pregame National Anthem. Kap’s one simple gesture brought together a perfect storm of race, patriotism, and how to best effect change in our great nation. There are a lot of moving parts to this story, so bear with me.
The American Military, each branch of service, is full of brave men and women that sacrifice a lot, up to and including their lives. Truly, there’s a debt to those folks that we can never totally repay. All that being said, the military isn’t the sole reason why America is great. The Republic is great because we are a nation of laws, where each citizen is the same. The US is great because when she is wrong, we’ve internally had the fortitude to change her for the better. In less than 250 years, America has gone from a colonial settlement to the world’s lone super power.
America is not just her military. Meaning, you can criticize the country without taking anything away from or slighting the brave men and women in uniform. The Star Spangled Banner is the national anthem of the United States of America, not just of it’s military. I understand how important the anthem is to a lot of people. But I think that those Americans that died on every battlefield from Lexington and Concord to Fallujah sacrificed themselves for America, her values and her freedoms and not just for a song. And because the America and her military are not one and the same, you can say “America sucks, but there are brave men and women that are the bravest folks out there.”
America is not and has never been perfect. When the Founding Fathers put pen to parchment in the 1700s, they weren’t professing how great America was, they were setting the guidelines for how great America could and should be. There were protections written into the US Constitution to give citizens the ability to effect change within the government, something that they didn’t have under the rule of the British monarchy. Citizens could elect their representatives. Citizens could now peacefully assemble. The groundwork to make America great had been laid.
We have heard a lot of talk about patriotism lately and who loves America more. And there’s been insinuation that when African Americans protest or complain about America they don’t love it. There’s this underlying notion that if you point out what’s wrong with America, obviously you hate her and you should just leave. I’ve talked to real patriots. I’ve talked to African Americans that volunteered for World War 2, to fight for a country that still had “colored” drinking fountains. I’ve talked to African Americans that have fought for freedoms for people all over this world only to return home and be told by America that they aren’t Americans simply because they were black. African Americans have shed blood in every war that America has been engaged in, fighting for a country that was not fighting for them.
My father joined the US Navy in 1955, after graduating from segregated Louisville’s Central High School. He joined the Louisville Police Department and served for 22 years. He retired with the rank of Major, assistant chief in charge of the department’s new recruit training. I asked him once, “Why?” Why would you sign up to defend and protect a country that treated you with such contempt? He told me that he loved America, not as she was, but what she could be. And a lot of his generation felt the same way. Which is why the returning WW2 veterans became the backbone of the American Civil Rights Movement. People like Medgar Evers, who served bravely overseas only to return home and die because he demanded that America live up to its promise.
And that’s all Colin Kaepernick is asking for. He hasn’t disparaged the military. He hasn’t asked for anything more than justice. How many times must we see an unarmed minority killed by police officers without any repercussions? How long must minorities be unfairly targeted by the police? Police department after police department has been investigated by the Department of Justice and the evidence is clear that there’s a systemic issue with how minorities are treated by police (if you’re ok with how the Baltimore PD treats American citizens, then you’re part of the problem). Kap’s protest is meant to highlight these issues, to force a discussion that America is thankfully having.
Kaepernick is free to exercise his First Amendment right to protest. And you’re free to react to his actions. That’s what makes America great. But before we get stuck on the manner of the protest, listen to the why. Try to understand that America doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone, and it shouldn’t. What we should all try to do is be more empathetic to each other. As Americans we should try to understand that while we are Americans, our personal experience is going to vary depending on all sorts of factors that, yes, include race. You may disagree with the way Colin Kaepernick protested, but don’t let that overshadow his message.