Last week, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick drew vitriol from fans when he chose to protest racial inequalities in America by refusing to stand during the national anthem. While Kaepernick’s act of protest was, legally, a legitimate exercise of the First Amendment, critics accused him of being unpatriotic and anti-American. The outrage surrounding Kaepernick's protest raises deeper questions of what it means to be patriotic, and whose free speech the public deems legitimate.
In a nation built on the freedom to dissent, it seems quintessentially “American” that one should have the right to freely express his or her beliefs. Those who criticized Kaepernick cited the sanctity of the national anthem and the duty of American citizens to honor the sacrifices of veterans and troops. Yet the freedoms extolled in the Star-Spangled Banner and for which American soldiers fought, include the right to choose whether to sit or stand; to speak or remain silent. Our national symbols ought to be cherished not as ritualistic tokens, but for the constitutional freedoms they celebrate.
Critics who have called Kaepernick “unpatriotic” ought to realize that love for one’s country does not entail blindness to its faults. Most people acknowledge that America has flaws; yet our judgments of who is and isn’t allowed to criticize America are often rife with hypocrisy and double standards. Some critics, including GOP nominee Donald Trump, suggested that Kaepernick should find another country to live in. The irony of this statement coming from a presidential candidate who has campaigned under the premise that America is no longer “great” and has published a book titled Crippled America is hard to miss. While a presidential nominee is lauded for portraying a broken America, a minority athlete is vilified for pointing out its imperfections. As these accusations of being “un-American” show, patriotic ideals can be used to exclude and alienate. With the historical precedent of athletes of color like Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Mahmoud Abdul Rauf receiving harsh backlash for engaging in similar symbolic protests, it bears asking whether a white athlete would have drawn the same response.
In addition to applying certain double standards, some critics of Kaepernick have claimed that his “privilege” as a wealthy athlete disqualifies him from commenting on oppression. Yet it is his position in the public eye that enables him to effectively draw attention to salient causes and issues. While black athletes and entertainers are celebrated on the field and on the stage, those who engage in political activism often face anger and alienation (for instance, Beyonce’s Black Lives Matter-themed Super Bowl half time performance was met with outrage and calls for boycotting). Some fans take issue with athletes or entertainers using their public stages as a platform. But while we adulate these public figures for performing their jobs, we ought to also recognize their rights as private citizens to express opinions and speak out on issues of their identities or communities that they care deeply about.
It is unfortunate that conversations about Kaepernick’s protest have focused on the symbolism rather than the substance of his position. Critics outraged about Kaepernick’s act of silent protest but not the acts of injustice that inspired it ought to reevaluate what issues truly deserve their anger and concern. Likewise, proponents of First Amendment rights and constitutional freedoms who condemn Kaepernick should keep in mind the glaring discrepancies in whose “free speech” they look to protect.
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