It keeps getting bigger.
One might have expected last month’s protest by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, his refusal to stand for the national anthem, to have blown over by now. Instead, it has caught fire. Sunday, members of the Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs all staged protests of their own. This was in addition to earlier protests by soccer star Megan Rapinoe and members of the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks. There have even been reports of the phenomenon spreading to high school and college games.
All of this in support of Kaepernick, who said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Apparently, he’s struck a nerve. For the record, yes, I do stand when the anthem is played. But I don’t do it for America. America breaks my heart on a daily basis.
So, I stand for what America is supposed to be, what America could be if it ever took seriously its founding principles, including that “self-evident” truth about equality. But America has yet to do that, and Kaepernick is hardly the first person to notice. On the last night of his life, Martin Luther King said: “All we say to America is, be true to what you said on paper.” In a poem, Langston Hughes complained: “America never was America to me.”
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Kaepernick is not even the first athlete to snub the rituals of American patriotism. “I cannot stand and sing the anthem,” a baseball player once wrote. “I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world.” The man’s name was Jackie Robinson.
Point being, I have no quarrel with Kaepernick.
Others, do. The internet is awash in videos of his burning jersey. Wayne Newton said on Fox that if Kaepernick doesn’t like it here, “Get the hell out.” Various memes juxtapose his image with those of wounded and dead military personnel. And Tucker Carlson and Rush Limbaugh have suggested Kaepernick has no right to protest racism because he’s wealthy — as if wealth provides some magic protection from getting pulled over for DWB.
It does not. Indeed, the very fact that Kaepernick feels estranged from a country that has afforded him material success should induce thoughtful observers to wonder how that could be. Instead, we get lectures from blowhards on how rich and ungrateful Kaepernick is.
The thing is, people like them get indignant when anger over racial oppression expresses itself in street violence. Now we see they also get indignant when it expresses itself peacefully.
Which suggests their complaint is less about the form of protest than the fact of protest. Apparently, those who live with injustice are expected to quietly grin and bear it so the likes of Carlson and Limbaugh are not troubled by uncomfortable truths.
That’s not going to happen.
Ultimately, American protest is not just a right, nor even an obligation. No, it is an act of faith, an expression of the belief that a country founded on that great, self-evident truth can do — and be — better. That’s the faith that has undergirded African-American struggle for centuries, the thing that has allowed us to support a country that would not support us, defend a country that would not defend us, love a country that did not love us.
And it is the reason people affronted by the form — and fact — of Kaepernick’s protest have framed the issue exactly wrong. This is not about whether Kaepernick will stand up for America.
No, this is about whether America will finally stand up for him.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.