San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick recently caused a kerfuffle by announcing that he is refusing to stand for the pregame national anthem as an act of political protest against America’s police brutality and other oppression and inequality towards black people and people of color. Kaepernick has gotten lots of criticism for this from all directions—from former teammates, from the media, and even from Donald Trump, who said that maybe Kaepernick should “find a country that works better for him.”
The critique of Kaepernick is multifaceted: he’s disrespecting the troops, he’s not a good quarterback anymore and he’s trying to get traded or grandstanding to get publicity for himself, his protest is incoherent and futile, and if you really love America, you should love it flaws and all; the national anthem is a simple ceremony of unity, a kind of secular civic prayer of gratitude for the sacrifices made by people who served and died so that we could have the freedom to go to football games and enjoy everyday public life in a safe, peaceful, democratic, open society.
Of course, lots of other white people have taken a less nuanced approach of going on Twitter and calling Kaepernick the N-word. Funny how that works: “You said America is racist?? HOW DARE YOU call us racists, you stupid N****er!!”
This might not make me popular with the kinds of white guys whose Facebook profile photos show them holding big fish that they caught, but I’m going to defend Colin Kaepernick. Good for him for taking a stand and taking a risk to make a political protest at a time when most pro athletes are just interested in cashing their next check.
It’s hilarious to me how defensive and thin-skinned white America gets about patriotic window-dressing like the American flag and the Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem. Nothing—not thousands of war dead, not homeless and maimed and disfigured veterans, not 20 veterans per day committing suicide from untreated PTSD, not trillions of dollars of unpaid war debt—makes white Americans angrier than black athletes seeming to disrespect the national anthem. Remember the 1968 Olympics “Black Power Salute” by gold and bronze medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who got death threats afterward? Remember in 1996 when NBA player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for the anthem and got suspended and booed and paid a big career price for his principles? Remember more recently in 2016 when black gymnast Gabby Douglas was criticized for not putting her hand over her heart during the medal ceremony (even though white athletes did the same and got no flak for it)?
White Americans will happily sit aside as America invades and occupies and accidentally drone-strikes wedding parties and hospitals in Muslim countries for decades, and we’ll happily send thousands of soldiers off to die and kill and be traumatized for life, but by God, if some brown-skinned athlete doesn’t participate properly in the national anthem, THAT’S AN OUTRAGE.
Here are a few reasons why Colin Kaepernick is right to protest the national anthem:
You might not agree with Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit out the national anthem, but do you disagree with his reasons for protesting? In the era of Black Lives Matter, do you think that everything in this country is hunky-dory, especially for black people and people of color? Even if you love America and America has been a great place for you, can you at least be open to the possibility that lots of black people might have more complicated feelings about America and what that flag and anthem really mean to them?
It’s kind of amazing that ANY black people stand for the national anthem! This country has treated black people like garbage for 500 years, and it still does. Life in America for black people has been about as good of a deal as traditional heterosexual marriage has been for women: lots of disrespect, abuse, violence, and unpaid labor.
And yes, we’ve had ONE black president. Who lost the white vote by large margins and has endured 8 years of unprecedentedly angry, unhinged, racist opposition. Obama’s presidency is not really a sign that most white people have gotten “better,” so much as it’s a sign that we have a lot more non-white voters than ever before, and more racist white people are dying. And good fucking riddance to them.
Have you ever read the full lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner?” It’s racist as shit! The little-known 3rd verse is all about celebrating the deaths of escaped slaves who, understandably, ran away from their plantations to fight for the British Army in the War of 1812 against the slaveholding United States!
No refugee could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
And the writer of the national anthem, Francis Scott Key, was a horrible racist who owned slaves and sued abolitionists for trying to “associate and amalgamate with the negro.”
It’s funny how the most memorable renditions of the Star Spangled Banner have been performed by black people, who Francis Scott Key hated and wanted to keep enslaved.
I propose that we replace the national anthem with “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” which is a beautiful song, it’s shorter and easier to sing, and it’s about our country’s natural beauty and family heritage instead of war, bombardment and defeat. And it’s set to the same tune as “God Save the Queen,” so it would be a fun way to annoy the Brits. And they’d be too formal and proper and stiff-upper-lipped to be able to do anything about it! Ha ha!
Lots of other people have criticized Kaepernick for not showing sufficient appreciation for his country, where he got to grow up to make millions of dollars playing football.
First of all, that’s a bullshit argument. America doesn’t listen to poor people. And no matter how much money you have, as an American, you still have the right to criticize the things that don’t work. Making a good living is not an excuse to act all fat-and-happy. Complacency is the opposite of the restless, entrepreneurial drive that’s supposed to be at the core of what it means to be American.
Also, I’m not a millionaire, but I make a good living, and I’m still pissed off at America most of the time—because I’m not just thinking about myself and my own success, I’m haunted by injustice and inequality and wasted lives and squandered potential; I’m worried about all the people in this country and around the world who are being systematically screwed over and excluded and left behind. Just because the system works for you (for now!) doesn’t mean that the system works. There are still thousands of things that America could do much better, and I’m not going to sit here and act like everything’s awesome just because I’m enjoying some (possibly temporary) success as an American.
I understand that lots of people think, “It’s not that big a deal to just stand for the national anthem, just as a show of respect. Yes, our country has lots of problems, but the national anthem is not the time or the place for a protest.” I don’t think you’re a bad person for thinking that way. I don’t even know if Kaepernick’s protest is actually going to accomplish anything. But I think he’s doing a good thing by prompting people to think critically for a moment about the national anthem, and we should use this as an opportunity to re-examine, WHY are we doing this? And what are we really accomplishing?
Even if the national anthem wasn’t secretly racist and inherently unsingable, why do we have to play the national anthem before the start of every single sporting event? AND “God Bless America” during the 7th inning stretch at baseball games? What, ONE mass display of mindless, masturbatory patriotism per game isn’t enough?
Before long, every NFL pregame hype-fest will include a flyby by a squadron of Stealth Bombers, an entire platoon of paratroopers landing on the field, and camouflage-clad cheerleaders shooting fireworks out of their bras while daredevil little people in sparkler-shooting helmets get shot out of a cannon through the goal posts.
America has no subtlety or tact. We can’t do anything without overdoing it in the most outlandish, unnecessarily excessive fashion possible. This whole country exists to entertain the damaged, gnat-like attention spans of the world’s most boring, basic dimwits.
And even if every NFL pregame ceremony wasn’t slathered in a six-inch-thick layer of jingoism, kitsch and bullshit, what exactly is accomplished by standing for the national anthem and “respecting the flag?” Is that all it takes to be a “patriot” anymore? Could there be a more meaningless, risk-free gesture than just going along with the crowd and holding your hand over your heart? Sure, it’s meant to show respect to veterans and the military, and the sentiments behind that are nice. But don’t we give our military people enough empty lip service, while deploying them to fight unwinnable wars in miserable hellholes, and then cutting their veterans’ benefits? Given the choice, wouldn’t our veterans rather have things like “adequate mental health care” and “job placement assistance?”
I’d rather live in a country where no one stands for the national anthem, and none of our veterans are ending their own lives in despair. Standing for the national anthem is not doing anything to help with that horror-show of a problem. In fact, it might even make it worse—maybe if we didn’t cram patriotism down people’s throats at every sporting event, America wouldn’t be so eager to start so many stupid wars.
In these troubled times, America needs less reverence. Let’s not get uptight about our flag or our national anthem or any other simple-minded symbols of our supposed national grandeur. Let’s not act like the same horrible people we originally rebelled against—frilly cravat wearing, powdered-wig-having British nobles, clucking their tongues about “riffraff” and “commoners” and “the glory of administering the empire.”
America isn’t supposed to put on airs or stand on ceremony. We’re a nation of misfits and castoffs, of criminals, debtors and dregs of society. We’re descended from people who were too broke and desperate and despised to make it in their home countries. Our country was built by the unlucky and the oppressed and the enslaved, by hustlers and operators and tinkerers and furious, brooding malcontents. All of the best things that have ever happened in America have come about because of restless, irritated dissatisfaction with the status quo, because of stubborn iconoclasts who refused to tolerate bullshit—not because of quiet, polite respect for our established institutions, not empty-headed, wide-eyed, aw-shucks wonder at just how lucky we are to be in good ol’ America, where people treat each other right! There’s nothing more American than questioning authority and refusing to go along with the crowd.