“If our brothers are oppressed, then we are oppressed…If their freedom is taken away, our freedom is not secured,” U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in his Flag Day Radio Address in June 1942, when the Second World War was at its darkest moments and the possibility of an Axis victory loomed in people’s minds.
Nearly seven decades later, Roosevelt’s words continue to ring; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has attempted to take a stance against racial injustice in America by sitting down during the national anthem prior to football games. Explaining his protest, Kaepernick says that he will not “stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Waves of backlash and support have flooded in, from critics who denounce him as a traitor to fellow athletes who have followed his example by kneeling down in solidarity.
This debate certainly reflects the time we live in. American philosopher Cornel West refers to this time as the “Age of Obama,” when many Americans believe that the election of Barack Obama as president signifies a historic breakthrough in race-relations in America and that the country has become officially “colorblind.” Despite this claim, the past two terms of Obama’s presidency have also brought the racist tendencies of some Americans out into the open.
In Kaepernick’s case, colorblindness is actually a part of the problem rather than a solution. Scholar Michelle Alexander, who authored the book “The New Jim Crow” argues that colorblindness reflects the racial indifference that has become a more prevalent form of racism in America than outright racial hostility. Racial indifference, as Alexander puts it, is a “lack of compassion and caring about race and racial groups.” From this perspective, colorblindness has distracted Americans from seeing the deep-rooted racial and structural divisions that still exist in the country. Unequal educational opportunities, jobless ghettos and general public discourse that excludes African-Americans as outcasts in American society all present contemporary barriers that colorblindness has thus far failed to solve.
These problems continue to plague America, so is it really surprising to see a young African-American quarterback take a stand by protesting the national anthem? Some see Kaepernick’s actions as treasonous, claiming that he has brought dishonor to those who have fought and died for his freedom. The obvious question to ask, then, is what have those same individuals contributed to the good of this country? Does wearing a T-shirt with the American flag on it while spouting racially oppressive rhetoric indicate that one has achieved their civic duty as an American citizen?
In 2014, a Annenberg Public Policy Center poll discovered that only 36 percent of Americans can name all three branches of government; 35 percent fail to name even a single branch. Furthermore, only 27 percent of Americans know that it takes a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate to override a presidential veto, and 21 percent incorrectly think that a 5-4 Supreme Court decision is sent back to Congress for reconsideration. Despite all this, these same people have no qualms in criticizing those who are being proactive for the betterment of his country. If that isn’t hypocritical, I don’t know what is.
By sitting down, Kaepernick has echoed Roosevelt’s words, screaming out the need for justice to take its stand in America. He’s demonstrating first hand what true patriotism means by displaying a tough love that, as bitter as it may seem, will eventually take the nation forward. It is up to the rest of America whether to continue down this path or to continue enjoying the pleasures, or lack thereof, of blind patriotism, which is rapidly approaching totalitarianism.