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San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) walks up the tunnel after a 31-21 win over the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium. Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

The courage of Colin Kaepernick

Given all that’s going on in America, he got it right

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit, instead of stand, during the playing of the national anthem to protest injustice against black folk caused the predictable uproar. Despite the inevitable backlash, Kaepernick says he is “going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed. To me, this is something that has to change, and when there’s significant change – and I feel like that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent, and this country is representing people the way it’s supposed to – I’ll stand.”

For Kaepernick, no matter the unpopularity of his move or the cost to his career or endorsements, the need to underscore, and oppose, police brutality and racial injustice is so great that it’s worth the risk.

His gesture is no knee-jerk reaction, but a thoughtful reflection on how best to highlight the plague of injustice, and the need, finally, to hold our nation accountable for black death in the streets. “There are a lot things that are going on that are unjust,” Kaepernick said. He said that people aren’t being held accountable. “And that’s something that needs to change. That’s something that this country stands for freedom, liberty and justice for all. And it’s not happening for all right now.” Kaepernick insisted that he is “not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Kaepernick has been accused of being unpatriotic, a traitor to the nation, a disruptive, self-aggrandizing narcissist, and a loathsome human being who disrespects the military. Kaepernick’s situation highlights just how little progress we’ve made in this country in confronting the brutal legacy of racism.

It is still difficult to talk about race in an informed and intelligent fashion. The controversy also reveals how many of the game’s greats, even the black ones, lack knowledge of the history of race and sport. It also shows how conservative forces can array themselves against athletes, which makes it difficult for an athlete of color to forge ties to his people and speak out about issues that affect a significant portion of his fan base. Most of all, it shows the hypocrisy of a sport that has given second chances to players such as Greg Hardy and Ray McDonald, who were accused of domestic violence – and Ben Roethlisberger, twice accused of sexual assault – and yet finds itself enraged at a player making a humane and legal gesture of identification with the victims of racial violence.

Kaepernick has been criticized for his lack of patriotism because he has chosen not to stand when the anthem is played. This highlights a truth many people ignore: Although it is undeserved, black folk have been viewed even more suspiciously throughout American history because of a willingness to be critical of the nation even as they love and embrace it. How many claiming that Kaepernick is unpatriotic also consider that many black men put on an American uniform and fought in foreign theaters of war, only to return home to be spurned and denied the rights for which they fought? How many realize that black soldiers who had fought valiantly for American liberties sometimes returned home to die on the lynching tree because racist whites resented their nerve to wear the uniform and proudly boast in the American flag? How many know that in 1976, the year of the bicentennial, during a Boston City Hall demonstration against court-ordered busing, a white student protester turned an American flag, tied to a pole, into a weapon to viciously assault Ted Landsmark, a black lawyer?

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (C) kneels during the national anthem before the team’s NFL preseason football game against the San Diego Chargers on Sept. 1 in San Diego.

AP Photo/Chris Carlson

Black folk have, throughout history, displayed their patriotism by criticizing the nation for its shortcomings, and they have been, in turn, roundly criticized. The great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who fled from slavery, offered a famous oration on the meaning of Independence Day, asking, “What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer a day that reveals to him, more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”

The great black poet Langston Hughes grieved in verse, There’s never been equality for me, / Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free.’ When Martin Luther King Jr. said that America “is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” and opposed the Vietnam War, he was branded a traitor, who, according to journalist Carl Rowan, had created “the impression that the Negro is disloyal.”

Muhammad Ali was stripped of his title and run out of the ring for his conscientious objection to the Vietnam War. Now all of these figures are heroes: King’s birthday is celebrated as a national holiday, and Ali was given a hero’s burial not long ago. And first lady Michelle Obama, once pilloried as ungrateful and unpatriotic, is more popular than her husband, and President Barack Obama, once assailed as unpatriotic for not wearing a lapel pin of the American flag, won not one, but two terms as president, to prove his patriotism and love of the country.

None of these black figures hated the nation. Instead, they wanted the nation to straighten up and fly right. Douglass refused to join the chorus of black voices supporting a return to Africa, and decided to stay put in America. Hughes was hurt by America, but yearned for its acceptance when he titled his poem Let America Be America Again. King declared that white America had to do blacks right and spoke for most of us when he said, “We ain’t going nowhere.”

What some critics are missing is that Kaepernick is the best kind of American there is: one willing to criticize his country precisely because he loves it so much. Kaepernick is not a traitor; he is a true patriot. Essayist James Baldwin said it best when he wrote, “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump is missing the point when he says that Kaepernick should “find a country that works better for him.” Kaepernick hasn’t, like Trump, hired foreign markets to expand his bottom line which takes work and income from American laborers. Instead, Kaepernick believes so deeply in this country that he is willing to offer correction rather than abandon the nation. We must see Kaepernick’s criticism as love – the tough love that America embraces when it can blast other sovereigns, but not so much when it’s aimed at America.

Nationalism is wrong-headed

The opposition to Kaepernick rests on a faulty premise and a confusion of terms: Many who oppose Kaepernick because of patriotism are really opposing him because of nationalism. There is a big difference between nationalism and patriotism. Nationalism is the uncritical celebration of one’s nation regardless of its moral or political virtue. It is summarized in the saying, “My country right or wrong.” If one has a problem with America, one is told to lump it or leave it, or to find another country that works better.

Nationalism is a harmful belief that can lead a country down a dangerous spiral of arrogance, or off the precipice of political narcissism. Nationalism harbors the belief that no matter what one’s country does, it must be supported. If a nation practices racism, homophobia, sexism, xenophobia or the like, it must be celebrated and accepted at all costs. Patriotism is a bigger, more uplifting virtue. Patriotism is the belief in the best values of one’s country, and the pursuit of the best means to realize those values. If the nation strays, then it must be corrected. The patriot is the person who, spotting the need for change, says so clearly and loudly, without hate or rancor. The nationalist is the person who spurns such correction and would rather take refuge in bigotry than fight it. It is the nationalists who wrap themselves in a flag and loudly proclaim themselves as patriots. That is dangerous, as glimpsed in Trump’s amplification of the worst racist and xenophobic sentiments in a generation. In the end, Trump is a nationalist, and Kaepernick is a patriot.

There appears in this flap to be a confusion of symbol and substance as well.

An American flag the field before the San Francisco 49ers and the Minnesota Vikings NFL game at Levi’s Stadium on Sept. 14, 2015, in Santa Clara, California.

Robert Reiners/Getty Images

The worship of the flag is, too, a form of patriotic idolatry, not respectful love. It confuses the cloth with conviction, the pole on which it rises, and our standing before it, with principle. The American flag is distinguished from mere cloth, not by inherent magical power, but by the values, and aspirations with which it is imbued. The power doesn’t reside in the flag; it resides in the ideals to which the flag points. What Kaepernick has brilliantly done is make us face up to the fact that those values are, pardon the pun, flagging. What do we need to do to lift them up again? That cannot be accomplished by worshipping the flag, nor the troubled song that accompanies it. One must listen to the third verse of The Star-Spangled Banner that includes the words, No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.

If nothing else, Kaepernick has forced most of us to listen to a song we claim to love, and are willing to fight for, yet know nothing of its political pedigree or its disturbing racist implications. That’s why American hero Jackie Robinson wrote in his autobiography, I Never Had It Made, “I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag. I know that I am a black man in a white world.” What can lift that flag higher are the real-life practices that make that flag and that song meaningful. Without the concerted effort to embody the ideals and goals of American democracy, that flag is an ornate piece of cloth without value. If we cite the Bible and yet fail to live according to its codes, the Bible becomes just another book, another page with meaningless words. But when we live it, it becomes powerful. We, according to Scripture, become living epistles in whose life others read the presence of God.

Prejudice in NFL front offices

What the controversy has also revealed is that, for the most part, the world of sports, especially football, despite all of the black bodies that make it go, is still a deeply and profoundly white enterprise that cherishes its own viewpoints and recoils at true difference. That’s why only the gridiron is integrated, with nearly 70 percent of the players black. The league’s front offices teem with white men whose outdated viewpoints, and narrow understandings of race – and sometimes, whether intending to be or not, their bigoted perspectives – hamper true progress. The players in football and basketball may be overwhelmingly black – and in the case of baseball, increasingly Latino – but the front offices of major sports are a white man’s game.

Thus when we hear statements by anonymous NFL executives that they don’t want Kaepernick near their teams because he’s a traitor, that he has no respect for our country, and “[expletive] that guy,” and that “I have never seen a guy so hated by front office guys as Kaepernick,” they betray the tolerance for fatally narrow views of black life. As long as black athletes keep their mouths shut and play the game, they’re fine. Once they range beyond deference and obedience, they’re out of bounds, and huge penalty flags are thrown.

Kaepernick’s courage has also thrown a harsh light on just how painfully inadequate are the memories, historical consciousness, and learning of some of our leading, black former football players, who now offer commentary in the media. They clearly don’t understand that without some brave soul in the past like Jim Brown within their guild speaking up at the “wrong” time, they wouldn’t today enjoy the perks of fame and wealth. Without protest and social pressure, the major sports leagues would not have been integrated. Rodney Harrison, Hines Ward and Jerry Rice were incredible athletes who offer insightful commentary about football. However, criticism of Kaepernick reveals their atrocious ignorance. Harrison argued that Kaepernick’s heart is in the right place, but that he’s “going about it in the wrong way.”

He said that Kaepernick doesn’t seem to realize that a lot of folk sacrificed to “give him the freedoms and the liberties he has,” and that “sitting his butt down” during the anthem will only make folk mad. Harrison also attacked Kaepernick’s racial authenticity, saying he wasn’t really black, and claimed later he had no idea that Kaepernick is biracial. Was Harrison suggesting Kaepernick wasn’t really black because he didn’t evince ‘hood cred, or he wasn’t a Southern black, or one from the South Side of Chicago?

The attempt to censor Kaepernick by citing his lack of racial bona fides is a tragic game, and one that, once one gets on that slippery slope, can never be stopped, because there’s always somebody blacker than thou. Ward also criticized Kaepernick for the manner of his protest – that instead of sitting down during the anthem he should give his entire check to the cause he believed in, and that he was being a distraction to the team. Yet Kaepernick’s method of disruption proves his point: giving a million dollars, or even his entire salary, may have created a celebration of Kaepernick’s generosity, but it wouldn’t have drawn attention to the underlying oppression that Kaepernick was protesting.

Some have said that the protest is all about Kaepernick, and not about the issue, but the two are not unrelated. Kaepernick’s protest has been met by the same white resentment and defensive postures – the same see-no-evil-hear-no-evil approach – that have characterized policing of black folk in the street and its subsequent justification in the courts and police stations across the nation. Rice says that Kaepernick shouldn’t disrespect the flag, but he is hardly doing that; he is simply asking us to truly honor the flag in our treatment of the least of these. Of course, the same astonishment and anger that Kaepernick would dare sit during the national anthem also greets those blacks who protest in the streets and are said to be disrespecting the police.

The two are yoked: Criticizing police brutality is said to be hating law enforcement, and sitting during the national anthem is said to be hating America. This sophomoric understanding will remain a roadblock to genuine racial engagement until it is sacked and replaced by a deeper, more humane, more sophisticated engagement with the issue of race. And the silence of white athletes must be challenged, too. Prominent white athletes shouldn’t leave Kaepernick out on a limb by himself. Those who are socially aware should speak up, too, and challenge the narrow perspectives and white privilege that protects them. The anesthetized, narcotized and deeply apolitical black athletes, or the ones who mimic the conservative values of the white mainstream, must be challenged, too.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick wears socks depicting police officers as pigs during NFL football training camp at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick wears socks depicting police officers as pigs during NFL football training camp at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco.

AP Photo/Ben Margot

Neither is Kaepernick’s protest dishonoring soldiers. While many have criticized Kaepernick for somehow besmirching the military, many veterans have risen to defend him. History tells us that many black veterans have been mistreated by a society that claims to love the military, yet disrespects some of those soldiers because they belong to a minority group. The nation at large claims to appreciate the soldiers, yet often neglects their needs when they return home, something Kaepernick pointed out. “I have great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country,” Kaepernick said. “I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country. And they fight for freedom, they fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice, for everyone. That’s not happening.” Kaepernick said that people are “dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up, as far as giving freedom and justice, liberty to everybody. That’s something that’s not happening.”

Kaepernick said that he’s “seen circumstances where men and women that have been in the military have come back and been treated unjustly by the country they have fought for, and have been murdered by the country they fought for, on our land. That’s not right.”

We will fail to grasp the scope of Kaepernick’s actions unless we understand the history of how black athletes have stood for social justice. Kaepernick is not a solo artist in history. The best of our athletes in the past have understood their responsibility to represent their group. They understood that their privileges meant nothing if their people couldn’t enjoy them too. They knew that if their kin and community were disrespected, it was only a matter of time before they were next. They could not justify remaining silent by making great sums of money, and being embraced by the dominant culture, while the masses of black people suffered. We have seen the result of black athletes turning away from black suffering because they believed they were merely individuals, and not also part of a group. That sort of black exceptionalism is misleading. One cannot ultimately be exempt from the treatment of one’s brothers and sisters. They are you, and you are them. O.J. Simpson thought he wasn’t black, and yet, the moment he got in trouble, major magazines darkened his face on their covers to remind him that his honorary white status had limits. Membership may have its privileges, but it has its dues, and duties, too.

The greatest mark of our humanity and character shows when we are concerned about others beyond our group. That’s why it took the NFL so long to get the message about domestic violence. It still has not received the message about racial violence, and the injustice and oppression that prevail in our society. While the Rooney Rule has not turned out as many minority head coaches as wished for – teams engage in a perfunctory practice and scratch someone off the list and hire whom they want – perhaps we can adopt an even stronger version of that rule for the NFL front office: Consider front office personnel with a balanced perspective on race, gender and sexuality so that we might avoid the reactionary politics, resentment of difference, and the white panic that too often fills those spaces.

Part of the problem in understanding and accepting Kaepernick’s gestures is that social activism has been absorbed into social service. The paradigm shift has discouraged courageous activism among athletes. They are discouraged from identifying with a progressive or unpopular cause, the way Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Wilma Rudolph, Althea Gibson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson did in the 1960s, when the civil rights movement was seen as destructive and disruptive.

Their activism helped to break down barriers and open the doors for others, including those who hadn’t protested, to enjoy a decent living. Since that heyday, leagues began to promote charitable activities that became race-neutral. Visiting a sick kid in a hospital is admirable and often pairs a black athlete with a white child in an innocent, nonconfrontational setting. But that cannot replace speaking on behalf of black kids who are being gunned down in the streets by cops, or who are victims of systemic failures of the criminal justice system. Social service not only absorbs social activism, but, at times, it obscures the need for justice by confusing compassion with change. King said that charity is a poor substitute for justice. NFL and NBA Cares are critical, even necessary, but they are insufficient means to true justice.

The white agents who represent the black athlete have often undercut the value of social activism too. Many white agents counsel their players against taking on social issues. They are extremely careful about which causes may enhance or soil their client’s brand. While brand management is vital, the refusal to offer a much-needed megaphone to important social issues means that considerations of commerce have completely obscured conscience. A less charitable interpretation suggests that white agents who don’t have deep investments in black communities are not motivated to address the plagues that black folk confront. These white agents often reap financial reward from their representation of the black athlete, and yet fail to see the need of that athlete to speak up on behalf of the black and minority communities from which they emerged – communities that nurtured and sustained them.

We live in what author Gore Vidal called The United States of Amnesia. We forget that black athletic courage paved the way for a generation of black athletic genius. Tragically, we now have a generation that is often more interested in its brand and bank and bottom line than the lives of the people who loved them before they became famous. We loved and adored Ali when he was silenced by disease. But we deplored him when he stood at full stature and full voice against racial injustice. That same Ali tossed his Olympic gold medal into the river because he realized it meant nothing in a country that didn’t offer freedom and justice to his people back home. We loved Ali when he was shaking, and quiet, not when he roared like a lion and upset the power dynamics of the culture.

Kaepernick has bravely touched the third rail of American sport, one that we have not yet contended with, and the issue that we continue to deflect. When a black athlete bravely speaks up, we punish him. Kaepernick’s courageous action for the black people who are being slaughtered in the street should earn our thanks. But it should also inspire more of us, especially (black) American athletes, to stand up. Carolina Panther quarterback Cam Newton asked out loud who he was to say Kaepernick was either right or wrong. That may sound reasonable, even rational, but it is precisely the sort of noxious neutrality that reinforces bigotry. The status quo is always favored by neutrality, which, in truth, is never neutral at all, but supports those who stand against change. Newton may be superman on the field, but his response to Kaepernick’s cause of social justice has kryptonite written all over it. We don’t need dap on the field; we need to fight for all folk to get dap off it. The real heroes, the real supermen are those willing to take a stand, even if it means sitting in their seats while the national anthem plays.

Michael Eric Dyson, Georgetown University Sociology professor, and author of 18 books, most recently The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America, is a former shooting guard who hooped on the outside courts in Detroit with his cousin Bobby Joe, a local playground legend.