Kaepernick’s Kneeling is the Wrong Response to Racism

Colin Kaepernick, quaterback for the San Francisco 49ers, has faced scrutiny for kneeling during the national anthem. (Brook Ward/Flickr)

Colin Kaepernick, quaterback for the San Francisco 49ers, has faced scrutiny for kneeling during the national anthem. (Brook Ward/Flickr)

By Paul Samson 

Kneeling during football games seems to evoke a different sentiment since Tim Tebow’s popularized prayer stance back in 2011.

Over the past several weeks, several NFL players have knelt not in prayer but in protest during the singing of the national anthem.

Quarterback Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers infamously began this trend earlier this month, and it has spread across the country, meeting both support and criticism.

In a post-game interview with NFL Media following the game against the Green Bay Packers, Kaepernick said he refuses “to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color…this [issue] is bigger than football and it would be selfish…to look the other way.”
Coach Chip Kelly of the 49ers said it was beyond his control to restrict Kaepernick’s freedoms of speech and expression, arguing he “does not have the right not to tell [Kaepernick] to do something.”

Under Article I of the Constitution, Colin Kaepernick does have the right to exercise his freedom of speech — but that same constitutional statement also ensures a right for others to speak out against him.

Racism is alive in America, even decades after the Civil War and Civil Rights Movement. Certain races and religious sects are more likely to face oppression than others, and, in some cases, police have exploited their power.
Nonetheless, the flag represents the polar opposite of “a country that oppresses black people.” Charles Thomson, secretary of the Continental Congress, outlined the flag’s meaning in speech which he presented in front of his peers in 1777: “White signifies purity and innocence, Red, hardiness and valor and Blue, vigilance, perseverance and justice.”

It was with hardiness and valor that nearly three million Union soldiers fought for the freedom of all people during the Civil War. Soldiers still continue to fight for our freedom today. It was with perseverance that people fought for equal rights during the Civil Rights Act and today.
The meaning behind the composition of the American flag does not reflect reality as it stands today, but as it could and should be tomorrow. Oppression of anyone is contrary to our country’s constitution and legislation. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 to ensure such oppression could not go unpunished. As is visible across the world, no country, religion or race can or should be defined by the lowest of its people.

Kaepernick knees down because he is looking at the wrong flag. What the flag represents is the fight with valor and virtue to achieve justice for all Americans.

We can be frustrated as Americans. We can and should be frustrated with the faults of the country — yet we cannot kneel in shame for our country.
We must instead look forward with hope towards the fulfillment of the true meaning of the Stars and Stripes.
This is a country of the people, by the people and for the people. The Constitution is that by which “We the People” can live and trust. The same ideal holds for the flag — it is your flag, my flag, the country’s flag. It belongs to every citizen of the United States, though some Americans have diminished its meaning through injustice.

Nonetheless, we must continue to stand for its true meaning and virtue.
The stars and stripes stand as a symbol for all Americans, yet by kneeling down Kaepernick surrenders ownership of his own flag to those who seek to take away his rights.

We as Americans must stand together, maintain our stakes in this country and not let it get beaten down by the oppression practiced by the unjust.
We must not kneel down at the sight of our flag. We must stand up and own the stars and stripes.

There are 19 comments

  1. A

    Perhaps the misunderstanding between the author of this op-ed and his critics lies less with a lack of appreciation for the phenomenon of systemic racism and more with a misunderstanding about the meaning of ethics and morality. There’s more I would like to say about misunderstandings between the author and critics about the nature and meaning of symbols and signs (here the symbol of a flag), but I want to point instead to an issue I think is more fundamental to the larger conflict in the country now:

    Some may encounter enough evidence of systemic racism in America to believe that it is reality. Others may recognize the statistics concerning such racism but find these insufficiently persuasive. This can be for a number of reasons: (1) It may be that the person has a reasoned position that statistical significance describes correlations well but rarely causes. And this same person believes ethics concerns the causal efficacy of an individual, in her intentions, to perform some act which we can evaluate as right or wrong. From that perspective on ethics, the one we mostly work with in our everyday dealings with people in the world, the statistical fact that people of color are disadvantaged in certain ways, more likely to be imprisoned, or more likely to be shot by police when innocent is all beside the point. The question that matters is whether some individual or group of individuals can within reason be identified as culpable of committing an immoral act with a causal relation to an injustice or harm. This person would be more sympathetic to the idea that the individual police officer who shot an innocent black man is personally at fault if he acted from malice or fear set on by an especial mistrust of black people. But in either case, racism or malice rests with the individual and his character and choices, not with any “system,” which implicates others in the crime though they were just going to work and feeding their kids. From this perspective, it makes sense that one would feel outraged that the act of another would tarnish her moral standing in the world. That’s why one commenter above can say that the Civil Rights Act washes away the possibility of “institutional racism” (and we don’t nee to quibble over the difference between “institution” and “systemic,” since switching in the latter term is not likely to have satisfied that commenter). That commenter sees the state, or institutions of the law, as an actor among others, morally culpable for its causal effects on the world. The law in fact effected discrimination in the country. Now the law, in fact, does not discriminate. Thus the intentions of the law are clear and any residual signs of racism or prejudice belong to the individuals who disregard the edicts of the law. Such a perspective seems to me only to make sense so long as you root ethical culpability firmly in intentions of an autonomous subject.

    (2) Another reason someone might find statistics about systemic racism or news coverage of the killings of innocent black men unpersuasive is because such scenes are just not emotionally outrageous to that person. This angle is a bit more rooted in the structure of emotion and identity and less in any kind of reasoned or unarticulated but reasonable position on ethics. To be outraged is to feel an injustice, which is less a disregard for one’s moral sensibility and more a disruption for the world as one knows it. A “problem” is when the structures of one’s desire, expectations, and knowledge are disoriented. One recognizes that things are not as one wants them to be or knows them to be otherwise. An injustice is more emotionally disruptive than a mere problem (e.g. “Why is my pen not in its place?”). An injustice is the experience of a problem in which another is the source of the disruption but in which that other does not *recognize* the disorienting effects of her action. In not recognizing them, she is not just oblivious to the negative effects of her actions or inactions on others, but she more importantly does not recognize the others in their experience of disorientation. From this perspective, we experience injustice as the projection of responsibility onto another who neither recognizes her act nor, and more importantly, does she recognize the subject suffering the injustice. In an experience of injustice, I am the one suffering, the one feeling wronged. These are not just emotions appended to my otherwise stable subjectivity; these experiences are what it is to be a self in that moment. And the structure of that experience of injustice is one that requires a culprit, so we look for one even in instances of natural disasters like volcanoes decimating populations or fell trees slowing our progress on the highway, blaming God or fate or karma. And further, it desires recognition of the injustice by the culprit.

    If one does not experience injustice at the sight of police shootings of innocent black men, this is because it is not phenomenologically out of place with the world as that person knows it. It makes no claim of injustice on her because she is neither directly effected nor does she project herself onto the plight of that black man, because she does not identify with him. It neither is an injustice in one’s own life nor an injustice one can empathize with, since empathy requires the willingness and ability to place oneself in the other’s position. Though, of course, those requiring empathy in these instances are not necessarily the men being shot but their loved ones or others who *do* experience an injustice. But in that failure to recognize the injustice experienced by those others, those who identify as members of a black community, one immediately finds herself necessarily the culprit. For the experience of injustice calls for a culprit who also recognizes the suffering she has caused. In the need for recognition of injustice, one does not seek out only one culprit, the responsible, autonomous individual described in the rationalized picture above. Rather, all are called to account. All are responsible, not necessarily for the injustice committed but for its companion, the flip side of the same coin, the injustice of neglect.

    Ultimately, I am persuaded that morality, or ethics, is not a matter of circumscribing responsibility on the causal efficacy of an individual’s intentions. Most conservative responses to these debates seem to assume or directly focus on that angle. And such a focus is understandable insofar as it is a commonsense way of framing our experience of ethics in everyday life (I suspect that is true for white as well as black individuals in this country overall). But it is a position on ethics that, when pushed, is incapable of justifying itself. Its only grounds are simply the taking for granted of a set of unjustified assumptions about human nature or particular cultural practices. Of course, if all people, even people within a single culture, necessarily accepted a set of shared practices, there would be no need for laws. But there are laws and precisely because there are no intuitive or natural truths about ethics that can justify a definition of exactly who is responsible for what, in what way, at what time, causing which actions, etc…

    Without doing more to justify my skepticism of rationalistic or culturally-based justifications for moral responsibility, I’ll just affirm that an attention to the phenomenology (or description of the experience) of “injustice” is more compelling, if not helpful, in understanding why people continue to talk past each other over issues of racial injustice. The desire for recognition is prior to the rationalizations we give for why we deserve recognition, or who is responsible for issuing that recognition, or whether one should desire recognition in the first place. The fact is that most of us will experience injustice empathetically for those with whom we identify or those who look us in the face needing care. We do not feel a need to recognize those who do not see us or those whose suffering fits otherwise unproblematically into our lives as we expect them.

    The death of black men by the police may not be an injustice for you because such an event is either normal or far enough away from the sphere of your life that you feel little sense of accountability to victims. If it were your neighbor you barely knew, you might send flowers to the family, but you do not feel that individuals in the next town, let alone another state or across the world, see you, and you feel little impulse (sympathy or guilt) to show them you recognize their suffering. This seems more a fact of human emotions (we feel them close to home and less so far away) and less itself a moral failing. But whey then do black people in Baltimore feel they are not recognized by white people in Oklahoma, and why do those white people feel bothered by the accusations of systemic racism coming from people in Baltimore?

    Television and digital technologies bring us closer than we seem, and the virtual nature of it all makes it easier to see the other but not realize that we are also seen in the process. We are viewers of another’s suffering, not members of a community who feel the obligation by that other to recognize her in her suffering. It’s easy to see news of police shootings elsewhere and pass it off as status quo. But Black Lives Matter and other such movements reach back through our televisions and digital devices to make those of us who are ignoring the injustice feel called out, guilty, held culpable, responsible, etc… It is the power modern technology to make the foreign feel local, and it is disorienting. We feel at the same time viewers of someone else’s issues while suddenly called out as if we are neighbors who should be sending flowers, cards, attending funerals, etc… But Black Lives Matter does not just ask for flowers and cards because we were already too late. And in finding ourselves, white people at a distance, both called to recognize another’s suffering *and* too late on the scene, we feel wronged ourselves, all the more so because we discover that we, white people, the passive agents of systemic racism, in our failure to arrive when we didn’t believe we were supposed to, are in fact the guilty party. We are already guilty for something we forgot we did, and were doing, over and again – failing to recognize the continued suffering of black people.

    Well, a white person in such a situation finds herself confused and wronged, for the injustice she experiences is of being guilty of inaction and ignorance of her ignorance. She was ignorant of her membership in a community of people she didn’t realize she belonged to, a community outside her chosen sphere. Of course, she can respond to this experience by recognizing the legitimate claims of those others and also asking for recognition herself, for she also feels wronged (when white people earnestly admit their desire to improve conditions for people of color and the fact that they are likely guilty of prejudice even if they wish to be otherwise is perhaps a good example of what such a moment can be…and such moments are often received gratefully by people of color). But more often than not (if the rise of white nationalism is any indication), white people react to the need of people of color for recognition by developing a defensive and offensive posture. Defensive by rallying together with other whites who are only aware of the injustice *they* feel in being accountable to communities they only wanted to view at a distance, if at all. Whether people of color can or should recognize the injustice felt by white nationalists is another question. And whites take an offensive posture, turning to ridicule, overt racism, violence, etc… to hurt those who have hurt their pride and to silence them. In short, white people seem either to opt for compassion or revenge that silences. The latter may not be more prevalent, but it certainly draws the greatest attention. And the revenge that seeks silence of another is precisely the injustice that people of color are responding to now and have been for over a century.

    So, yes, there’s a cycle of prejudice breeding prejudice, but its structure is a dialectic of injustice and the desire for recognition. I would like to think that by paying attention to this perspective on ethics rather than falling back on debates about intention and autonomy to help us decide who *deserves* recognition, we may be more likely to find ourselves more empathetic to all and less eager to justify retaliation and revenge from either side.

    Are we hostages to others’ desires for recognition, or can we be compassionate hosts to their, and thus our, suffering?

  2. Angry PoliSci Major

    Article 1 of the Constitution established Congress, not the freedom of speech, which is protected by the First Amendment.

    Without getting too much into the slavery/states’ rights debate, most Union soldiers volunteered out of anger over the South’s secession. They fought to unite the Union, not for the “freedom of all people.”

    Also, c’mon dude. Your argument is “Kaepernick is wrong to kneel during the Star Spangled Banner because of the colors of the flag,” and then you say that the composition of the flag doesn’t “reflect the country today.” Outline your argument!

  3. Stacey

    One, institutional racism exists. It’s absurd that anyone in this comment thread is even debating that. How can there not be institutional racism when government officials are actively taking away minorities’ voting rights; when conservatives in Congress are attempting to repeal Obamacare, which has helped a huge number of African-Americans get access to healthcare; when a major candidate for president can GET AWAY with his 8 years of clear and unveiled racism against the first black president? And this doesn’t even acknowledge all of the issues that Jeremy and others have mentioned above, like police brutality (which is one of the biggest problems facing traditional American “values” right now), poverty, and incarceration rates.

    Two, it is really not our place – as white people who go to Fordham, a private Catholic university in New York City – to dictate how African-Americans protest the harm they have suffered in this country. In general, you probably shouldn’t try to decide what’s okay and what’s not okay for protesting when you’re not the one being oppressed. There comes a time when people have to stop “opening dialogues” and start acknowledging facts. And the fact is that institutional racism exists. If you do not acknowledge this, you are being willfully ignorant, and you’re contributing to the problem. I am not saying that Paul does this – in fact, in the article, he talks about how institutional racism is still prevalent in this country today. But that does not mean that we, as white people, should decide how black people should protest because the way they’re currently doing it makes us “uncomfortable.”

    Kaepernick and others like him are raising awareness of police brutality by protesting during games – which I think was their goal. The fact that we are now arguing about this shows that he succeeded – the conversation has been “elevated” because now, this issue is affecting white America by becoming apparent in its largest national sport. And if you cheer on black players of the NFL and NBA, but then shun them for trying to raise awareness for the troubles facing their community, that’s really not okay.

    If anything, our “job” – or, perhaps more accurately, our duty as caring and responsible human beings – is to support people like Kaepernick who are trying to fight the monster of prejudice that has been lurking in our society for generations. While the flag and the national anthem may represent freedom and justice and the American way for some people, it can also represent centuries of oppression and pain. It can represent current injustices and current inequalities. I think we should all be open to everyone’s interpretations of the flag, as it doesn’t mean the same thing to the same people. But we should all strive to live up to the American ideals that we can all agree upon: the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The right to live free of prejudice and violence. The right to gather and protest without interference. The right to speak out when injustices are being committed.

  4. Al

    Institutional racism still exists. Our public school system is more segregated today than before segregation. On my first day in an inner city middle school, me and a couple of my friends(all poc) ran to class because we got up from lunch a little late then the Dean made us stand for one hour after school (wtf?) Blacks and Hispanics are not only criminalized but teachers would also pass the failing kids only for them to drop out later and become unable to find work… I even had a lot of friends from high school who graduated despite failing most of the NYS regents. I thought it was just one school that was like this, but it is all the inner city Schools which are segregated…

  5. S

    It’s a nonviolent protest starting important dialogue and raising awareness, and doing a great job of it. He’s using his power as a celebrity perfectly. And just because the author is half Filipino doesn’t mean he understands the systemic racism against black people.

  6. Nick

    Clearly, the author of the previous comment does not know Paul Samson personally. If he/she did, he/she would know that Paul is in fact half-Filipino, a race which some consider “victimized” by American imperialism under the same flag which Paul supports so proudly. The belief that somehow Paul’s argument is invalid due to his race is simply preposterous because it presumes a collective set of experiences unique to caucasians that does not exist. Moreover, “P” (incorrectly) presumes the race of an individual he/she has never met. Though racism at the individual level certainly exist, so called “institutional racism”, for which the American flag is purported to stand, is a myth. Each individual is responsible for his/her actions, not any larger body. Even the government is ultimately a collection of individuals who can all choose how to act, and any discriminatory acts of government are a result of corrupted individuals, not a corrupted country.

    1. Nick

      Clarification: racism has not been institutional since the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Since then, any perceived racism can be attributed to the act of the individual.

      1. RV

        So you’re saying predatory lending, the school-to-prison pipeline, food deserts and the extra-judicial murder of brown and black people (just to name a few abhorrent injustices) are not evidence of institutionalized racism? These institutions enable the exploitation and killing of brown and black bodies daily.
        Whether or not our institutions are explicitly racist, you cannot say that racism is just the act of the individual when brown and black people are disproportionately victims of institutional violence.

    2. P

      Nick, out of compassion toward the author, I think it’s important to separate the ideas I’m finding problematic from his personhood. This isn’t about Paul, or what Paul thinks personally, or whether he or any other white person actively practices racism.

      As a caucasian, I know and acknowledge that in ways I do not desire, may not understand, and cannot fully control, I benefit from white privilege and participate in systemic racism – not “institutional racism” (no one has mentioned that here) but systemic racism: racism that is encoded in and functions silently through the sociopolitical, economic, and psychological structures that constitute our reality. That is what I meant by the flag being stained with the blood of every oppressed person who has never had a voice, every slave who was beaten and chained and killed, every woman who fights for equal wages, every LGBTQ person who is ridiculed and excluded by a society that just can’t understand who s/he is.

      These voices have been silenced and continue to be silenced through the structures that make our country what it is. “All Lives Matter” is a façade behind which white privilege hides; this façade keeps black and queer voices silent. Even as they try to speak, they are excluded from discourse – excluded from reality. That’s what “systemic racism” is about. Not speaking. Not being. Systemic racism is NOT a myth, and calling it a myth only ends the conversation before it starts. Like “All Lives Matter,” It protects white power and privilege from the threat of the other. Your radical individualism is a myth. Everything has a history. Everything is connected. Lives, most of all. We need to hear the voices that have gone unheard. Let them change reality.

      That’s what makes your argument about individual racism so problematic. Laws don’t change hearts. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a great step, but it did not end racism; it simply made it illegal. I know if I’d been stopped by those cops on the streets of Tulsa, I know the color of my skin would’ve had them ask, “Is everything okay?” rather than “BANG. You’re dead.” Do you think racism ended when it was made illegal? Ask a drug addict about that one. Things like this don’t go away; they go underground, and they continue to work in ways that – like I admitted above – we may know and even hate but never fully understand.

      “Own it and fight it” seems to be the only proper course when people’s lives are at stake.

      Make no excuses for hatred. Make no excuses for ego. Don’t offer explanations.

      When people are dying, there’s just no time for that. Paul’s a great guy. I know him. But I think his opinion is wrong, and wrong in very dangerous ways.

    3. Xll

      1) Institutional Racism does exist, even after the civil rights act, laws have been passed in this country that have oppressed and continue to oppress people of color, especially black people. (Look up redlining and the 1949 housing act, or the war on drugs etc)

      2) How can you say that institutional racism is a myth because the government is run by individuals? Aren’t institutions made up of a collection of individuals? If those institutions are made up of racist individuals then the institutions themselves are racist. When that institution (The US government and legal system) allows for the disproportionate murder of innocent black people by the forces that are meant to keep them safe then it is obvious that institutional racism exists even to this day.

      3) Also, Given that Paul is half Filipino, he must know exactly what black people like Kap are feeling and experiencing in this country right? Nah B.

    4. Jeremy

      Nick, I know you personally and I respect you, but you could not possibly be more wrong. If you do not believe that institutional racism exists, you are blinding yourself to an obvious fact. If you don’t see the vastly disproportional rate at which police kill people of color as representative of a problem, it is you that is wrong.

      This article is saying that the American flag that we should salute is the one that Paul Samson tells us to. Additionally, the summary given by you on Facebook states that “there are better ways to stand up for the oppressed than by kneeling down at the sight of the flag that represents their freedom”. Is it the meaning of freedom or is it the meaning of oppression that you do not understand? The two are mutually exclusive.

      You are attempting to scream freedom loud enough to drown the cries of the oppressed.

      My brother, whom is my dearest friend in the world, will enter the active ranks of the U.S. Navy in less than 12 months. I am as patriotic as anyone, and more than you, Paul. Patriotism isn’t adherence to a contrived set of values. I am patriotic and I love this country enough to acknowledge that the Stars and Stripes don’t always stand for freedom.

  7. James

    ah great, a white man writing about what America IDEALLY is and NOT is. and a white man publicly stating that Kaepernicks protesting ISN’T VALID?
    thank you for reminding us that racism is alive and well at fordham.

    1. P

      Racism is a specter that haunts this country like a ghost in a graveyard on Halloween. It’s not alive and well at Fordham. It’s alive and well everywhere. Let’s #OwnIt

  8. P

    While I think the author does a good job outlining both sides of this issue, hearing a white man argue that a biracial man is “wrong” about racism on the basis that he doesn’t properly understand what the flag stands for just reinscribes the dark history of racism that the American flag also represents. The flag is red not only with the blood of those who have fought for freedom – it is also red with the blood of every slave, every person lynched, every victim of Jim Crow, and so on. That’s the flag Kaepernick is looking at, and if Terence Crutcher can be shot dead for no reason, it’s NOT the wrong flag. The flag does not represent “the polar opposite of ‘a country that oppresses black people'” when black people are still oppressed.

    More importantly, the author assumes that his interpretation of the flag applies equally to all people on the basis of its noble meaning. In so doing, despite his good intentions, he reinscribes the dominance of white voices over black voices – he silences Kaepernick and those who would cry out that this is NOT their America. He assumes that a privileged, safe, white interpretation of the flag can and should mean the same thing for black people, who even to this day do not have equal rights, equal opportunities, equal safety on the streets of cities. Kaepernick’s statement says clearly, “This is NOT my flag. This is NOT my America.”

    Finally, the author states that Kaepernick is “surrendering” to those who seek to take away his rights. Quite the contrary: he is refusing to surrender to the history of racism our flag also represents and which he must resist in a country so beleaguered by violence and oppression.

    Kaepernick’s is a voice our country MUST heed. The dominance of white power and white voices must come to an end if the flag is to truly represent the ideals for which it stands.


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