Race, Freedom and Patriotism

By Jacob Schriner-Briggs

On Aug. 14, before his team’s first preseason game, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick remained seated during the playing of the “The Star-Spangled Banner.” His action was repeated but remained unnoticed until the third preseason game. When prompted, Kaepernick offered justification stating, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. There are bodies in the street, and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” Critics of groups like Black Lives Matter, groups making the same, or similar, claims as Kaepernick, have questioned or downright denied their assertions. The data, however, makes a clear and compelling case.

Using statistics compiled by ‘The Guardian,’ Todd Beer of Lake Forest College revealed several findings regarding lethal force by police officers. Most tellingly, the data showed that “… unarmed whites continue to make up a smaller percentage of victims than their portion of the population, while unarmed blacks make up about two and a half times the portion of the unarmed victims compared to their portion of the general population.”

However, instead of focusing on why Kaepernick is protesting, though black lives do matter and violence against them is something we are morally compelled to acknowledge and address, I would like to speak to those who criticize him as “unpatriotic.”

When we think about the United States and the values for which it stands, we take mental shortcuts. Our brains conjure symbols of national pride. Prominent among those symbols is the country’s flag and its namesake anthem; but what is a flag or an anthem without corresponding principles underlying them? The answer is nothing more than arbitrary allegiance and acquiescence. The real reason we take pride in our flag and anthem is because we, as a people, believe in the principles our country holds dear, principles our military fights to sustain and protect. Included among them are expressive freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment of our Constitution, freedoms that allow us to speak up when we recognize injustices. Freedoms that allow us to sit when “The Star-Spangled Banner” sounds through a stadium’s PA system.

On that note, I offer one more consideration.

“The Star-Spangled Banner” originated as a poem written by Francis Scott Key in 1814. The third stanza of that poem contains the following lines: “No refuge 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.” Considering the historical context, as well as the plain meaning of those very lines, the ‘land of the free’ came with some qualifications — namely, if you were black, you did not qualify.

If we, as a people, are truly proud of our country, then lambasting those of oppressed and marginalized groups for exercising the freedoms that should be underpinning our pride is not only ironic, it is corrosive. Thus, as Colin Kaepernick sits for the national anthem, I stand with him and his freedom to do so.