For the past three 49ers’ preseason games, Colin Kaepernick has elected to not stand for the duration of the national anthem. This move is a silent protest of treatment of people of color by the police, saying “there are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder” and he cannot continue to stand for the anthem as that occurs. While NFL rules and US laws state he is well within his bounds to do so, teammates and others have been critical, some going as far as burning his jersey.
Standing for the national anthem is seen as a display of respect. It honors the country, and in particular, the troops who have sacrificed so much for our safety. One of the main criticisms against Kaepernick is that he is disrespecting the flag or the troops. The issue here is equivalating the flag with the troops.
Not every person views a symbol the same way, as Kaepernick has demonstrated. While someone like Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints’ quarterback, may see the flag as something “sacred” and reflect on the military members he’s visited and his family’s service when he sees it, Kaepernick sees it as a symbol of “a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” He, unlike Brees, does not view the anthem or the flag through the prism of the military. That doesn’t mean Kaepernick hates veterans or the country, as he’s said he has “great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country.” He views the flag as a symbol of what America should and could be. Seeing how the country is failing, in his eyes and in countless others’, to respect the rights of some of its citizens, he feels unable to give it that respect at this point.
Demanding he see the flag the same way Brees sees it goes against the First Amendment and even common sense. One person should not dictate how another feels or thinks of a certain object; what one thinks and feels goes back to history, culture and childhood, things we cannot argue with. To value the respect of an object over that of a class of fellow Americans seems to go against the values inscribed in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, values that are supposedly written into the flag.
The issue of respect, to some commentators, has meant suggesting Kaepernick try another way of protesting that would be more acceptable. Brees commented that “there’s plenty of other ways that you can [protest] in a peaceful manner that doesn’t involve being disrespectful to the American flag.” Asking Kaepernick to change his method of protest to something less disruptive — less noticeable — is an example of respectability politics in protesting.
Respectability politics is the notion that the systematic oppression of a group can be overcome if the members of that group are moderate, polished and well-behaved — if they adjust their behavior to what is prized by the majority, then they will eventually gain legitimacy. This puts the burden on the “other” to change, to self-regulate and internalize the stereotypes put on their group.
In protesting, respectability politics manifests as a preference for polite protesters. As veteran civil rights activist Barbara Reynolds wrote in a Washington Post essay about the Black Lives Matter movement, “The 1960s movement also had an innate respectability because our leaders often were heads of the black church, as well. Unfortunately, church and spirituality are not high priorities for Black Lives Matter, and the ethics of love, forgiveness and reconciliation that empowered black leaders such as King and Nelson Mandela in their successful quests to win over their oppressors are missing from this movement.” This sort of thinking may have worked at the time, but even then, not all were the passive, perfect protesters commonly portrayed in the history books and media. When images of the Civil Rights protesters hosed by police were published, they caused outcry.
But today, when videos of police brutality — think Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and so many others — are widely shared in the media, instead of sweeping change there are just promises of investigations or suspensions. Perhaps those respectability politics no longer fit our era. Each time period is different, and while it may have worked in the past, today it may not. Honestly, why should it have to? Why should people who are sometimes brutally mistreated for their race or ethnicity be so polite? This is not to suggest violence is the solution, but neither is dressing in your Sunday best and politely asking for change.
The idea of respectability politics in protest needs to end. It is propagated by many, but it puts an extra burden on those striving for equality. The pressures to self-police for more “acceptable” behavior come from a multitude of sources, but people need to stop thinking this way. Doing one’s best simply for oneself should be good enough. When a fire alarm is pulled, we do not sit around complaining how disruptive it is. The situation is assessed and what needs to be done is done.
People do not need to be “respectable” and fit into a mold of what a good member of an oppressed group is in order to deserve equality in treatment. This idea ignores the realities of institutionalism and systematic oppression that may make it near impossible for most to achieve that level of “respectability.”
Respectable ways of protesting might also just mean less noticeable ways. The backlash to all of this shows how much people want sports to be apolitical. The NFL can “support” the military while getting paid by those organizations to do so, spending taxpayer money in a promotional event that paints the NFL in a good light. From 2011-2015, the fourteen NFL teams were paid $5.4 million dollars by the US Department of Defense to “honor” soldiers at their games. The military has claimed this served as a useful recruitment tool, but as audience members didn’t know the NFL was being paid for their celebration of our armed forces, this deal surely worked to make the NFL look altruistic, helping it survive other issues it has faced, including domestic violence.
But outside of that window, people seem to not want to see politics from their players. Because they pay for their jerseys, watch their games and argue over their stats, they expect the players’ political beliefs to match their own or for them to be silent about the issues.
Those affected by racism, sexism or any other sort of group oppression do not get to live perfectly apolitically. Sexism might not be as blatant as it has been was when women couldn’t own property, but a Pew research poll found that 63 percent of women say obstacles continue to make life harder for women than for men. Clearly, it still affects their daily life.
Why shouldn’t Kaepernick force audiences to think a little deeper about what they consume? He recently explained that “I think having these conversations helps everybody have a better understanding of where everybody is coming from.” We constantly ask celebrities to be better role models, for rappers to stop focusing on sex and money and condoning violence, for actresses to mention equal pay.
There is historical precedent for this kind of protest. Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who gave the Black Power salute during the 1968 Olympics, are now widely known and respected by most Americans for their actions during that game; at the time, they were suspended from the national team, expelled and sent home to America. The organization called it “a deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit.”
In the same vein, we want our athletes to be silent about an issue that may affect them when they have a public stage to speak on. It’s paradoxical. Role models cannot be silent, and change cannot occur if we demand that protests are respectful and non-distracting. To force a conversation, a change of views, one must cause some sort of inconvenience.
Starting a conversation like this will not be all that’s necessary to cause societal change, especially given the direction of it. If we, as Americans, want to honor our country, we also need to be willing to hold discourses on its failings. Respecting and loving a place does not mean holding it sacred.
We also need to abandon this idea of respectability politics, in protest and in life. Those suffering injustices do not need to be perfect victims for them to be examples of mistreatment by those in power. Your statuses should not determine how valid your criticisms are, and how you choose to criticize should not define it either, unless you choose to do so in a violent way.
In the last preseason game, Kaepernick was joined by a teammate, Eric Reid, in his protest. This time, they kneeled, to show respect to the military. He hoped this move would shift the focus away from the controversy about his respect of the flag onto his intended point. To add to his actions, Kaepernick also plans to donate the first million of his salary to organizations that help communities dealing with racial inequality and police brutality.