Kaepernick’s Controversy: A Violation of Symbolism

Written by Adam Coleman

Protest or Pity Party

In the first Psalm we are cautioned against sitting in the seat of the scornful. In the name of patriotism and political correctness, it is alleged that NFL quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, has done just that. For those who don’t know, Colin Kaepernick recently elected to sit down during the National Anthem before a game in protest of what he believes to be oppression and injustice in America today. When asked about his act of protest, Kaepernick cited police brutality as a chief matter of concern that prompted him to speak out.

It is surely an understatement to note, Colin’s protest and message ignited a media firestorm of feedback ranging from whole-hearted support to criticism of the most vicious sort. In the eyes of many Kaepernick committed the cardinal sin by turning up his self-righteous nose toward our great country, disrespecting the flag, dishonoring the armed forces that fight for our freedom, trampling the sacrifices of our veterans, and so on.  Colin’s detractors also took issue with the fact that he, being a millionaire several times over, “complained” about the oppression of minorities in America. Surely a most heinous hypocrisy!

Are Colin’s critics correct? Is it true that Kaepernick’s protest was nothing more than a slanderous demonstration of entitlement and lack of appreciation for the freedoms this country affords him? I’m not sure the answers to these questions are to be found in examining what Kaepernick did or evaluating the merit of the reasons given for sitting it out on the national anthem. I believe there is a broader issue that needs to be explored in order to properly understand the Kaepernick controversy.  I would like to take a few moments to talk about symbolism.

A Tale of Two Countries

An American flag, in and of itself, isn’t all that special. It’s a multi-colored piece of fabric that we stick on a pole and pay homage to. But we don’t really honor the flag, do we? No. We honor what the flag represents; or better stated what the flag represents to us. The American flag itself is merely a symbol. What makes the flag meaningful is the meaning we assign to it. There are flags that carry objective meaning (i.e. safety flags, white flag of surrender), but I do not believe the American flag falls neatly into that category.

When we look at the American flag, we all see a representation of America through the lens of our experiences, ethnic groups, socio-economic statuses, interpretations of American history, etc. In other words, when we see the American flag we see America; however, what is often taken for granted is we do not all see the same America. I think the tendency to assume that the subjective meaning we each assign to the American flag is more so an objective meaning is silently at the heart of the Kaepernick discussion. Let’s take a bullet point look at how people may view America and its flag through either rose or Rosewood colored glasses.

When some of us look at the Red, White, and Blue we see:

  • Revolutionary War (Liberty over Tyranny)
  • The Constitution
  • Democracy
  • Capitalism/Economic Freedom
  • Religious Freedom
  • Victory in World War 2
  • American exceptionalism
  • Emancipation of the slaves
  • Racism a thing of the past

When some of us look at the Red, White, and Blue we see:

  • Slavery
  • Jim Crow
  • Unwarranted traffic stops (Driving while black)
  • Police Brutality
  • Internment camps during WW2
  • Discriminatory practices (i.e. Banks, employment) that impeded wealth development
  • Red-lining particular neighborhoods (keeping minorities out of, or confined to, certain neighborhoods)
  • Injustice perpetrated by the Justice system
  • Racism has changed clothes but is alive and well.

It would appear that our nation faces an awkward duality within itself—America the beautiful and America the blemished. Each of the perspectives I’ve attempted to illustrate are rooted in fact, and thus provide a legitimate grounding for one’s disposition toward America; whether positive or not so positive. For example, it is certainly true that America was born out of a resistance to tyranny and was founded upon principles that tended toward liberty. It is also true that America prospered on the backs of slaves, institutionally oppressed a race of people, and continues to be at war with itself as it pertains to the issue of race. America has been both friend and foe to the downtrodden; Oppressor and liberator of the oppressed.

Singing the Blues

For some of us that is a hard pill to swallow–Unthinkable even. If Colin Kaepernick has done nothing else, he has brought attention to another expression of the American spirit that just so happens to exemplify America’s dual natures—The National Anthem.

The original version of that sacred American psalm, penned by Francis Scott Key out of adoration for America and its flag, may have a few wrinkles. The short version of our anthem’s history goes something like this: The War of 1812 between the United States and the United Kingdom was like a “Part 2” of the Revolutionary War. America declared war on England for a number of reasons related to international trade and expansion of American borders. This war proved to be a difficult one and among the defeats incurred by U.S forces was the loss at Washington D.C., which was burned to the ground at the hands of the Brits.

Fortunately for the U.S.A. there would be payback in Baltimore. Beginning on September 13, 1814 the British attacked Fort McHenry but were repelled by U.S. troops after about a day of fighting. It was during this battle that Francis Scott Key observed the American flag flying triumphantly over the fray and was inspired to write a poem entitled, “Defense of Fort McEnry”. This poem would later be put to music and become what we know as our national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner”.

Surely we are all well acquainted with the first verse of “The Star Spangled Banner”, but it is the less familiar third verse that will be of interest here. It reads:

“And where is that band who so vauntingly swore

That the havoc of war and the battles confusion

A home and country, should leave us no more?

Their blood has washed out

Their footsteps pollution.

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.”

It is the celebratory mentioning of the deaths of, “the hireling and slave”, that has become a matter of some controversy. It is claimed, by some, that this phrase refers to African slaves who had joined the ranks of the British military, and died in battle. This claim is not without objections, however, as others interpret, “hireling and slave”, as a derisive reference to sailors from abroad who had been forcibly employed in the British Navy.

I am not a historian and therefore won’t attempt to weigh in on which interpretation is correct. That matter of contention is actually inconsequential to my overall point. The fact of the matter is, during the War of 1812, it is the case that the British recruited African slaves with the promise of freeing them should they fight against America; Many Africans took the British at their word and were rewarded accordingly when the war was over.

As America soldiers fought against the British for the furtherance of American liberty, Africans fought against the United States to secure for themselves those inalienable rights; life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In this episode of history we see the two Americas held in tension; the America that raises a high bar for what a nation should be and the America that fails to measure up to that bar. With that I return to our discussion of symbolism and the flag.

Conclusion

The American flag means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Based on America’s history and present condition there is room for a number of legitimate ways to view the flag and the country it represents. This opens the door for some important questions, for example: was Kaepernick’s protest an affront to the flag, or did it simply go against the grain of positive sentiments that most people associate with the flag? Was Kaepernick’s behavior contrary to America or contrary to America as you see it?  Why do others see a different America than you do? In what way can we find opportunities for growth amidst criticism?

If true progress is to occur, then dialogues like the ones spurred by Kaepernick ought not begin and end with trying to conform how others view this country to our own view. Seeking to understand perspectives that are different than our own is vitally important for reconciliation and moving forward. The differing sentiments that people assign to America and its flag are like two adjoining tectonic plates underneath our nation. Every Trayvon Martin, Dallas officer shooting, Trump rally, racially motivated riot, and Kaepernick protest causes rumblings that draw our attention back to that ever present “fault line”–Race in America. I am a proponent of peace and reconciliation and I believe these can occur through communication, conflict, and honest introspection.

As Americans we can rejoice in the brighter aspects of this nation’s past and present as we learn from this nation’s flaws and failures. The good, the bad, and the ugly all have value if we would embrace them as building blocks toward the future. Patriotism is in the eye of the beholder. Whether it be the voice that reminds us of how far we have come, or the voice that draws our attention to how far we have to go, let us heed them both.

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3 thoughts on “Kaepernick’s Controversy: A Violation of Symbolism

  1. Well-written piece. Where I might have an issue is with mentioning Trayvon Martin and the Dallas Police massacre in the same breath. Is it true that Travon was leaving the scene of an illegal act and failed to obey a request of an authority figure, attacking him before being subdued with lethal force?
    If this is true, how can he become a poster boy for the oppressed minority?

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    1. Hmmm… you seem to have different facts about the Trayvon Martin incident. However, that does not matter. Zimmerman was told by the police dispatcher to stay in his vehicle and not to pursue Trayvon. Zimmerman was a volunteer neighborhood watch person, not an authority, and not authorized to arrest or detain anyone. Because Zimmerman failed to obey the instructions of the dispatcher he put himself in a situation that resulted in him feeling like lethal force was the only way to protect his life.

      Where I might have an issue is you thinking that the name of one lost life should not be mentioned next to the name of another lost life because of some perceived difference between the two. This differenced is marked by one being labeled as a thug, and the other a civil servant; Yet even the two thieves are mentioned with the Lord of glory.

      The issue is that our society is one that resorts to violence, and fatal violence at that, as a first resort. In both instances anger, frustration, and prejudice led to violence as a first and only resort. That my friend reveals a darker issue within our society. As Adam pointed out, symbols mean much to many. Trayvon represented the thug to Mr. Zimmerman. The Dallas officers represented oppression to the sniper. In both instances people attacked what they saw as symbols of something they despised.

      So if I were to add something to Adam’s article it would be that we view individuals, and groups of people, as symbols. We call people Black, white, liberal, conservative, Republican, Democrat, Baptist, Presbyterian, gay, straight, and so on. We use these labels for others and then hold them as representative of the group they identify with. This is why otherwise nice personable folks all of the sudden spew the most vile and hateful things to their neighbors, coworkers, friends, and even family. In their mind they are attacking something symbolic of a thing or idea they hate. Notice that I called it someTHING instead of someONE. This is because when we view persons as symbols they lose their humanity and instead become objects.

      Now everything Adam said about symbols and people’s interaction with them applies here as well. When we allow symbolism to overwhelm our minds we superimpose our subjective views of a particular symbol onto said symbol. So Trayvon becomes someTHING that needs to be done away with, and the Dallas officers become someTHING that needs to be destroyed.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I think you may have slightly missed where I was going with my list of incidents there. I was connecting those incidents back to my tectonic plate analogy. I do actually believe that Zimmerman victimized Trayvon Martin but whether Trayvon was truly a victim or not, what I was trying to illustrate was how the after effects of racial tension and clashing worldviews that stem from occurrences like these are like a faultline’s rumblings. We as a nation often deal with the rumblings but the real issue is the tectonic plates/differing views on race that are beneath the surface. Thanks for the feedback!

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