“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” — Martin Luther King Jr.
Call it shades of Angela Davis.
As the “The Star-Spangled Banner” rang out, Colin Kaepernick took a knee on the sidelines before kickoff in San Diego last week sporting his happy-nappy Afro halo.
Not that one could blame him for fishing his blowout comb from mothballs and doing the time warp again. A week before, his singular act of silent protest crowned the San Francisco 49ers quarterback the most controversial African-American since Rosa Parks to stir up a stink by sitting down. Worse, his protest, alas, confirmed, again, that decades after King pointed an accusatory finger at injustice, the garment of destiny continues to fray.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick declared.
He calls his dissent a matter of conscience.
Others call Kaepernick everything but a child of God. Haters torched his jersey and his character in social media. Even National Football League brass branded him a “traitor” or worse.
Never mind Kaepernick hadn’t sold Russia U.S. secrets and repeatedly has declared his love for this nation and respect for those who don America’s colors in defense of it.
Sadly, this is all distraction déjà vu. Hold up a mirror to the congenital ugliness still coursing through America’s veins and watch deniers and guardians of the status quo flip through the dog-eared racial-politics playbook and call an end-around.
Question his patriotism. Question his blackness (his mom is white, his father black). Question his football chops. Question his right as a now multimillionaire athlete to dare speak of oppression.
Any shiny object to distract and delegitimize what prompted the dissent. If, as the great lawyer Clarence Darrow argued, “True patriotism hates injustice in its own land more than anywhere else,” the prospect that naysayers might again succeed ought to haunt authentic American patriots.
Perhaps the most galling thing in this episode is the perverse conflation of exalting pledges or anthems with patriotism.
The Supreme Court, in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, liberated Americans from compulsory patriotic theater attendant to the Pledge of Allegiance. The court wisely ruled constitutional rights such as free speech in the main are “beyond the reach of majorities and officials.”
If not beyond the reach of Twittiots. Swaddled in Old Glory, trolls verbally blitzed Kaepernick with “patriotic” vitriolic glee, becoming the embodiment of Mark Twain’s definition of a patriot:
“The person who can holler the loudest without knowing what he is hollering about.”
All the foolhardy hollering over Kaepernick’s dissent overshadows lingering racial realities hard as cod-liver oil to swallow.
“I think that’s something that’s hard for this country to address, is what the real issues are …,” he said last week. “Once we admit that, we can deal with it, we can fix them and we can make this country and these communities a better place.”
That sentiment echoes British historian James Bryce’s words: “Patriotism consists not in waving the flag, but in striving that our country shall be righteous as well as strong.”
By riding the pine during the national anthem, Kaepernick ratified the belief of many blacks (88 percent) in a recent Pew Research Center survey who insist America must make changes for blacks fully to achieve equality with whites.
By riding the pine, he highlighted America’s gross wealth disparity: white-headed households were worth nearly 13 times more than black households.
By riding the pine, Kaepernick — who plays in a city whose police force, like departments in Los Angeles and Miami, is in hot water with the Feds over officers’ racist texts — gave voice to 84 percent of blacks who believe cops treat people of color less fairly than they treat whites.
Police “have the power to arrest and the power to kill somebody,” Jeff Adachi, the San Francisco public defender, recently told The New York Times. “If you’re thinking, ‘This is a wild animal, or this is a crazed black man who’s going to hurt me,’ that’s when you might pull the trigger. That’s where it becomes scary.”
As scary is the prospect that nothing meaningful comes of Kaepernick’s bold dissent beyond skyrocketing sales of his football jersey. The conflagration over the means and the messenger largely has muted the message.
Who knows where this goes from here. At least Kaepernick has some discussing the right things. Perhaps that spark pushes us to embrace and realize Alexis de Tocqueville’s lofty reading of America:
“The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”
Seeing America engage in such self-reflection and embrace meaningful social renovation would be something to stand for.
Former award-winning Orlando Sentinel columnist Darryl E. Owens now serves as director of communications at Beacon College in Leesburg, the first higher education institution accredited to award bachelor’s degrees exclusively to students with learning disabilities, ADHD and other learning differences. Views expressed are his own.