During a radio interview on Monday, Donald Trump suggested that Colin Kaepernick should leave America. “I have followed it, and I think it’s personally not a good thing,” Trump said on The Dori Monson Show when asked about Kaepernick’s decision to sit during the national anthem before a recent preseason game, in protest of racial injustice and police brutality. “I think it’s a terrible thing. And, you know, maybe he should find a country that works better for him. Let him try. It won’t happen.”
It was odd to hear Trump say Kaepernick can’t have it better than he does here in the United States, seeing as he’s spent the last few weeks telling us all how bad African-Americans have it, what with all the joblessness and poverty in our bloody urban hellscapes. That isn’t to say that his dismissive response was surprising, though. It was the kind of prideful disdain we tend to hear anytime someone from a marginalized community, like Kaepernick, makes note of the fact that he or she is unhappy with bigotry. Go find somewhere else to live, they’re told. See how you like it in Iran, or Iraq, or Syria. Don’t you realize how good you have it here?
This is jingoism at its shallowest and isn’t a counter-argument so much as an insult. Too often, those unwilling to even try to understand protests like Kaepernick’s use blind patriotism as a blunt instrument, to smack anyone who doubts our nation’s inherent perfection. We’re seeing that simplistic response not just from Trump and some internet randos, but also from sports luminaries like Drew Brees, Jerry Rice, and from Jim Harbaugh, Kaepernick’s former coach. Over the past several days, standing up for the anthem has become more of an issue than the reason Kaepernick sat down for it in the first place.
Kaepernick’s original intent has been subsumed, thanks to the ridiculous responses it inspired. But I like that it at least encouraged some public critical thinking about America. Kaepernick isn’t just asking for concrete policy changes in our criminal justice system: Before we even get to the point where we can change it for the better, we must first recognize that the country has flaws at all. I’m pretty sure that it can survive the kind of conversation Kaepernick is provoking.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaerpernick told NFL.com after the game. When I read these remarks, I thought less of other activist athletes like Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown (who supported Kaep’s protest, by the way) than I did James Baldwin. “To me,” Kaepernick continued, “this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” That may not have the cadence of one of Baldwin’s essays, but the spirit is there.
“I love America more than any other country in the world,” Baldwin once wrote, “and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” That quote is something of a mantra for me and many others who make it their work to contend with issues of equality. It’s also the most patriotic sentence I’ve ever read.
Baldwin’s contention — embodied in Kaepernick’s action — is in direct opposition to the lazy notion of American exceptionalism we see promoted by politicians and citizens alike. Constantly proclaiming that the United States is the Greatest Nation on Earth™ isn’t just overly prideful — it gives an out to those unwilling to contend with our deep divides and inequities.
This unfortunate attitude bleeds into the institutions that are considered most American, most above even necessary reproach: the police, and our military. To offer even good-faith criticism of either is to be labeled un-American. And those in a position of privilege often try to dictate exactly how people advocating for change should protest. This is why we’ve seen people more vocal about a football player not standing up for a song than they have been about police killings, for instance. It’s why we see San Francisco’s police union cursing Kaepernick’s statements about police as “foolish” and demanding an apology.
These public figures and institutions aren’t patriotic for condemning Kaepernick. They are instead treating America as if it were their favorite football team, behaving with about as much sense as a drive-time sports radio caller, fueled more by defensiveness than reason. Rather than acknowledge faults in the country they so ardently profess to love, they’d prefer to see their squad celebrated uncritically. That’s harmless when discussing the fortunes of an NFL team. It’s considerably less benign when we’re talking about whether black lives matter.
Leave aside, for a moment, the racism in the actual national anthem itself. Kaepernick’s protest, and the reaction to it, reminds us that too many Americans still can’t even bring themselves to have a conversation about our nation’s historic and present-day struggles with racism. To admit that something needs mending in our beloved country is to be ungrateful for all of its freedoms. It’s easy to think that way; in that scenario, every discussion of race is divisive, and the people of color complaining about racism are the real problem. Kaepernick’s protest may not help wake those people up, but it showed how, often, the greatest love for our nation is shown by those who seek to improve it.