September 15, 2016

Calling Kaepernick’s stance un-American is un-American itself

By Ryan Hiles —

Love it or leave it. It’s strange how 5 words can so effectively encapsulate how a very significant portion of our nation’s populace feels about, well, our nation. And, on its face, I get it. It’s not an outwardly ridiculous concept that we should appreciate the privileges afforded to us by this country, privileges that aren’t necessarily guaranteed in other parts of the world. I just also happen to believe that “love it or leave it” is a specious, frustrating, red-herring, even harmful argument. Never have I been more firm in that belief then in the immediate aftermath of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem as a form of protest against, broadly, racial inequality in America.

I would say I was surprised at the fallout from this, but were any of us, really? Basically, if you thought someone would be indignant or supportive, they probably were. But, naturally, the loudest voices in the room were the ones denouncing Kaepernick as an un-American, anti-military, treasonous troublemaker. These criticisms took many forms, but you could essentially boil them down to “well if things are so bad here, why don’t you go somewhere else”, which itself boils down to, well, ignorance.

Enter Dabo Swinney. This past Tuesday, Clemson head football coach, Swinney gave his daily press conference and was asked about Colin Kaepernick’s protest. And while there were many spit-take inducing responses to that same question, Swinney’s really does serve as an excellent microcosm of everything wrong with the “love it or leave it” response to social activism.

He starts off by acknowledging, “Everybody has the right to express himself, but…”, which itself has become the preferred preface of the decidedly jingoistic. It’s a way of rhetorically acknowledging every person’s right to express their opinion, before almost immediately attempting to undercut that very right. He then gets rather anodyne, discussing the importance of unity and the need for universal compassion, all of which he does through a Biblical framework.  More importantly, there was a jarring change of tone somewhere about halfway through his remarks.

“I go to a church that’s an interracial church. Those were only dreams for Martin Luther King. Black head coaches. Black quarterbacks. Quarterbacks at places like Georgia and Alabama and Clemson. For Martin Luther King, that was just a dream. Black CEOs, NBA owners, you name it. Unbelievable.” He then continued to go on about people who complain about racial inequality, “Some of these people need to move to another country.”  Two very different outlooks.

First of all, “I go to an interracial church” isn’t something that you get to brag about in 2016. But, past that, Swinney perfectly employs one of the greatest fallacies surrounding the debate on racial inequality in America; that being, because there are black people in positions of power, racism must be dead.

It’s a point of view that seemingly purposefully ignores nuance in favor of a myopic view of the concepts of power and equality. Is it a sign of progress that we’ve twice elected a black man president of the United States? Absolutely. But let’s also consider that one of our two major parties just nominated for his replacement the man that made it his mission to delegitimize, on purely ethnic grounds, the first black man ever elected president. Read the Department of Justice report on police practices in Ferguson or Baltimore, then try to sit there and say with a straight face that systemic racism is fiction.

The reason that Kaepernick’s protest has kicked up such a storm is two-fold. Firstly, we tend to believe that athletes should be faceless, emotionless, cyborgs whose backgrounds simply evaporate when they step on the field, a point presented to me by U of L graduate student, Camara Douglas. “We like to pretend that when an athlete puts on a jersey, they lose all sense of cultural background. When an athlete steps out on their own and actually expresses themselves without being prompted, fans tend to lash out”, Douglas went on to add.

Players speaking out really seems to be a major point of controversy only when whatever stand they happen to making in return happens to make people uncomfortable, and “love it or leave it” is nothing but a defense against ideas that make us uncomfortable. We’ve got to stop collectively demonizing people as anti-American for simply presenting fair, reasoned criticisms of America. Literally one of my favorite things about this country is that I can criticize it. Not because I hate America, but because I want to make it better. And maybe your conception of “better” doesn’t line up with mine, or Colin Kaepernick’s for that matter, and that’s fine. But to claim that that difference in opinion is treasonous is ironically and downright un-American. Colin Kaepernick, or the litany of other athletes following his lead (all the way down to the high school ranks), might not always love it, but that for d*** sure doesn’t mean they should leave it.

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