How Critics of Colin Kaepernick's National Anthem Protest Got it Wrong

Boycotting national anthem is as American as apple pie

Colin Kaepernick
Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers warms up prior to a game against the St. Louis Rams at the Edward Jones Dome on Nov. 1, 2015 in St. Louis, Mo. (Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sparked controversy after he was spotted sitting as the national anthem played during a preseason game Aug. 26. Asked why he chose to sit during the “Star-Spangled Banner,” the athlete said the move was a political statement against racism and police killings of blacks.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he said. “To me, 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.” 

While Black Lives Matter leader DeRay McKesson called the quarterback a “truth-teller,” and others compared him to athletes Muhammad Ali, John Carlos and Tommie Smith—who made bold stands against racism decades earlier—Kaepernick had his fair share of critics. 

Actors James Woods and Christopher Meloni took to social media to criticize him and a fan filmed himself burning a Kaepernick jersey. Bigots flooded the quarterback’s social media accounts with racial slurs, threats, demands that he leave the country and accusations that he disrespected veterans. Other critics suggested Kaepernick sat during the anthem for publicity and is too wealthy to be oppressed. But these attacks on the football player are largely shortsighted, no matter how one feels about the national anthem or patriotism. The long history of oppression people of color have experienced in the United States makes their decision to embrace patriotism (or reject it) both a political and personal matter.

What About the Veterans?

Self-proclaimed patriots have argued that Kaepernick’s anthem protest is an insult to veterans. But this argument assumes that veterans are a monolithic group who feel the same about patriotism, police brutality and freedom of expression. It also overlooks that veterans, such as Walter Scott, have been police killing victims.

A number of veterans, however, have grasped the complexity of Kaepernick’s stand. An Army veteran named Rory Fanning attended a Cubs game with a banner stating, “Vets Sitting With Colin” and “#BlackLivesMatter.” Fanning served with Pat Tillman and wrote the book “Worth Fighting For: An Army Ranger's Journey Out of the Military and Across America” about his experiences.

Navy veteran Jim Wright wrote an essay defending Kaepernick. He argued that citizens of a democracy don’t have to pledge allegiance to anything, as freedom of expression is among the principles the troops have fought to preserve.

“With threats, by violence, by shame, you can maybe compel Kaepernick to stand up and put his hand over his heart and force him to be quiet. …,” Wright wrote. “If THAT's what matters to you, the illusion of respect, then you're not talking about freedom or liberty. …Instead you're talking about every dictatorship from the Nazis to North Korea where people are lined up and MADE to salute with the muzzle of a gun pressed to the back of their necks. That, that illusion of respect, is not why I wore a uniform.”

Army veteran Demond Howard said that while he would “gladly die for my country,” he doesn’t object to the football player’s anthem boycott.

Kaepernick himself has said that he respects veterans and has relatives who’ve served in the military. His anthem protest was not meant to disrespect them but to bring attention to the daily injustices Americans of color face more than two centuries after Francis Scott Key wrote the “Star-Spangled Banner.”

Kaepernick Was Already ‘Woke’

Kaepernick hadn’t been embroiled in a race relations scandal before his anthem protest, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t politically conscious before then, as his critics have alleged. In fact, San Jose Mercury News sports columnist Tim Kawakami pointed out in 2015 how the quarterback had used social media to counter Donald Trump’s Islamophobia while discussing racial segregation and other historical wrongs in the process. Also, as a University of Nevada student, Kaepernick pledged the black fraternity Kappa Alpha Psi, which is known for its contributions to civil rights and molding black leaders and activists such as Ralph Abernathy of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

This pattern contradicts the idea that Kaepernick’s anthem boycott is a misguided attempt to revive his ailing career. Some of his detractors also argue that if he cares so much about racial oppression, he should donate his multi-million dollar salary to social causes. But, in fact, the public doesn’t know how he’s spending his money. Not every celebrity is a public philanthropist. The writer dream hampton, for example, said that Jay-Z and Beyoncé have secretly sent money to bail out police brutality protesters.

The same people who argue Kaepernick should give away his millions also argue that a multi-millionaire can’t be oppressed. But the quarterback said he hadn’t spoken out on his own behalf.

“There have been situations where I feel like I have been ill-treated, yes,” Kaepernick told reporters. “But this stand wasn’t for me. This stand wasn’t because I feel like I’m being put down in any kind of way. This is because I’m seeing things happen to people who don’t have a voice, people who don’t have a platform to talk and have their voices heard and effect change, so I’m in a position where I can do that, and I’m gonna do that for people that can’t.”

Moreover, Kaepernick’s wealth doesn’t mean he didn’t experience racism prior to football stardom or even today. His mother, Teresa Kaepernick, recalled strangers sneering at him as a child or assuming he wasn’t a member of his family.

She recalled her biracial son (whom she adopted as a baby) playing in a video arcade as a child. A woman gave him a dirty look and said, “People shouldn’t just leave their kids in here all alone.” The strange woman assumed that she couldn’t have been his mother. Teresa Kaepernick also recalled how a hotel clerk assumed that he wasn’t part of her family as well. After checking the family in, the clerk turned to him and said, “And how can I help you, young man?”

A look at Kaepernick’s social media account provides some insight into how he felt about his upbringing. After the Milwaukee police killing of Sylville Smith in August, the football player retweeted a man who remarked, “Growing up in Milwaukee is so toxic.” Kaepernick knows what it’s like to be marginalized, and his anthem boycott stems from the empathy he’s developed for those without his resources.

The National Anthem’s Ugly History

Kaepernick didn’t mention the anthem’s disturbing history when describing his decision to protest it, but the media have pointed out how the song celebrates slavery and that anthem writer Francis Scott Key was himself a slaveholder. A lawyer, Key often defended blacks in court but maintained that they were “a distinct and inferior race of people.” He was a man of contradictions, freeing seven of his slaves but doubtful that blacks could withstand liberty, states the book, “Snow-Storm in August: The Struggle for American Freedom and Washington’s Race Riot of 1835.”

“I have been thus instrumental in liberating several large families and many individuals,” he said. “I cannot remember more than two instances, out of this large number, in which it did not appear that the freedom so earnestly sought for them was their ruin.”

Key’s view reflects the prevailing sentiment of the time that black people were too infantile and intellectually dim to thrive on their own. With this view, he advocated for an African American exodus to Liberia. He believed the emigration of blacks would allow the U.S. to be “‘the land of the free’ for white people,” according to “Snow-Storm in August.”

The Smithsonian magazine points out that Key, who served as district attorney of Washington, D.C., from 1833 to 1840, used the role to suppress the abolitionist movement. He accused abolitionists of trying to “associate and amalgamate with the negro.”

Given Key’s history, the fact that he penned the line the “land of the free” was truly ironic. He wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner” as British warships attacked Baltimore’s Fort McHenry in 1814. This was significant, according to the Smithsonian magazine’s Christopher Wilson, because at the same time, “it is likely that black slaves were trying to reach British ships in Baltimore Harbor. They knew that they were far more likely to find freedom and liberty under the Union Jack than they were under the ‘Star-Spangled Banner.’”

The Intercept’s Jon Schwarz posits that the anthem’s third verse celebrates the fact that slaves were doomed to a life of bondage and degradation. It states:

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.

In essence, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is a celebration of the U.S. empire, including its subjugation of the underclass and slave labor. It was not an anthem designed with people of color in mind. This makes Kaeperling’s boycott of it even more fitting.