Colin Kaepernick and the Racial Divide

By Brandon Brooks

Two weeks ago, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick ignited a media firestorm after refusing to stand during the National Anthem. Kaepernick, who is biracial, justified his actions by saying that he was not obligated “to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Unsurprisingly, many have expressed outrage over Kaepernick’s actions. Indeed, such a reaction is indicative of the growing public polarization over issues of race.

The notion that minorities are not obligated to display pride in the United States is not new. On July 5th, 1852, renowned abolitionist Frederick Douglass delivered his famous “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro” speech, declaring that Independence Day merely reminded African Americans of “the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.” Muhammad Ali used a similar rationale to justify his opposition towards the Vietnam War, asking “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” Well after his passing, critics continue to accuse Ali of being a “hypocrite.”

Similar accusations have been directed at Kaepernick, who former Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin has accused of  “sucking up a life of luxury.” Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump suggested Kaepernick “find a country that works better for him,” while National Review’s Ben Shapiro joined other critics in questioning why he did not suspend his NFL career to help develop inner cities.

It is not surprising that the aforementioned comments do not offer practical solutions to the issues affecting minority communities, doing so would require one to admit that a problem exists in the first place. While I cannot fully rationalize the fierce public response to Kaepernick’s actions, two explanations come to mind.

First, as National Review’s J.D. Vance notes, levels of residential segregation in the United States remain incredibly high. Given opportunities to interact with members of a different race is becoming increasingly uncommon, it is not surprising that some white Americans dismiss many of the minority community’s concerns, considering they may have never had to experience similar hardships.

However, another explanation is also at play. Perhaps the current divide in race relations is also attributable to differing attitudes regarding the success of the Civil Rights Movement. Polls conducted in 2004 and 2015 show that white Americans consistently view the Civil Rights Movement as being more successful than African Americans. Such a phenomenon suggests that many whites view the Civil Rights Movement through a progressive lens, likely culminating with the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Several prominent black activists have openly rejected this narrative, arguing that the existence of racism and prejudice in American society is evident in local law enforcement’s treatment of African Americans. Given the Ferguson Police Department was found to have regularly exploited the city’s black residents, one can conclude there is some truth in these activists’ concerns.

Ultimately, I applaud Kaepernick’s decision to sit during the national anthem. All too often, the public appears to lose interest in addressing issues of concern to minority communities, such as reforming the criminal justice system. Kaepernick’s comments should not be seen as a slight towards the country as a whole. Instead, he, like so many others, wants to ensure that a country founded on the basis of freedom and equality extends these notions to all of its citizens.