Colin Kaepernick and our Collective Ignorance of Social and Political Activism
When San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided not to stand for the national anthem, he joined a relatively small group of professional athletes who have used their stature to bring attention to a pressing social issue. Employing language that was reminiscent of Muhammad Ali’s protest against the Vietnam War, Kaepernick explained that he was “not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
Kaepernick went on to explain that his protest was in response to the persistent racism and brutality that black people experience—whether it be from the police or from the inactions of the government:
There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder. These aren’t new situations. This isn’t new ground. There are things that have gone on in this country for years and years and have never been addressed, and they need to be. There’s a lot of things that need to change. One specifically? Police brutality. There’s people being murdered unjustly and not being held accountable.
Like nearly every other professional athlete who has ever protested on the playing field, Kaepernick’s actions have been largely met with criticism and condemnation. Those upset by his actions have offered an array of reasons for why his stance is inappropriate: he is wealthy, he was raised by white parents, he doesn’t know what it mean to sacrifice for his country, he is just doing this to get attention, and his actions will not bring about any substantial change.
At a very basic level, Kaepernick’s stance rubs many people the wrong way because most of us do not like athletes to be activists. We would rather our sports heroes just shut-up and play instead of stand-up and protest. The backlash tends to be especially harsh against black activist athletes and even harsher still against those who question our beloved patriotic symbols: the national anthem and the flag.
But even more generally, we can extend this argument and suggest that there is a low tolerance in this country for social and political activism. Most of the activists that we revere today were routinely derided when they were protesting. This is particularly true of activist athletes. Muhammad Ali was stripped of his titled and banned from boxing for three years for protesting the Vietnam War. Now, he is arguably the most beloved athlete of all time. Tommie Smith and John Carlos, whose message was also similar to that of Kaepernick’s, had their lives turned upside down after they raised their fists at the 1968 Olympics. Now, their iconic stance is commemorated on statues and t-shirts.
Our collective aversion to social and political activism should not be too surprising. Aside from Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and Susan B. Anthony, most Americans would be hard-pressed to name any activists who sacrificed themselves for the rights and opportunities we so cherish today. This is not to suggest that Kaepernick’s actions are on par with these other activists. But the lack of historical knowledge about activism in America makes it easy for people to denounce his actions without understanding them in a larger social and historical framework.
Moreover, not only do we fail to learn about the thousands of activists who fought and continue to fight for freedom, justice, and equality, we also do not learn how to be activists ourselves. How many of us recall being taught how to identify institutional injustices and structural inequalities? When did we ever have lessons about uncovering hidden and implicit forms of sexism, racism, homophobia, and other oppressions? And what guidance or strategies were we given to address and eradicate these social problems? These questions are not part of most school curricula. Instead, our formal education largely encourages us to accept and appreciate the status quo.
But if we do not learn about the activists who have shaped this country and given us the rights, privileges, and freedoms that we take-for granted, and if we never learn how to identify and then take action against inequality and injustice, is it any wonder that many of us have little appreciation or tolerance for those who take a political stand? How can we be expected to understand, respect, and even appreciate what some have called the patriotism of Colin Kaepernick’s actions, if we are largely ignorant of our country’s history of social and political activism?
We have all probably heard the phrase that if we don’t know history we are doomed to repeat it. It is also true that if we don’t know history we are doomed to misunderstand the present. This sentiment is one of the guiding principles of what C. Wright Mills called the sociological imagination: the ability to understand the relationship between our biographies (who we are) and our histories (where we have come from). According to Mills, if we neglect to account for the intersection between biography and history, then we will fail to complete our “intellectual journey.”
By this measure, the barrage of denunciations and disparagements that Kaepernick’s actions have elicited reflect the failure of our collective intellectual journey. It is easy to offer knee-jerk reactions and impulsive outrage. What is more difficult is to construct a thoughtful and analytical response. Situating that response in the historical context of social and political activism, in the history of racism and oppression, and even in the relatively small history of activist athletes, is even more challenging. But for someone whose protest statement can be linked to nearly 400 years of racism and oppression, this sort of thoughtful and analytical response is warranted.