I was planning to reserve judgement on the ongoing backlash toward football players and their protest; after all, from the grown men and women who hurled rocks at the Little Rock Nine to the cartoon artists who depicted the Obamas as apes, you can always expect America to raise its fists at black or brown people who have something to say. But the reaction to the protests of Colin Kaepernick and others underlines some of our deepest political hypocrisies. That is why I have chosen to spend time on it; not because it is unpredictable, or even really new — but because it is ridiculous.
It is important to discuss who is allowed to protest in the first place and who is not. When a forgotten and uneducated swath of white America made their criticisms heard — otherwise known as Election 2016 — pundits on the left and right called it inevitable and necessary. How could we move forward to include white America’s needs, to avoid repeats of 2016? These were people who claimed economic disenfranchisement, burdensome neglect by their government, abandonment of their rights by their institutions. Yet when black football players made largely the same claims — institutional abandonment, a lack of representation — they were told to shut up. In the minds of those who criticize Kaepernick and his protest, these white Americans are Americans; they have the fundamental right to be part of this country, and they are therefore entitled to everything that notions of the American dream stand for. Black and brown people, on the other hand, are not so much seen as members of this country but people who are only tacitly allowed to be here — overstaying guests. White Americans are allowed to take ownership of their citizenship, and force the government to make good on that deal. Black Americans do not seem to have that right.
As of late, Nazis have more of a right to the First Amendment than our own American athletes. Why? Because these athletes make boatloads of money; because they are treated like gods; because they are successful, and should be grateful for that success. Yet all three things could also be said of President Donald Trump, though he is still allowed to go on calling the nation busted, broken and dying. “Grateful” as a deterrent from protest is an interesting idea. Conservatives claim that discrimination narratives are bogus, and that black and brown Americans are afforded the same opportunities as everyone else — if only they’d work to achieve it. Fine. Assuming that to be true, why then, when black and brown people Americans are successful, conservatives tell them they should feel lucky? Why should that be at all lucky, assuming racism is a cop-out, the system is fair, and success is only earned? The message is clear: This country gave you something when you should have been given nothing. You don’t get to stay over on my couch and then criticize the paint color on the walls. The liberal belief that these athletes are entitled to their right to free speech and protest is predicated on the notion that these men are entitled to their rights at all; conservative critics don’t seem to think so.
But in a larger sense, it is not about the protest — it’s about the manner. It’s about the fact that it’s the anthem, and it’s the flag. The conservative disposition is such that nothing can come before patriotism; like a mother too loving to effectively discipline her children, those who place blind, rabid patriotism before the continual and critical improvement of the nation are handicapping its future, and serving as a barrier between it and the potential it can achieve. The Founding Fathers were more concerned with the tangible problems they faced than their mortal loyalty to the mythic institution of the Crown. They did not dream of building a nation of sycophants.
“Patriotism” is a cop-out; the “nation,” “America,” is not a breathing autonomous animal, but a conglomerate of all of us. “America” is the amalgamation of our laws, institutions and character. If “America” is oppressive, it is because the people who comprise it, in government and otherwise, are oppressive; so to hide behind love for “America” and use this as justification for oppression is tautological, backwards. America is what we make of it — she does not have an independent conscience or culture of her own that we must, out of blind love, defend; America is only us — and by saying you love “America” too much to cure it of its evil, you are only saying you love your racism too much to stop it from trampling your fellow man.
For the conservatives who harp on the liberal echo chamber and cry about an America that will not hear them, it is interesting how remarkably vicious they become at the notion of a few men taking a knee. “Respectful discourse” is a two-way street; negative responses to these protests are nothing but racism and nationalism dressed up as some proud patriotic song-and-dance. This country does not have time for these ridiculous hypocrisies. Next time you see a football player take a knee, take your own advice and be grateful — that is, grateful for your right to do the same.
Lily Vaughan is a junior majoring in history and political science. Her column,“Playing Politics,” runs Fridays.