Noah Harrison: Preserving patriotism

Tuesday, October 3, 2017 - 12:38pm

Protests in the National Football League took center stage at the end of September as hundreds of players, coaches and owners knelt, raised fists or linked arms during the national anthem in a show of solidarity. Though the national anthem protests date back to last year when Colin Kaepernick first knelt to protest racial injustices, dozens more participated this past week in response to President Donald Trump’s controversial comment that protesting players should be fired. 

The show of unity drew national news headlines and also elicited sharp criticism from many who claim that the protests are disrespectful and unpatriotic. Others have gone further and trivialized the players’ cause, calling the protest’s pretext of enduring racial biases an “ocean of lies.” These lines of criticism are unfortunate and misguided. While it is understandable why some, especially those who have served our country, would be vexed by demonstrations during the anthem, it is equally understandable why players feel the need to protest. Furthermore, the act of protesting is not unpatriotic; rather, it is a staple of American democracy.

Any analysis of the national anthem protests is incomplete without an examination of why the players are protesting. Indeed, the players’ motives have been a central point of debate in the recent days, with some critics claiming NFL players should be grateful for what they have. They point to the average NFL player’s salary, which at $2.1 million in the 2015 season, is nearly 50 times greater than the average American's salary in 2014.

This notion is shortsighted and minimizes the impact of racial injustices, many of which are inescapable and not alleviated by wealth. A 2016 Pew Research Center survey found that 71 percent of U.S. Blacks have experienced racial discrimination, and roughly half reported that in the past year “someone has acted as if they were suspicious of them because of their race.” The wealth of the protesting players does not fully shield them from racial profiling, nor does it diminish the importance of their message.

Furthermore, those criticizing the players as “ungrateful” fail to realize they are advocating for the entire Black community, especially those without a platform to protest against the injustices they face. Despite an abundance of evidence of the far-reaching impacts of implicit racial biases, only 36 percent of whites believe racial discrimination to be a major reason Blacks lag behind whites in education, income and more.

Considerable media attention has been devoted to police brutality, but discussions of racial profiling in policing have often devolved into a tedious game of assigning blame, rather than a recognition of the omnipresent biases against racial minorities. Such recognition of the problem is essential for any progress to be made; the lack of recognition compels these players to protest. Efforts to trivialize the motives behind the protests grossly devalue the pervasiveness of racial injustices in the United States and the significance of NFL players’ willingness to stand up to it.

However, other lines of criticism have focused on the methods of the protests. Detractors claim the demonstrations are unpatriotic or disrespectful to the flag. Admittedly, the matter of patriotism is complex and delicate. Kaepernick’s own comments on the protest, particularly his statement from August 2016 in which he explicitly declined to “show pride” in the flag, are objectively unpatriotic (at least denotatively) and add to the narrative that the protests dishonor the national anthem. 

While intended to contextualize his budding protest, Kaepernick’s comments unfortunately reinforced a narrow and simplistic view of patriotism. Patriotism is far more than honoring the flag; regrettably, when it comes to the flag, some seem to care more about the physical cloth than what it represents. This attitude toward the flag has translated to the outlook that patriotism is expressed solely through the veneration of the flag, when the true hallmark of American patriotism is the defense of our country’s democratic values. To truly care about the flag is to care about injustices, free speech and political expression. Kaepernick’s protest promoted this more refined view of patriotism by calling attention to the inadequacy of merely honoring the flag in its physical form.

The United States is not held together by a common race, religion or even language. Rather, it is our shared civic values of democracy, justice and liberty that define our national identity. Our nation’s robust civic culture demands a form of patriotism that honors these values. Genuine patriotism is a celebration of liberties and freedoms, which is why there is a subtle, but inherent hypocrisy in calling the protesting players unpatriotic. Patriotism requires a respect for protest. Protest is intrinsically intertwined with our civic values, and it is through protest that so many of the rights we take as self-evident were secured.

Furthermore, there is nothing innately unpatriotic about the national anthem protests. By and large, the protesting players are simply using the stage of the national anthem to point out that this nation is still far from achieving many of the virtues the anthem symbolizes. One can be patriotic while acknowledging that our country is not perfect — the two are far from mutually exclusive. American society has many areas where progress is needed. Racial injustice is one.

Realizing the promises of equality, justice and liberty for all is an ongoing process, and neither the protests nor the controversy surrounding them are likely to go away anytime soon. As the NFL season continues, it is important to recognize the players are protesting for a legitimate cause and furthermore that protesting is a form of free speech — and there’s nothing unpatriotic or un-American about it.

Noah Harrison can be reached at noahharr@umich.edu.