One of the best ways to get yourself a reputation as a dangerous citizen these days is to go about repeating the very phrases which our founding fathers used in the struggle for independence.”

Charles A. Beard 

American historian, 1874-1948

Colin Kaepernick has stirred up a patriotic hornet’s nest. To many, he is simply a provocateur out to disrespect our flag and all it stands for as a symbol of truth, justice, and the American way. To others, he is exercising his constitutional right of free speech and expression. 

Both the flag and Kaepernick’s protest go beyond the symbolic. The flag has always represented the aspirational goals of our society. Our flag stands for what we strive to be as a nation. The flag is not some idol that we should, unconditionally, worship. How do we reconcile the symbol (flag) with the oppressive reality that so many African Americans have experienced? Herein lies the problem.

Blacks have unflinchingly answered the call to arms in every conflict that this country has entered. According to official records (The American War Library), “early in the Vietnam war, when blacks made up about 11% of our fighting force, black casualties soared to over 20% of the total (1965, 1966).” 

Fighting under the flag as a symbol of America’s stated beliefs about democracy, blacks gave their lives for a country that consistently denied them fundamental human rights. During each conflict, black soldiers hoped that upon their return to American society they might, at last, be granted full citizenship in their home country. Despite their valor and courage in these foreign wars, full citizenship remained both elusive and contested at home. Black soldiers returned home to find that they were still second-class citizens, subjected to systemic discrimination and even lynching.

Now we are engaged in a political debate about how blacks or any other American citizen should react to the singing of the National Anthem and the unfurling of the flag. Have we boiled the concept of patriotism down to a litmus test of whether one stands, kneels or places their hand over heart when we are at a sporting event? Over 70 years ago, the Supreme Court ruled and has subsequently upheld Justice Robert H. Jackson’s opinion written for the Court. In his opinion, Justice Jackson said making saluting the flag a requirement violated the plaintiff’s constitutional rights (Jehovah’s Witnesses school children). 

Perhaps we should dive a little deeper into the concept of patriotism.

It is not “my country right or wrong.” Rather, patriotism is being vigilant about calling out any slippage from what we say we are about and making sure we become what we say we stand for, both at home and abroad. Having a cold beer in one hand and a baseball cap in the other while waiting for the last stanza of the Anthem doesn’t equate to patriotism. 

Patriotism is not just demonstrative — it is definitive. In other words, do you love your country enough to make sure it lives up to its stated goals? Are you man or woman enough to challenge America when we drift away from our stated principles? 

Kaepernick is pointing out the contradictions that blacks in America must live with every day of their lives. He chose a symbolic gesture to address a reality for black people that does not square with America’s stated values of guaranteeing “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Does it much matter if you kneel or stand? What counts, ultimately, is whether you are willing to stand up for the ideals that make America great. The record will show that black Americans have always stood up for this country in times of war. 

Was the current POTUS being unpatriotic when he sought a deferment during the Vietnam War and is he unpatriotic when he does not always place his hand over his heart during the National Anthem? 

Kwame S. Salter is an Oak Park resident and an occasional columnist for Wednesday Journal.

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