Patriotism is a luxury that only the privileged can afford. For it is only the privileged who can whitewash their nation’s history. It is only those who have never had their rights denied them in the name of our flag who could have difficulty understanding the need for protesters such as Colin Kaepernick and the Garfield High School football team and FSU volleyball player Mara Green. Only those who do not know the fear that comes with being a black man encountering scared and trigger happy agents of the state could think that Kaepernick’s cause is without merit. Only those who have never known the fear of being shot by those who took an oath to protect you even while your hands are raised can speak as if their country is infallible. Only those who care more about deploying resources of the state to protect property and not the bodies of our black brothers and sisters can sing of our country as the land of the free without experiencing at least some minor form of cognitive dissonance.
It is fitting that Colin Kaepernick’s protests have been during patriotic displays at NFL games since we learned late last year that at least 50 sports teams and organizations received more than $6.8 million of taxpayer money from the Department of Defense for patriotic displays honoring American soldiers. There is perhaps no better example of the privilege of patriotism than the state paying millions of dollars for sports teams to unfurl field-sized flags and play “God Bless America.” When we see these sorts of state-funded patriotic displays in other countries, we recognize them not as genuine displays of patriotism but as propaganda.
But patriotism in America is about more than money and propaganda. Colin Kaepernick is now the most disliked player in the NFL and has received death threats because he dares to call for our country to be better. The Santa Clara Police Union threatened not to escort 49ers players because of Kaepernick in thinly veiled hopes of seeing these players become the victims of violence so they will learn the lesson that white men think they ought to learn (they have since rescinded their threat). White men are well-versed in policing the actions and bodies of black men.
What sort of patriotism is so fragile as to be threatened by a black man silently kneeling?
While our streets run red with blood from black and brown bodies, the fragility of white America’s patriotism is being exposed. We must ask, what sort of patriotism is so fragile as to be threatened by a black man silently kneeling? But we know that power is always held precariously. Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist of the popular Hunger Games trilogy sums it up perfectly when she responds to President Snow’s fear that her act of defiance at the end of the first book could lead to a revolution and bring down the Capitol: “It must be very fragile if a handful of berries can bring it down.” Just as Snow feared that a handful of berries could bring down the Capitol, so white America fears that a black man silently kneeling will bring it down. But such a fear can only be legitimate in the eyes of those who see their country as “great” only insofar as it looks like them.
Since Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the 49ers preseason game on August 26, 72 people have been shot and killed by police. One of those was Keith Lamont Scott who was shot and killed by police in my hometown, Charlotte, NC. There are two very different versions of events and, as of now, the police chief is saying that he will not release the body and dash cam video in their possession. And when citizens took to the streets to protest yet another killing of a black man by the state, my timeline was filled with white people again attempting to police their actions. These are the privileged patriots. Martin Luther King, Jr. called them the “white moderates,” those more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice. They may be able to wait for a more opportune time to seek justice, but that is only because they have never truly known injustice.
So, continue to be the patriot you have always been, unaware of the slaughter happening in your cities. Put your hand over your chest and heartily belt out our racist national anthem. Salute our flag and those who fight for it while denying the rights it supposedly stands for to those who don’t look, act, and believe like you. Tweet about how you want to make America great again and conveniently forget that our country was built on the backs of slaves. Celebrate your freedom on fall Saturdays watching college football and drinking cheap beer while you turn a deaf ear to the blood that cries out from the ground. But know that your patriotism has been bought at a price, and it is one I am no longer willing to pay.
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