People keep asking me what I think about NFL player Colin Kaepernick’s not standing for our national anthem in protest of racial injustice in America.  A former student emailed me to ask about the issue.  He wrote:

“I have become confused with the growing act of college and pro athletes sitting during the national anthem at games. I know you served in the U.S. military and have decades of experience watching America improve on race issues. In your opinion, what is the correct response to all this?”

Yes, I am a military veteran. I served this country to protect American freedoms. I did not serve this country to prevent people from using their American freedom to protest injustice in this country.

America is not perfect, but America is an exemplary country because we citizens can protest to point out injustice. We, American citizens, can protest, push for and work to remove injustice from the way we do things in America. That is not true in other countries. In some other nations, protest is prohibited and punished (with imprisonment, sometimes death). We are different but to really live that difference requires an understanding of our citizenship that is not elementary but advanced.

As Andrew Shepard, the character who is the President in the 1995 movie “The American President” says:

“America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship.

 You gotta want it bad, 'cause it's gonna put up a fight.  

 It's gonna say 'You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.

You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can't just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest.'

Show me that, defend that; celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the ’land of the free’".

America was founded on the principle that all citizens have the right to "call out" the government for (active or passive) wrong actions.  That is part of the American identity.  In recent times, though, too many Americans have let themselves get caught up by the minimal group effect; automatic categorization with a tendency to see everything as group competition.

As a social psychologist, I know that we are living in a new American social context.  We are living in this situation of neo-diversity, where each of us has to encounter and sometimes interact with people who do not look like, sound like, worship like, and promote America like us. Anxiety about that neo-diversity interpersonal situation is what is pushing a lot of Americans to rely on a minimal-group perception of events; we are motivated to automatically categorize social events into us-versus-them.

We have all seen the intergroup violence that is alive in our nation.  We saw that intergroup violence in unprecedented ways this Summer-2016; mass killings of gay, lesbian and transgendered persons, police shooting after police shooting of black men, white police officers assassinated by a black sniper.  Protests emerged all over America.  But, NFL football season starts and we are just “…ready for some football.”  Trying to relax into football, oh man, we are reminded of it all by having an NFL player not stand for the national anthem to protest racial injustice. 

 “How dare he?  Who does he think he is? No real American would do that, right?” 

Us-versus-them (minimal-group) psychological motivation starts to take over and grow angry. Kaepernick is not a real American; he’s not one of us, people cry out. Well, turns out patriotism and protests are not in competition with each other. In fact, even while in the military I was engaged in protests movements.  That is why I have been offended by the attempt of some to frame Kapernick’s symbolic, peaceful protest as an insult to those of us who served this country in the military.

Even though I served in a time (1972-1976) when many in the Navy did not want black sailors like me to be able to advance in rank, I am a proud U.S. Navy veteran. While in the Navy, though, I worked against the racial discrimination of the Navy in a lot of ways. I trained and worked as a racial awareness group discussion leader.  Known for that, when I walked the base at NAS Cecil Field, I saluted officers, saluted the flag, and I also raised my arm and fist in the black power salute to other African American sailors. I say again, patriotism and protest are not in competition with each other.

Colin Kaepernick not standing for the national anthem does not offend me. In fact Kapernick’s symbolic protest reminds me of what I served to protect in America.

Patriotism comes in many forms, including protesting injustices that still occur in our great nation. Our U.S. Constitution does not specify the form that peaceful protests must take; that would be un-American. But in the First Amendment, our U.S. Constitution does guarantee us the right to peaceful protest however we see fit. In the “…land of the free, home of the brave,” giving in to us-versus-them thinking when we see peaceful protests is putting on psychological blinders to that fundamental part of our American identity.

Dr. Rupert W. Nacoste is the author of “Taking on Diversity: How We Can Move From Anxiety to Respect” (2015, NY: Prometheus Books), and is Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Professor of Psychology at North Carolina State University.

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