Colin Kaepernick stirred up considerable controversy by protesting racial oppression in America during the national anthem. His main concern is with the oppression that he claims occurs in America. While most of his critics acknowledge that he is within his legal rights, they believe that he should not exercise them in this manner. I will consider some of the objections against Kaepernick and also address some of the broader moral issues raised by this protest.
One tactic used against Kaepernick’s protest is to assert that his protest against oppression is invalidated because, as a rich and privileged NFL player, he is not personally oppressed. This approach is flawed in at least two ways. If the intent is to reject his claim that oppression exists by attacking him, then this is a mere ad hominem fallacy. This is a stock fallacy in which an attack on something about a person is taken as refuting a claim made by the person. This is a fallacy because the truth of a claim is independent of the qualities of a person making it. This is not to say that credibility is irrelevant, just that a person’s qualities do not bear on the actual truth of their claim.
This attack can also be seen as based on the view that only a victim of oppression or harm has the moral right to protest that oppression or harm. While this might have some appeal, it does seem fatally flawed. To illustrate, if this principle were accepted, then it would follow that only those killed by abortions would have the moral right to protest abortion. This would be absurd on the grounds that no protest of abortion would be possible because all those harmed by it would be dead and unable to protest. To add another illustration, only victims of crime could thus speak out against crime, which is also absurd. If the principle were taken somewhat more broadly, it would follow that only victims of cancer could try to raise awareness of cancer. As such, the claim that he is not himself oppressed has no bearing on the truth of his claims or his right to protest.
Another line of attack is to go after his character and allege that he is not sincere: he is protesting only to gain attention and bolster a flagging career. This approach can have merit in regards to the matter of whether or not he is a virtuous person. If he is not sincere and using the protest for personal gain, then he can be justly criticized on moral grounds. However, attacking him in this manner has no logical bearing on the truth of his assertions or the merit of his protest. This is just another ad hominem attack.
To use an analogy, a person who uses an opportunity to focus attention on cancer in order to engage in self-promotion is not a virtuous person, but this is irrelevant to whether or not cancer is a real problem. As such, his motivations are irrelevant to the validity of his protest.
There are those who take the approach that his protest is invalid because there is no oppression of blacks. Those who believe that oppression exists point to objective data regarding income, wealth, educational opportunities, hiring, sentencing, and so on that seem to show that oppression is both real and systematic.
Those who deny it either simply deny the data or explain it away. For example, the disproportionate arrest rates and harsher sentences are explained by alleging that blacks commit more and worse crimes than whites. Since this is an ideological issue tied to the social identity of many, the lines are rather solidly drawn: those who strongly deny the existence of oppression will generally never be convinced by data. Since they do not experience systematic oppression based on race, they also tend to claim that it does not exist because they have not experienced it—although some will claim that they have been mistreated for being white.
I do find the evidence for oppression convincing, but I am certain that those who disagree with me will not be convinced by any evidence or argument I can offer. Instead, they will attribute my belief to a distorted ideology. That said, perhaps an appeal can be made to the white people who believe that they are oppressed in various ways—they might be willing to admit that blacks are not excluded from this oppression. For example, Trump supporters often speak of how the system is rigged by the elites—they should be able to accept that there are many blacks who are also victims of these elites. This might allow for some common ground in regards to accepting the existence of oppression in the United States. I now turn to the broader issue of whether or not it is morally acceptable to protest during the national anthem.
Critics of Kaepernick contend that protesting during the national anthem is disrespectful and most assert that this action is especially insulting to the troops. When considering the matter, it is well worth noting that the national anthem was first played at games as a means of attracting more paying customers. Given its use in this manner, it would seem somewhat problematic to attack Kaepernick for using it as an opportunity to protest. After all, he is using the opportunity to bring attention to injustice in America while its original use was simply to make more money. In this regard, he seems to have the moral high ground.
It could be replied that although it began as a marketing tool, it evolved into a sacred ritual that is being besmirched by protest. One line of criticism is that to protest during the national anthem is to disrespect the troops who died for the freedom of expression. This requires assuming that the purpose of playing the anthem at games is to honor the troops—which might be the case. However, if the troops did die for, among other rights, the freedom of expression then the exercise of that right would seem to be a legitimate means of honoring these troops. Endeavoring to silence people would seem to be an insult to those who are said to have died for the right of free expression. That said, there is certainly a reasonable moral concern in regards to decorum during the national anthem, just as there are also such concerns regarding behavior at any time. Kaepernick’s protest seems to be a very polite and respectful protest and thus does not seem problematic in this regard. Others, of course disagree.
Some of the critics merely want him to stop protesting in this manner. Others such as Trump, go beyond this and engage in a classic reply to those who criticize America: if you do not like how things are, then leave the country.
On the one hand, it could be argued that is a reasonable response. To use an analogy, if a person does not like their marriage or neighborhood, then leaving would be a good idea. Likewise, if a person does not like their country, then they should simply depart in search of one more to their liking. This view seems to fit well with the idea that one should be for their country “wrong or right” and not be critical. True patriotism, one might say, is simply accepting one’s country as it is and not engaging in protest. It is, of course, weirdly ironic that Trump is telling Kaepernick to leave, given that Trump relentlessly spews about how awful things are in America and how it needs to be made great again.
On the other hand, this response can be seen as tactic aimed at silencing criticism without considering whether the criticism has merit. Going back to the analogies to marriage and a neighborhood, a person who believes there are problems with either could be justly criticized for simply abandoning them without making any attempt to address what they dislike. A true patriot, it could be argued, would no more remain silent in the face of problems with their country than a true friend would remain silent when their friend needed an intervention. This view is, of course, not original to me. Henry David Thoreau noted that “A very few—as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men—serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it.” I do not, of course, know Kaepernick’s true motivations. But, his calling attention to the problems of the United States with the expressed desire to improve America can be reasonably regarded as a patriotic act. That is, after all, what a true patriot does: they do not remain silent in the face of evil and defects, they take action to make their country both good and great.