What isn’t being said in the Colin Kaepernick debate

Kaepernick wasn’t wrong or right — he was both

In the days since San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem during a preseason football game, the Internet has gone crazy over whether Kaepernick’s actions were wrong or right, respectful or disrespectful, justified or unjustified.

What isn’t being said is that the answer to all of the above scenarios is “both.” Kaepernick was wrong — and he was also right.

He was wrong in his choice of actions. Sitting during the national anthem got people’s attention, but it also cast Kaepernick in a light that makes it harder for many to hear his message. The point he was making was overshadowed by the audacity of what he did; a protest only truly succeeds if it drives home its message to one and all. In this case, countless people have tuned out what Kaepernick said because of how he chose to say it. Kaepernick could have made the same points in a different way, and perhaps he wouldn’t have garnered as much media attention, but the people who heard his message would have been forced to consider his words instead of dismissing them because his actions were sacrilegious in the eyes of most Americans.

Kaepernick was right in his message, or at least the idea behind it. Black people in this country (and on this planet) have been oppressed for centuries, they are oppressed currently, and they will continue to be oppressed until society rectifies the situation. It’s black and white.

If your impulse upon reading the above statement is to mentally deny it, dispute it or disregard it, ask yourself why that’s the case. What is it that you don’t want to see?

If you take a hard, brutally honest look at this country’s history, you will see things that your elementary and high school textbooks brushed over. You will see how our political, social, financial and legal institutions have created a world where being born black limits a person in numerous ways. The forces at play here are hundreds of years old, and still they are very much in effect. Yes, we’ve made progress — a look at the White House will tell you that — but we have so, so far to go. Our educational systems are not equal. Our communities are not equal. Our opportunities are not equal. They are not equal because the system is unfair, because the rules favor whiteness, because whether or not all men and women are created equal does not matter if they are not treated that way.

I believe that most white people know, deep down, that this is true. I believe that most white people have experienced certain situations in life and thought: “Thank God I’m white. If I were black, that would have gone down much differently.” It’s not an easy thing to admit because we think it’s a racist thought, and we don’t want to be racist. What we fail to realize is that we all have racist thoughts at some point because we live in a racist country in a racist world. The way society is configured, it would be impossible for us not to ever think along racial lines. Acknowledging that is the first step forward.

The difference for white people is that we’re on the good side of the unequal fence, so there’s less pressure on us to change. In fact, there are incentives for us not to change. For us to equal the playing field means opening up access to a lot of the power and wealth we have accumulated over hundreds of years. It means deliberately not taking advantage of a system that was designed for us to take advantage of it. It means ensuring that the game is fair, even though the referees are on our side. We must do this because the ways in which we put ourselves in our current positions of advantage were cruel, inhumane and unjust. We killed thousands upon thousands of people who originally inhabited this land. We rounded up thousands upon thousands of people who originally lived on a different continent, and we brought them to live here under whips and chains. We established a social hierarchy that made life better for whites and worse for everybody else. That is the definition of oppression, and that is where Kaepernick was right.

But there’s one more piece to this story: Was it wrong, speciically, for Kaepernick to sit during the national anthem?

The national anthem means a whole lot to a whole lot of people. The reason it means so much is because people associate that song with America. They equate those notes and those words with an idea they hold deep in their hearts about the very best that this country stands for. The song has become a symbol for what it means to be an American.

Kaepernick didn’t consider what the song means to people — or if he did, he ignored it. And he was wrong for that, for the reasons mentioned earlier.

But the song itself — the actual “Star Spangled Banner ” — well, he may not have been so wrong about that. A number of posts published since this fiasco began have highlighted a “third stanza” to Francis Scott Key’s song that we don’t usually sing. (This article goes into good detail about it.) In that stanza, Key celebrates the death of former slaves who were fighting for the British. The slaves had escaped and joined the British Army because it was their chance to achieve something that was impossible for them to find in the United States: freedom. They were fighting for their freedom, and Key dedicated a verse in his song to celebrating the fact that their freedom had been successfully denied. Turns out, Key was a big-time defender of slavery who spoke out against abolitionists and used his powers as a District Attorney to harm innocent blacks.

I don’t think Colin Kaepernick knew the history of the national anthem when he boycotted it, but now, we are all learning what that history is. And it forces us to ask the question: When we stand for the national anthem, are we wrong to do so?

In a way, we are. Knowing what we now know about the song, what we should do is demand that the anthem be changed to a song that doesn’t have racist origins. We should acknowledge the current song’s history and make the situation right by picking something that reflects the values which truly do make this country great. We should make sure that the song is something that empowers all U.S. citizens to stand with pride, and we should do our part to make this country the kind of place where no one feels oppressed any longer.

That’s what we should do … but will we? I have my doubts.

Then again — I could be wrong.