No, Colin Kaepernick is not “disrespecting the troops.”

When San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick protested widespread racial injustice by sitting down during the national anthem, he also provided an example of how often speaking out against America’s racism is seen as unpatriotic.

Aside from being called an ungrateful millionaire, Kaepernick sparked the fury of veterans and military supporters offended by his unwillingness to stand up for a country many have fought on the front lines to protect — and going so far as burning his jersey while playing “The Star Spangled Banner.”
But in an interview with USA Today, Kaepernick explained that protesting racism isn’t anti-military; many veterans are also people of color. And those veterans aren’t suddenly protected from injustice simply because they wear or have worn a uniform.

I have great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country. I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country. And they fight for freedom, they fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice, for everyone. That’s not happening. People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up, as far as giving freedom and justice, liberty to everybody. That’s something that’s not happening. I’ve seen videos, I’ve seen circumstances where men and women that have been in the military have come back and been treated unjustly by the country they fought have for, and have been murdered by the country they fought for, on our land. That’s not right.

For Kaepernick, not standing during the national anthem is about holding America accountable for the ways it fails to protect citizens simply because they are black — even the black people in uniform who fight to protect America, though America isn’t likely to protect them.

Kaepernick is calling attention to how nothing protects black people from racism — not even the military

Despite the outrage, Kaepernick is doing just what the Founding Fathers asked Americans to do: hold America accountable.

America touts itself as the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” But even in 2016, as the first black president ends his second term in the White House, African Americans have yet to be able to exercise the liberty bestowed upon them by the Constitution.

From voter disenfranchisement to the ever-widening racial wealth gap, African Americans continue to be denied their right to the American dream for no other reason than the American dream was historically built without them — though their ancestors’ free slave labor was instrumental in building America.

And the recent attention to officer-involved shootings only drives this point home.

Among those who have been killed are children, like 12-year-old Tamir Rice, as well as Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Korryn Gaines, and Sylville Smith. But this also includes black veterans like Anthony Hill of the Air Force and Walter Scott of the US Coast Guard.

As of this month, police officers have killed at least 2,075 people since the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, 18, by white police officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri. A disproportionately high percentage of those killed were black. And the recent acquittal of all six Baltimore police officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray last year is an example of how rarely, if ever, police officers are held accountable for such deaths.

In a 2011 report by the National Police Misconduct Reporting Project, only 32.8 percent of the 3,238 criminal cases filed against police officers between January and December 2010 resulted in a conviction — less than half the public conviction rate for criminal charges (68 percent). Among those rare convictions, only a little more than a third of them (36 percent) actually resulted in prison sentences.

Military service has never guaranteed that black people were seen as Americans

But Kaepernick’s message also pertains to those who have served in the armed services. Even examining the military itself, the promise of the freedoms the military is charged with protecting had not always applied to African American service members, both on battlegrounds and on US soil. Starting with the Revolutionary War, black people fought on both sides — either with the British with the promise slavery would end if Britain won, or with the colonists with hopes they would see the error of their ways.

From there came a segregated military that lasted through the Civil War — a war central to the lives of African Americans — and into the 20th century. Following World War I, as African-American veterans returned home demanding equal rights, lynchings and race riots peaked during the Red Summer of 1919. The country those veterans returned to was less than willing to extend the justice and freedom they had just defended.

The military wasn’t officially desegregated until 1948, after World War II, by President Harry Truman, but it would still be years before segregation laws governing the rest of the country caught up.

Kaepernick is catching criticism for holding a mirror up to America. Indeed, because of their race, black people have historically been denied opportunities to serve their country, and have continued to be dehumanized even after fighting in the same wars as their white counterparts. Americans may not like being called out for continuing to maintain racial inequalities among its own citizens, but doing so is also one of the freedoms that come with being an American citizen.

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