Baseball Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson wrote this in his autobiography:
“I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag. I know that I am a black man in a white world.”
Today, most of us can accept that statement, coming from the man who braved racist jeers and insults to integrate Major League Baseball.
But judging from the furor over NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem, America has a harder time hearing that from a black athlete today.
Yes, there has been progress since Robinson’s day. But not unlike in his era, racial tensions today have risen to dangerously high levels. How can we embrace young black men for their athletic exploits, then yelp when they speak out about those tensions?
Kaepernick is protesting police shootings of African Americans – as racially polarized a subject as we have today.
It’s no surprise that people disagree about whether the anthem makes the best vehicle for his protest. His method wouldn’t have been ours, but we respect his choice.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he told reporters. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
That’s a strong statement. Too strong, Black Lives Matter critics would say. But he’s reflecting the anger people of color are feeling.
Some fans don’t want to hear it. Perhaps not from him. Perhaps not at all. They are burning his jersey. Donald Trump suggests he find a country more to his liking. If you wondered why Cam Newton and other black athletes have kept quiet on social issues, wonder no more.
Still, as cutting as Kaepernick’s words might sound, they don’t cover the full scope of the problem of race and the American criminal justice system. Long after the furor around him fades, that problem will remain.
The United States holds just 4 percent of the globe’s population, but houses 22 percent of its prisoners.
We’ve locked up so many people in the past four decades – many of them people of color – that the number of prisoners and inmates has jumped by 500 percent, according to The Sentencing Project, a criminal justice reform advocate.
Yes, it’s a little odd that a man making $11.9 million this year is the one taking a “stand” for the disadvantaged. And it seems fair to suggest that, in addition to his voice, he might also put some dollars behind the cause. Still, athletes, musicians and movie stars command the spotlight like no one else in our sports- and entertainment-obssessed culture. So why not him?
His protest has sparked debate. The jersey-burners are exercising their free speech rights, too. That’s the freedom our soldiers fight to preserve.
The Founding Fathers put the First Amendment first for a reason.
Far from eroding what makes America great, Kaepernick’s protest underscores it.