At the time that the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked on September 11th, 2001, I was working as a Division Manager for a company that did work, nearly exclusively, for the Federal Government. Shortly after the attacks, the higher ups in my company distributed little flag lapel pins to all the Division Managers including me. Although I’m hardly a fan of US militarism and imperialism, I wore the pin because it was expected — just like the sort of silly accoutrement called a necktie that I wore every day. As a Division Manager, I met with customers and potential customers in the federal government nearly daily. Thus I was representing the company to those federal agencies and wore the pin not as a patriotic statement but as a marketing ploy — which it surely was.
If I was asked to distribute the pins to my employees I would have done so but may have balked if I was told to force them to wear the flag.
I was thinking about those flag pins over the last week or so after observing how much vitriol was directed at Colin Kaepernick (and a few supporters) for failing to stand for the national anthem. The attacks on him got silly: conflating his refusal with disrespecting troops that have died while on military tours, “love it or leave it” sorts of comments and other nonsense. There were also rebuttals, some from veterans, that claimed that Kaepernick’s right to sit was the sort of freedom they had been defending. There was also the rather apt observation that few if any people, preparing to watch a game in their own home on television, stand, hand on heart, as the anthem is broadcast. It’s a different story at the stadium, though, because we are on display and if we don’t participate in the ritual, we call attention to ourselves. I’m not denying that some of us feel real patriotic feeling while standing for the ritual, I’m saying that social pressure rather than patriotism is the main motivation.
In fact, the reality of this ritual and its associated social pressure is precisely the reason that Kaepernick stayed seated. He was protesting and protest is futile if unnoticed. He, and the several players around the league that have joined him in exercising free speech know that such statements carry risk: loss of product endorsement opportunities and other by products of their celebrity. Yet the subject of their protest, the perceived maltreatment and injustice directed at black people in this country seemed worth the risks.
This morning, the Baltimore Sun offered an editorial in response to Baltimore Oriole Adam Jones’ comments that the reason such protests weren’t happening among baseball players was that baseball was a “white man’s game.” He noted that Donald Trump has said far more offensive things with garnering anything close to the hostile vitriol that Kaepernick and others have suffered. The editorial board wrote:
What’s the difference between Mr. Trump’s speech and Mr. Kaepernick’s? Mr. Trump is talking about the concerns of working-class whites, and Mr. Kaepernick and his supporters are talking about blacks.
This made me think: what if the original protester who sat during the national anthem was a veteran and he was protesting the deplorable treatment many of our veterans experience after their service is complete? I think nearly everyone in the country would agree that no veteran should be homeless, no veteran should be hungry and begging on the side of the road, no veteran should be unable to receive needed medical and mental health services.
I doubt the reaction would have been so blatantly hostile, so vitriolic, so damning of the protesters’ failure to adhere to the ritual.
We are very uncomfortable with the idea that our social and civic institutions are rife with racial injustice. So, uncomfortable that many of us deny it entirely. I can’t help but think that it’s Kaepernick’s message, rather than the protest itself, that is the source of the anger and hate directed at him and his supporters.