Colin Kaepernick's patriotism

For over a month now, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been refusing to stand during the playing of the National Anthem in silent protest of police violence against African Americans. His actions have sparked a national conversation with many other athletes now following his lead. But Kaepernick has also reportedly received death threats, former NFL coach Mike Ditka has said he should leave the country if he is not happy here, and even President Obama has suggested that Kaepernick should think about the distress he is causing military families.

Most troubling to me, however, is the pervasive internet meme showing a family grieving at the grave of a fallen soldier with the caption "This is why we stand." Kaepernick's actions are seen by many as a violation of the patriotic norms all true Americans are expected to live by without question. In my view, by contrast, Kaepernick's actions embody the true spirit of patriotism.

A patriotism that is forced upon us or that we must be shamed into is no patriotism at all. True patriotism is voluntary; it flows from an authentic feeling of pride in a nation that fully lives up its stated ideals of liberty and justice for all. Kaepernick is simply withholding a public show of patriotism to help call our attention to the fact that as a nation we are falling short of those ideals by tacitly accepting the deeply entrenched institutional racism that has led to so many fatal shootings of African American men, many unarmed. On this issue, Kaepernick would seem to be standing on firm ground.

There is not space here to re-litigate every one of the high profile police shootings we have witnessed over the last several years. But the events of this past September really crystallize the problem that Kaepernick is protesting. We witnessed the fatal shootings of two more African American men, at least one demonstrably unarmed, in Tulsa and Charlotte. At the same time, police in New York and New Jersey apprehended alive and brought into custody a terrorist suspect who actively engaged in a shootout with police.

Clearly law enforcement has strong motivations to try whenever possible to apprehend terrorist suspects alive. A living suspect can be interrogated for useful information about co-conspirators or ties to international terrorist organizations. When there is strong motivation to do so, police are trained to go to great lengths to apprehend suspects alive, even when those suspects actively shoot guns at them. But an African American twelve year-old boy playing with a toy gun in a public park can be shot dead within seconds of police arriving on the scene. One cannot look at the events of the last several years and conclude that in the minds of too many law enforcement officers (but not all), black lives simply don't matter.

This should not come as a surprise. The current presidential election has pulled back the veil that has been largely hiding a seething racism that boils below the surface of American society. Racist entities are coming out of the shadows, emboldened by the fact that a candidate who seems to share their views (or at least is willing to talk as if he does) stands on the precipice of becoming President of the United States. Overt racism clearly continues to be a significant problem in American society. Since there are hundreds of thousands of police officers across this land who represent a cross-section of American society, it is a statistical certainty that some proportion of them will harbor the racist views so deeply entrenched in the society in which they have been raised.

Kaepernick is protesting a real problem, a problem of racial inequality that makes a mockery of America's claim to be a land of liberty and justice for all. Refusing to participate in a public patriotic ceremony under these circumstances is a supremely patriotic act. It reminds us that true love of country is demonstrated by the effort one makes, and the risks one is willing to take, to bring reality into greater alignment with the country's stated ideals.

Failing to stand for the National Anthem is not an act of disrespect to those soldiers who gave their lives in defense of America's freedoms. It is the failure to exercise the freedoms that have been secured by those who died defending our country that makes a mockery of their sacrifice. A freedom not exercised is a freedom not worth fighting and dying for.

We need to re-frame Colin Kaepernick's action as the supreme act of patriotism it is. When standing for the National Anthem becomes an empty ritual, true patriotism is all but dead. But when everyone willingly stands for the National Anthem with a feeling of pride and love for a country that has truly become a place of liberty and justice for all, true patriotism will have been restored. Sadly, we are not there yet.

Bob Shedinger Headshot

Robert Shedinger is an associate professor of religion at Luther College. He is the author of several books, including the 2015 "Jesus and Jihad," "Was Jesus a Muslim?: Questioning Categories in the Study of Religion" and "Radically Open: Transcending Religious Identity in an Age of Anxiety."

{ Return to News and Events for more posts. }


  • October 14 2016 at 8:57 am

    Pushing a false-narrative and vilifying police for doing their job is NOT Patriotism!  Most of the cases where people rioted and looted in response to Black Men being shot were unjustified, as the facts of the individual cases bear out.  It is irresponsible for a College Professor to promote and encourage this behavior, which ultimately endangers the lives of good law enforcement officers who truly believe their job is to protect and to serve.  Shame on you!

  • October 14 2016 at 11:49 am
    Maybe you need to actually read the blog post, Brock. I say nothing about violent protests in the piece, and agree that they are not a form of patriotism. Colin Kaepernick is engaging in a non-violent protest. And this, I see, as a form of patriotism. And I am not ashamed to say so!
  • October 14 2016 at 1:22 pm

    He's engaging in a non-violent protest, but in support of the violent protests and the false-narrative being pushed by the Liberal Media.  "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," Kaepernick told NFL Media in an exclusive interview after the game.  "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."  I dare you to read the facts of the cases that he is referring to.  Most of these shootings are justifiable, and there is no widespread racism in this country as you propose.  You say "there is not space here to re-litigate every one of the high-profile police shootings we have witnessed over the past several years."  Why not?  Are the police officers' lives not worth at least reading the facts of the cases before trying them in the court of public opinion?  Are you so thoroughly convinced that there is rampant "institutional racism" that you don't need to bother checking the facts?  I have read almost every word of every case in the past several years, and the only one that appears the shooting was not justified was the female officer's shooting of the black man in Tulsa.  He was acting erratically, and it has recently been discovered that he was under the influence of PCP, but that still didn't justify the use of force.  That's one case, out of dozens, where the use of force was unjustified!  Does that constitute "rampant institutional racism?"  I think not. 

  • October 14 2016 at 4:00 pm
    Sorry. I can't agree with you that widespread institutional racism does not exist in this country. You may want to ignore it because perhaps it does not affect you. It does not affect me because I am white. But my black colleagues experience it regularly, and they are the ones in a position to know. I will start believing institutional racism no longer exists when my black friends and colleagues no longer experience it. I have looked closely at the facts surrounding many of the police shootings of black men and I draw a conclusion very different from yours. Kaepernick is protesting a real problem.
  • October 15 2016 at 8:14 am
    Patriotism is an emotional attachment to a nation which an individual recognizes as their homeland. This attachment, also known as national feeling or national pride, can be viewed in terms of different features relating to one's own nation, including ethnic, cultural, political or historical aspects. - Merriam-Webster's definition of patriotism. Whatever Colin Kaepernick's intentions, they are definitely not patriotic. And that, Professor, is offensive to true patriots.
  • October 15 2016 at 1:42 pm
    But when people's pride in their nation is undermined by the failure of that nation to live up to its own stated ideals, the patriotic thing to do is to refuse to participate in the nation's patriotic rituals until it lives up to its ideals. Kaepernick is a true patriot, even if his actions offend some. Standing for truth will always offend defenders of the status quo. Just ask Martin Luther King!
  • October 16 2016 at 8:04 pm
    Kaepernick's (and your) version of the truth are uninformed and dangerous. Just ask the families of all the dead law enforcement officers who have been killed because of the false narrative that you and Kaepernick, and too many others continue to repeat. The facts of most of the cases do not support your claims. Young Black Men commit a disproportionate number of violent crimes in this country, and that's a tragedy. But it's not a reason to attack the law enforcement community. In fact, it's probably the best reason to support them even more.
  • October 16 2016 at 9:59 pm
    Actually, Brock, blacks are far more likely to be convicted of drug offenses even though whites use illegal drugs at a far higher rate. It is well established that there is institutionalized racism in the criminal justice system. I think you are dangerously uninformed.
  • October 17 2016 at 9:01 am

    So you disagree that there have been more law enforcement officers assassinated since the BLM Movement has been emboldened by recent violent protests and civil disobedience?  And you accuse me of being dangerously uninformed!  Tell me, what "danger" do I represent to you, or anyone else, by acknowledging the facts?  The real danger here is the false narrative being advanced by your type.  Insulated by your fantasy world of Academia, and never bothering to step out into the real world where I, and 99% of the population live.  I will not reply again, because I understand that you will probably never understand.  Colin Kaepernick's protests are not patriotic, no matter what feeble attempt to characterize them that way you choose.  If he doesn't love his country, he needs to sort that out himself.  When he speaks out and condemns the murders of law enforcement officers in the name of Black Lives Matter, then we can talk about his "patriotism."  His statement describing police officers as committing murder and then getting paid leave says it all.  Every police officer involved in a shooting is given paid leave, it's standard procedure.  The way he stated it, it's as if he believes they are getting rewarded for killing Blacks.  That's part of the false narrative, and extremely careless and dangerous.  Get it?