With a series of tweets over the weekend, President Trump breathed new life into the debate surrounding NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. His comments followed a raucous rally in Alabama where he said an NFL player who doesn’t stand for the anthem is a “son of a bitch” who should be fired. Players responded to the president incredulously on social media, and yesterday’s NFL games saw even more players take a knee during the anthem. And they were joined by Bruce Maxwell, one of baseball’s few black players, and even music icon Stevie Wonder.
Former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who opted out of his contract with the San Francisco 49ers and many believe to be blackballed from the league, drew attention to this form of protest last season, stating that he refused “to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
Since then, he and others who have knelt during the anthem for this reason have been called un-American, unpatriotic, and a host of adjective-laden racial pejoratives unfit to print. They are accused of “disrespecting the flag,” though their criticizers are often silent on the forms of disrespect actually called out in U.S Code – actions like putting the American flag on t-shirts, using it for advertising purposes, and carrying it horizontally (as happens during the opening of NFL football games).
I’ve served in the military for the past two decades. For my entire life, I’ve been a black person in America. When Kaepernick decided to sit, these two identities stood toe to toe. For the first time, I felt these defining parts of my life were in direct conflict. It was as if I could only stand in solidarity with one of the two. After all, how could a military officer agree with dishonoring the flag that so many — of all races, ethnicities, genders, and religions — have died to preserve? I couldn’t. I can’t.
But how could a black man — any American, for that matter — quietly accept the racial injustice that permeates our country’s society and institutions?
I couldn’t. And I can’t.
My blackness and my military service peacefully co-existed — until now
In general, my blackness and my service have peacefully coexisted. I saw no contradiction when standing in the mirror each morning pulling the cloth of the nation over my shoulders. I feel no shame in sometimes getting misty-eyed when the national anthem plays, like at a recent high school football game when the flag waved over an evening sky of amber and purple. And I see no problem with the oversize black-and-white picture of Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising gloved Black Power fists at the 1968 Olympics hanging in my basement across from what we military types call the “I Love Me Wall,” where awards, commendations, and unit memorabilia are displayed.
For longer than the United States has existed, black people have fought in every conflict for the nation’s creation and preservation. There is nothing contradictory about a black American serving in the military of a country that has treated black people unequally since its inception. Military service is the ultimate claim on citizenship and equality. It is its own form of protest that complements, not contradicts, the civil disobedience that challenges the state itself. There is no difference in the patriotism of those who fought against Jim Crow and of those who fought in our nation’s wars, and many did both. This is superlative citizenry, not a self-defeating endeavor.
So the internal tension Kaepernick’s activism generated in me was not the result of some natural incongruence of being black in the military, but the clash it caused between black culture and military culture. In the military, we voluntarily agree to live by a special set of rules and be held to a different standard. We accept abridged freedom of speech and restricted freedom of movement. We do this in an attempt to maintain good order and discipline.
This is ingrained in us from the moment training begins. Every morning on every military base, the flag is raised and the anthem is played. The ritual of raising and lowering the flag is a solemn and serious undertaking. And in no uncertain terms, we are instructed that when the national anthem begins, we are to stand at attention, face the flag, and render a salute.
Whenever the flag passes in front of us, we are to continually face it and ensure our back is never turned to it. If we are walking when the anthem begins, we are to stop in our tracks and salute. If we are driving on base and the anthem begins, all cars stop, no matter where they are, and driving does not resume until the song is done.
There is no debate or discussion about the anthem, the flag, or the customs associated with paying proper respects. The flag and national anthem are the embodiment of the sacred oath each of us takes to no longer put ourselves first and the commitment we make to the nation and those with whom we serve. Standing at attention and saluting the flag is ultimately an act of solidarity — with the country, its principles, and those with whom you serve.
But as a black American, I know that racial solidarity can sometimes be an existential requirement for our well-being. Historically, black people have been forced to live by a different set of rules and had basic human rights reduced or completely denied. The nation permitted this in an attempt to maintain a particularly racialized sense of societal order — all done under a waving star-spangled banner.
Every advancement black people have made away from violent racial subjugation toward equal citizenship has been the result of standing and fighting together in the communities, streets, courtrooms, and voting booths. These acts of solidarity have ensured our progress.
So when I am asked my opinion of Kaepernick, it feels like I'm being asked to make a choice between my loyalties. Expressing support for his demonstration would mean I'm breaking solidarity with my brothers and sisters in arms. But criticizing him would be a betrayal of loyalties to black people who are fighting for a more just society. This sentiment is not new. More than a century ago, historian W.E.B. Du Bois contemplated this same duality:
“One ever feels his twoness — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
Kaepernick is not showing disrespect to veterans
But such a polarized view, while perhaps a natural inclination, is wholly unwarranted in my case. First, supporting Kaepernick’s right to free speech is both consistent with military service and not an endorsement of his speech. I am not alone in this logic. The viral hashtag #VeteransforKaepernick showcases veterans of different races and ranks offering their support for his right to exercise his freedom of speech. It was created to directly refute assertions that his actions were offensive to all those who have served the country. I don’t know a single black vet who feels disrespected by Kaepernick, and I don’t know a single black vet who would employ this form of protest.
Second, I realized there is no way to choose between loyalties, because there is no way to temporarily or permanently shed either one. They are both elemental to the man I am today, and it is impossible to disaggregate the combined effect they’ve had on my formation. Like my race, the military cultural contribution to my lived experience is not something I can shed, even when the uniform comes off.
But finally, I came to terms with the fact that the tension was rooted more in the expectations of me as a black man and a military man. When I am asked about Kaepernick, there’s a sense that I need to provide an answer that authenticates my responsibilities to the race as a black man or my duties to the country as a military man. I don’t.
It didn’t take long to resolve the initial tensions I felt. Realizing that there was no necessity to choose and reach a tidy resolution relieved the pressure.
Here’s the bottom line: I will not sit during the national anthem in protest. Nor do I think men and women who volunteer to serve in our military should, as one sailor recently did. We have committed to live an uncommon life and have done so of our own volition. And even given my recent retirement from the military, I still stand at attention when I hear the national anthem; this will not change.
But sitting during the national anthem is no more disrespectful to the men and women who serve in the military than standing during the national anthem is respectful of those who committed race crimes in the name of the state. When I salute the flag, I am not saluting the denial of veterans’ benefits to black service members for decades. I am not saluting civic and economic disenfranchisement. I am not saluting the aggressive policing and incarceration of black Americans.
I salute the founding idea that distinguishes the United States. And I salute all those who have fought to bring that idea closer to reality.
Similarly, Kaepernick, and those he’s inspired, don’t kneel because they don't believe in the promise of America or doesn't value the founding principles; they kneel because the country has fallen short of these things. They knees because of the things I do not salute. This does not put us at odds.
My decision to retire from the military was sparked by a burning desire to help the American dream become more attainable for black citizens. Today, I conduct research into how to best marshal black electoral power to realize policy outcomes that reduce disparities. The same benefits historically denied to black veterans made it possible for me to obtain a doctorate and retire at a young enough age to pursue a second career. The very activist spirit that fuels Kaepernick now is responsible for the changes in America that made my military career and access to these benefits possible.
The next time the anthem plays, and I stand to honor America while the activist-athlete kneels to hold it accountable, I will be proud to know we are fighting for the same thing: a just and equal nation.
Theodore R. Johnson is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and an Eric & Wendy Schmidt fellow at New America. He is a retired commander in the United States Navy. Find him on Twitter @DrTedJ.