Colin Kaepernick and the Problem of Normalization

Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem has ignited fierce debate around the country. Kaepernick has been harshly criticized for his courageous act, and has even been called a traitor by an anonymous NFL executive, and “sympathetic to ISIS” by Republican congressman Steve King.


What all of Kaepernick's critics have in common is that they engage in a practice of normalization, subscribing to a worldview where racial oppression is simply a normal fact of life that must be coped with and adapted to.

Americans are routinely told that a life outside of this realm of oppression is unimaginable, that power is evenly balanced, and that everyone has a fair shot as long as they are willing to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Normalization occurs when Americans say things like,”Yes, Darren Wilson should not have murdered Michael Brown, but Michael Brown should have been more responsible in the way he acted around a police officer.”  

Comments like these, which are common among those who accept the racial common sense that prevails in white America, completely ignore the imbalance of power between Darren Wilson, a police officer who took an oath to protect and serve his community, and Michael Brown, an unarmed black youth who bears the legacy of oppression and exclusion.

Kaepernick’s critics are no exception to this ideology of normalization. The liberal pundit Peter Beinart accused Kaepernick of “implying that America is impervious to reform, corrupt and evil at its core.” The neoconservative David Brooks declared in the New York Times that standing for the national anthem is essential to building solidarity for the “fusion of radical hope and radical self-criticism [that] had become the country’s civic religion” by Europeans who settled the land.

Beinart and Brooks both establish realities in which Kaepernick challenging the inherent integrity and legitimacy of the American state is more important than the fact that an unarmed black American is killed by police in this country every 28 hours. To these practitioners of normalization, it is more important that Kaepernick assert his patriotism than voice his opposition to police brutality.

Colin Kaepernick has said time and again that he does not hate America, but that he simply cannot “show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

But even if Colin Kaepernick did find America to be “evil at its core,” as Beinart accuses him, is Kaepernick really that irrational for condemning a nation that enslaved his ancestors and whose federal and local governments resist the kinds of policies that would ensure them equal treatment before the law hundreds of years later? And would his symbolic gestures be worse than the systemic racism that has plagued black American life in this country?

For Brooks to omit the fact that these allegedly “radical” early European settlers were the same messianic figures who oversaw the enslavement of Kaepernick’s ancestors and the genocide of indigenous peoples, is a textbook example of the ideology of normalizing oppression.

In the elite world of David Brooks, the racist foundations America was built upon have been normalized. The notion that we should address the modern implications of centuries of slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow, and its affect on modern issues of racial inequality is simply not possible in this world of normalization. In fact, this history is not even worthy of mention. We should simply ignore it and celebrate “the fusion of radical hope.”

This normalization was further seen in the Seattle Seahawks “demonstration of unity,” in which players stood and locked arms together as the national anthem played. This display essentially sent the message that it is more important to engage in actions that promote keeping our country unified than to have discussions about systemic racism, which might lead to concrete change.

Barack Obama famously said, “There is not a black America and a white America...There is the United States of America.” This was the clearest distillation of normalization, willfully ignoring the reality that there are two completely different Americas divided largely along racial lines.

Youth living in black America are nearly four times more likely to get arrested for smoking marijuana than those who live in white America. Youth living in white America do not have to worry about being extrajudicially murdered by police for selling loose cigarettes. Youth living in white America do not have to worry about poisonous levels of lead in their water like in cities in black America.

From kindergarten, where black students are three times more likely to be suspended than their white counterparts for the same offenses, to applying for a mortgage where studies find that simply being black lowers one’s credit score by 71 points, it is clear that a system exists in our country where the cards are stacked against America’s black citizenry. At least, it is clear to those who have actual experiences with that system, unlike the elite pundits who have piped up to attack Kaepernick.

The reality is that our country can never be truly unified while these two different Americas exist. Until the structural barriers of racism that create this culture of inequity are corrected, these displays of unity are nothing but photo-ops lacking any sort of substance or positive contribution to the condition of the oppressed in this country.

Kaepernick’s protests have spread like wildfire across the country with over 70 NFL players, as well as college and high school athletes across the nation refusing to stand. Even critics of Kaepernick cannot ignore the immense success of his protest. Americans across the racial and political spectrum have been led to question the blind patriotism and jingoism that players and fans engage in when standing for the national anthem before each football game.

And Americans across racial and partisan lines have been led to question what the national anthem represents. It has led Americans to ask themselves if they can truly refer to their country as “the land of the free” while racism remains ubiquitous throughout various structures of our society. 

Colin Kaepernick has opened up some important, yet uncomfortable conversations about the racist origins of our country. 

Our other option, outlined by pundits like Beinart and Brooks, is fairly clear: Complain that “America is not bad” and engage in empty gestures of patriotism and unity that continue to normalize America’s historical and contemporary oppression toward its black population.  

Holding hands and singing kumbaya is easy. Working to end a system of white supremacy is not. In confronting systemic racism, it is crucial that we refrain from taking the easy way out, and instead make the choice to tackle America’s racial injustices head on, just as Kaepernick has dared to do.

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