The liberal reaction to Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand up for “The National Anthem,” and his comments about this principled act of resistance, is that “America” is a free country, and “Americans” are therefore free to voice their opinions no matter what they are.
This attempt to avoid controversy– and “racial tensions”– places Kaepernick’s actions and words in the context of freedom of speech: a right guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States. So the liberal view (barely distinguishable from the conservative view) is that “America” is great, because it guarantees the right to free speech. And this liberal attempt to smooth over divisions in society– deep, historical differences that are basic to “America”‘s existence– has the potential effect of erasing Colin Kaepernick’s actual message. But, then again, it’s a frequently used liberal tactic to protect the interests of the bourgeois ruling class by softening the language of the oppressor without truly challenging the basis for this oppression.
The next time a professional athlete says something homophobic, transphobic, racist or sexist, or defends the murderous actions of the military or police, liberals will have already given up ground to the enemy (capitalism) by arguing that these statements are just a matter of free speech.
According to the liberal view, the differences between the oppressor (white nationalist, colonial capitalism) and the oppressed (Africans/Black people, Indigenous peoples and, in general terms, people of color) are almost meaningless: we’re all “Americans” with rights guaranteed by the Constitution. What is meaningful to the liberal is the same thing that’s meaningful to the conservative: the U.S. Constitution, and the philosophical idealist dream of “America.” Never mind that the Constitution and “America” have never meant actual freedom for colonized Africans and Indigenous peoples– people of color. In philosophical materialist terms, “America” is just a settler colony of European imperialist capitalism, an empire built on white supremacy, patriarchy, and ongoing genocide against Africa and the world.
Once we recognize the dialectic of the oppressor and the oppressed (or the colonizer and the colonized), we can then recognize that we are in a war of ideas. Colin Kaepernick recognizes these divisions exist. He didn’t create them. The Black Lives Matter movement didn’t create the divisions in “America.” This “divisive” situation was created when Europe invaded Africa and the Americas more than five hundred years ago. The United States was built on this division.
Capitalism requires the division between the parasitic, oppressive bourgeoisie and the oppressed masses of the global proletariat, whose exploited labor, resources and lives are the basis for the wealth and power that white people enjoy. This dialectic (colonizer/colonized) must be enforced through violence, and that’s why Black bodies are in the streets while police officers get paid leave for murder– to paraphrase Colin Kaepernick.
Kaepernick bravely chose a side in this conflict. He used his status as a football star to heighten the contradictions of capitalism and to point out the material reality of the United States, beyond the hazy fantasies of the American flag and “The National Anthem.” His brave stand against white supremacist, colonial aggression involves more than simply voicing an opinion.
Perhaps we are guaranteed the right to voice our opinions in this country– that is, some of us, some of the time. But do the oppressed actually have any right or power to improve their conditions by stating their views? If it’s only a question of one’s ability to voice an opinion (no matter what it is– hooray for America!), then: no. But if it’s about mobilizing and then organizing the masses of oppressed people in order to gain real political power: we can answer “yes!” when the people are victorious in this struggle.
The challenge for white people isn’t to pat ourselves on our collective back because we believe Colin Kaepernick has the right, as an “American,” to speak his mind. The challenge for whites who believe Black Lives Matter, and who value freedom, peace, equality and justice (as opposed to “America”) is to choose a side. Choose to fight on the side of the oppressed and to materially support African revolutionaries wherever they are in the world. Pay reparations to Black people. Support a complete and qualitative change to the system of power: organize for socialism. Stop violent white reactionaries. Choose the side of Colin Kaepernick and the people he has courageously spoken for– not just because he has the freedom to do so, but because Black people are not free.