There are a lot of things that could be said about Colin Kaepernick’s recent protest of the national anthem. We could discuss the history of the flag, the anthem, and the crimes that they represent. We could discuss the tradition of protest by black athletes. We could have real discussions about race and white supremacy. But instead, the media has been dominated by a shallow analysis of Kaepernick’s act of defiant sitting. Commentators on the far Left have rightly praised Kaepernick’s actions while Liberals have offered lukewarm defenses of the quarterback based on dubious assumptions. Conservatives have unleashed vicious attacks on the man’s character and the alt-right (along with many average white Americans) has, predictably, been harassing Kaepernick on twitter with racist messages. In the past few days there have been more think-pieces written about Colin Kaepernick than completed passes thrown by Kaepernick last year. I’m not going to bore you with another one.
Instead I’d like to offer some perspective about the way this story has been discussed, analysed, and debated. Kaepernick’s protest has been framed in a few different, but ultimately similar, ways. It usually looks something like this:
“Colin Kaepernick refuses to stand for the national anthem. Is he right or wrong? Is it disrespectful to sit during the anthem?”
Liberal pundits argue that the troops fight and die for his right to sit and conservative pundits argue that he must stand since the troops fight and die for his rights. Those are the parameters of the debate. Sometimes the actual issue at hand- the oppression of the United States’s black population- works its way into the conversation. But mostly the debate is centered around Kaepernick’s choice, as an individual, to sit. This is worth noting because almost every sociopolitical issue in the United States is framed in this manner i.e. without any meaningful context.
The act of taking an event out of the material conditions in which it occurs is a startlingly efficient way to diminish the range and quality of political discourse. It assists in the maintenance of capitalist cultural hegemony by robbing the masses of an honest analysis of the situation. If you focus on an individual person, act, or event without connecting it to history, without placing it in sociopolitical context, then you cannot learn anything. It is not possible to understand the social ills of modern society by compartmentalizing every issue. And yet it occurs over and over again in this country. It can be seen in the justifications of Clinton’s welfare reform, in rhetoric used by anti-abortion activists, in the casual dismissal by everyday people of homeless beggars on the street. Within the context of capitalistic ideology that permeates our society, every individual is responsible for their own happiness, success, and quality of life. If you work hard enough then you can get through any rough patch. Every person has the ability to live in a nice neighborhood, in a decent house, with health insurance, a car, and enough food for the family- but you have to work hard. Poverty is the result of individual failings, not the fault of our society’s priorities, and certainly not the inevitable result of capitalism. Mass shootings, economic crashes, terrorism, the rise of the tea party and the far right, all of these things and more are viewed as separate phenomenon to be studied on an individual basis. This leads to a poor understanding of the conditions we all live in, and if we do not understand the world we live in then we will surely fail to improve it.
The isolation of sociopolitical events from their context and the United States’s hallowed ideology of individualism feed off of one another. Debates centered on race are a prime example of this. Every time a black person is murdered the Right responds with attacks on the victim’s character and attempts to shift the responsibility of the victim’s death onto the victim themselves (“if he had just cooperated with the police this wouldn’t have happened”). The mainstream media has consistently aided in the victim blaming by focusing on the victim’s past crimes, constantly using victim’s old mugshots, and giving a platform for reactionary stooges to attack the Black Lives Matter movement. The result is twofold: Black victims of police violence are reduced to “thugs” in the audience’s mind and the economic and historical contexts of the murder are never seriously discussed. We see this again when riots erupt in cities after police shootings. Conservatives blame the “degeneration of black culture”. The mainstream media decries the destruction of property and goes no further than the most recent police shooting when investigating causes of the “violence”. All sides, from the alt-right to MSNBC liberals, condemn the riots. It’s rare and brief when anyone talks about the decades of police abuse and crushing poverty that lay at the heart of urban uprisings.
This discussion is taking place among members of the radical left but it rarely takes place in the mainstream media or within the white population at large. Instead we are fed a narrative that refuses to connect the dots between the history of structural racism and the lived experience of people of color in the United States today.
This leads us back to the Colin Kaepernick story. Kaepernick, in a locker room press conference, explained why he refused to stand for the national anthem:
It’s something that as I’ve gained more knowledge about, what’s gone in this country in the past, what’s going on currently. These aren’t new situations. This isn’t new ground. There are things that have gone on in this country for years and years and have never been addressed, and they need to be…
…There’s a lot of things that need to change. One specifically? Police brutality. There’s people being murdered unjustly and not being held accountable. People are being given paid leave for killing people. That’s not right. That’s not right by anyone’s standards.
Kaepernick succinctly roots his reasoning in the racist history of the United States and links this history to the present. He is the only person featured on major news networks the past week to do so. All air time and most print articles have reduced the act of Kaepernick’s protest to an argument over respect/disrespect. The whole protest is simplified into a debate over an individual and his actions. In it’s most individualistic form the debate centers around whether Kaepernick has any right to protest oppression since he is rich and was raised by white parents. The social and historical context that led to Kaepernick’s protest are disregarded. The audience can pick a side on the issue but they are offered no substantive analysis of the historical and sociopolitical context of the protest. Being robbed of this context means people cannot truly grasp what is happening. This ignorance breeds prejudice. It divides the people. It ensures that no one can hold those in power accountable. It helps to maintain the brutality of capitalism and white supremacy.
We do not need an analysis of our society that ignores how our society functions and the history that has shaped its functioning. We do not need an analysis of individuals or individual incidents. Individualism is ahistorical. We cannot understand why things are the way they are by studying the individual in a vacuum. We can only understand the world we live in through the history of society and the class struggles that drive it forward.
We need a Marxist analysis to truly understand the system we live under- to truly understand the conditions an individual lives in. A historical materialist analysis of this country’s treatment of the black men and women living in it scraps the notion that police murder is the victim’s fault, that economic advancement is possible for all through hard work, that racism ended after MLK’s March on Washington or after Obama was elected president. It rejects the compartmentalization of each individual incident of police brutality and ensuing social unrest. A historical materialist analysis examines the systemic racism the United States was founded on and follows its development through the decades up to today. It names the system we are living under. It condemns capitalism and capitalism’s use of racism as a tool to maintain the status quo. Through its cultural hegemony capitalism tries to prevent conversations about these issues. It tries to narrow the framework of debate and range of thought that the masses can engage in. The capitalist class and its media will always fight to prevent a serious analysis of our conditions from reaching the masses of people. That means we have to educate, agitate, organize and fight back.
P.S. Below is a list of publications that engage in this fight and offer a real analysis of social conditions. They are in no particular order.