Taking a Knee and the Cultural Problem at the Heart of Race
The recent riots over the death of George Floyd has stemmed not so much from the killing of an unarmed black man by police but rather from the perception that the black community in general has been marginalized and oppressed for years. High profile celebrities like LeBron James, Steph Curry and Colin Kaepernick have supported the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, as have many black communities across the nation. However, for blacks and other races and ethnicities in the military, the desire to speak out against oppression while at the same time honoring and respecting the flag and the rule of law has presented a paradox of sorts. On the one hand, taking a knee during the National Anthem became a sign of protest for oppressed voices, spearheaded by Kaepernick and later endorsed by Nike, other celebrities and politicians. On the other hand, standing for the anthem and saluting the flag and all it represents, particularly the sacrifice that thousands have made in recent years in giving their lives for the country in active service in foreign lands, remains a sign of honest respect and appreciation. The push and pull of conflicted feelings and emotions over the issue of taking a knee, speaking out against oppression and standing up for the flag recalls to mind the tension that erupted among American citizens over how to protest the Vietnam Warâ€”with some veterans even feeling conflicted about where to stand on the issue. When it comes to race and ethnicity in the US military, the conflict between supporting a popular movement by taking a knee and supporting the troops by standing up for the flag is one that many face.
One of the most problematic issues at the heart of race in America and in the military is the issue of othering. Othering is the treatment of another person as alien, as different, and as someone to be excluded from the main. It is a method of marginalization and oppression that is explained by labeling theory as a way of attaching a disparaging label to other groups so as to prevent them from seeming validated and having power. Othering puts people on the sidelines and negates their existence as meaningful in and of itself. Nadine Naber states that because of cultural racism in the wake of 9/11, othering has exploded and it has led to tensions throughout American communities. To address the issue of othering, Colin Kaepernick began taking a knee during NFL games when the National Anthem was sung. His actions outraged some but invigorated others who wanted to see a discourse on the issue promoted in the national spotlight.
However, having that discourse became a problem because of the role that the flag and the anthem played in certain associations made by the act of taking the knee during the anthem. Graber et al. analyzed ten American newspapers and â€œfound that patriotic idealsâ€”the American flag, military, and National Anthem, in particularâ€”were used as a way to avoid completely discussions on racismâ€ (1). In other words, by playing up the patriotism angle, discourse on othering and the oppression of black communities was sidestepped. Those who sought to have that discourse complained that it had nothing to do with the flag and that taking a knee was simply about showing more sensitivity to a topic that never received much traction in the media. By taking his protest to the national spotlight and kneeling during the anthem, Kaepernick was suggesting that he would no longer remain silent and that he would, ultimately, be willing to sacrifice his career if it meant losing his job in order to put the issue of black oppression in the spotlight. Thus, there was an attempt to remove the issue of patriotism from the discourse. However, Kaepernick stated explicitly that his actions were directed to the flag: â€œI am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other wayâ€ (Graber et al. 1). In short, patriotic pride, respect for the flag, and a sense of racist structures all came into conflict with one another.
The Role of the Military
What has been the militaryâ€™s role in the discourse between race, othering, and patriotism, what has been the role of race and ethnicity within the military? The military itself has its own code of ethics and promotes equality throughout its ranks. It has a culture that is unique from the culture of civilian America. Military culture is meant to be different and is meant to reinforce values and principles that help the military to develop its soldiers into team-worthy individuals. The entire edifice of the military is built upon the idea that people from diverse backgrounds can be brought together to operate as one. Essentially, the military already has the culture and discipline that the rest of the nation would like to have but lacks. After all, the complaint of Kaepernick and others who want to draw attention to the oppression of racial and ethnic minorities is that the culture of America facilitates structural racism. The military could offer guidance on how to implement a policy of equality.
If society could model itself on the racial integration of the military it is possible that the protests could be meaningfully addressed. The alternative is an oppressive integration into a racist structure, as Devon Carbado points out: being black and becoming an American citizen is â€œpart of a broader social practice wherein all of us are Americanized and made socially intelligible via racial categorizationâ€ (633). Carbado describes an America in which racial minorities are forced to accept an inferior position in society, are forced to subject themselves to their police officer overlords who view blacks as one step away from becoming a menace to society. There is no sense of integration in the civilian world of America. In the military there is a spirit of mission. In civilian America there is a spirit of tension and conflict, a spirit of â€œus vs. them,â€ a spirit of animosity and anger and mistrust, as Carbado shows: after numerous run-ins with the police all on account of being black and nothing more, Carbado explains that â€œour privacy had been invaded, we experienced a loss of dignity, and our race had been estab-lished – once more – as a crime of identityâ€ (636). In the military there are no such crimes. In the military everyone shares the same identity, the same sense of belonging to a unit. In American civilian life, the units are fractured and fragmented, each standing in the otherâ€™s lot, so that they each becomes tribal and defensive. The problem is cultural. The issue of race is a cultural issue.
Solving the Problem
Structural racism exists in American civilian life because the culture of American society has fostered that structure. The militaryâ€™s structure is not elitist but rather hierarchical; the culture is egalitarian and principled by an ethical framework. The structure of American society is inherently racist because of cultural elitism that goes back to the days of the Founding Fathers. As Sabo et al. point out, immigration is a perfect example of structural racism being a cultural issue that impacts all parts of life. For example, â€œimmigration laws that militarize communities may exacerbate ethno-racial health disparities,â€ Sabo et al. argue (66). Why? The reason is simple: marginalized groups are forced into poor communities and those communities have less access to health care. The result is a loss of equality. Not everyone is the same. The culture promotes division.
It is as Toni Morrison shows in her short story â€œRecitatifâ€â€”people remember the past differently. They see through different eyes because they have different cultural perspectives that inform them, that give them a framework for how to see. They are programmed, cognitively speaking, by peers, groups and media. So a person who goes off to college will have a different cultural experience than a person who comes of age in the slums.
The player who takes a knee during the National Anthem is doing so because he is seeing with different eyes from the player who stands to salute the flag. They may be on the same side, they may both want the same thing ultimately, but the difference in how they see, how they relate to one another, how they process the reality of life around themâ€”it dictates their posture and demeanor. It dictates their presence of mind. It dictates how they see themselves and what they see as their duty. Because there is no cultural unification in America, players on the same team can be informed to by different cultural perspectives, which creates tension and division.
What is needed is a unified cultural experience, a culture that consists of the same spirit of mission. The Protestant-Jewish ethic that has come to dominate the American experience is one that puts people into divisive categories and labels, that pits them against one another because it is an ethic of elitism, in which both Protestants and Jewish groups see themselves as the chosen people. That culture of elitism runs through and through American civilian lifeâ€”but it is not found in the military, because the military has more of a hierarchically structured but ultimately egalitarian ethical principle, in which every person in the military is seen as vital and important. In a community where elitists view themselves as superior to others there can be no such egalitarianism. There can be only division and anger, as Carbado shows. If the issue of racial and ethnic oppression in America is going to be addressed, it has to be addressed at the level of culture, as the military has done. Then there will be no more dispute over whether one should take a knee during the anthem or stand and salute the flag. Everyone will have already learned to take a knee in their daily actions towards one another, so that when the anthem plays they can all stand with pride to show their patriotism for a country that has learned to structure itself in a truly egalitarian way.
The issue of structural racism in America is deeply entrenched in the nationâ€™s history and the recent riots and protests have only shown that the wound has yet to heal. For people in the military there is the sense that taking a knee during the National Anthem disrespects them and their sacrifices for the country. For those kneeling there is the sense that people need to take part in the discourse on racial oppression and start admitting that there is a problem that needs facing. The issue is not how to reconcile these two but rather why the culture of the two is different. Americans should be united in culture, not divided. Yet because of an elitist cultural framework that was adopted from the beginning of the countryâ€™s founding, the nation has always been divided. That culture is what needs to change and it should reflect the culture of the military, where everyone is made to feel that he is part of something meaningful and greater than himself.
Carbado, Devon W. “Racial naturalization.” American Quarterly 57.3 (2005): 633-658.
Graber, Shane M., Ever J. Figueroa, and Krishnan Vasudevan. “Oh, Say, Can You Kneel: A Critical Discourse Analysis of Newspaper Coverage of Colin Kaepernickâ€™s Racial Protest.” Howard Journal of Communications (2019): 1-17.
Morrison, Toni. â€œRecitatif.â€ Skin Deep. Doubleday, 1995.
Naber, Nadine. â€œOsamaâ€™s Daughters: Cultural Racism, Nation-Based Racism, and the Intersectionality of Oppressions after 9/11.â€ Review of Womenâ€™s Studies, 5 (2009), 50-63.
Sabo, Samantha, et al. “Everyday violence, structural racism and mistreatment at the USâ€“ Mexico border.” Social Science & Medicine 109 (2014): 66-74.
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