In 2015 when South Carolina was debating whether or not to remove the Confederate flag from its perch in front of its state house the debate centered around what the flag “means”. Those who did not want to see the flag removed argued that the flag was about Southern pride and the history of the South and the state of South Carolina. Those in opposition argued that the flag represented racism and the systematic and institutional discrimination against African-Americans as epitomized by the American Civil War. Ultimately the flag was removed but debate on the issue remained for many months and protests in front of the state house where the flag used to fly continue to this day.
When the Governor of South Carolina Nikki Haley called for the flag to be taken down following the killing of 9 African-Americans in a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina by a white gunman she said, “We are not going to allow this symbol to divide us any longer”. That is what that debate as well as the debate around Colin Kaepernick truly centers, symbolism.
What does the Confederate flag represent to the residents of South Carolina? What meaning does it impart? Southern pride and history? To some, yes. Racism? Yes.
This subject of debate is highlighted by some of the statements made regarding Kaepernick’s action. First, Drew Brees said,
“I disagree. I wholeheartedly disagree. Not that he wants to speak out about a very important issue. No, he can speak out about a very important issue. But there’s plenty of other ways that you can do that in a peaceful manner that doesn’t involve being disrespectful to the American flag.
“I think the important point to make here is that flag symbolizes, represents the freedoms that you have the chance as an American to exercise. So sitting down for that, that is a blatant disrespect of the freedoms that that gives you. Like it’s an oxymoron that you’re sitting down, disrespecting that flag that has given you the freedom to speak out.”
To Drew Brees the American flag symbolizes the many freedoms afforded to Americans and to sit down during derogates those freedoms.
Richard Sherman took a more nuanced and measured stand by saying,
“I thought that was interesting. Obviously, what he meant was in a good place. He wanted to make a stand. Obviously, anytime you don’t stand during the national anthem, people are going to criticize it. And that’s the unfortunate part of it. You can’t ever stand against the flag. A lot of people have sacrificed for it. But there is also a deeper meaning to what he did. He’s talking about the oppression of African Americans in this country. And that has been going on for a long time. I think a lot of the focus has shifted away from his message and shifted to some people, rightfully so, to him taking a stand against the nation, etc., etc.
“But I think there are also things in this nation that people need to remember and take heed of and also acknowledge. This country is the same country that had ‘whites’ and ‘colored’ signs on the bathroom. We’re still in that country, we’re still in that nation. And that needs to be acknowledged and that needs to be changed. There are people with that mentality that still exists, and that needs to change. There are people who still treat people of color with subjectivity. They treat them a certain way. They categorize them. They put them in a certain category. There are certain statistics that are put out there to make sure police profile certain people in certain neighborhoods, and that needs to change. So there is some depth and some truth to what he’s doing. I think he could have picked a better platform and a better way to do it, but every day they say athletes are so robotic and do everything by the book. And then when somebody takes a stand like that, he gets his head chopped off.”
While Sherman acknowledges Kaepernick’s right to take the action he did and sees the same social inequalities against which Kaepernick was taking issue, Sherman also views the American flag as a symbol of the American military, which should not be questioned.
Finally, Kaepernick’s initial statement regarding his protest explained his action,
“I 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 way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
What does the American flag represent to Americans? Freedom? Yes. The American military and the sacrifices they have made to guarantee those freedoms and Kaepernick’s very right to take the action he did? Yes. Institutionalized racism and the oppression of minorities in America? Yes.
Each of these is correct because symbols by definition are not objective or concrete. What symbols mean change from person to person and over time. Fifty years ago many more people would have agreed the Confederate flag symbolized Southern pride than did last year. It is probable that more people today believe the American flag symbolizes racism and oppression than did just a year ago.
Symbols and their meaning changes, but not overnight. And in many cases their altering is not subject to rational arguments or objective evidence. Symbols are subject to time. In time more people may come to agree with Colin Kaepernick, but it will take time.