by Jason A. Safford

Patriotism is a personal experience. Recognized as love for or devotion to one’s country as defined by Merriam-Webster, for citizens of the United States of America, patriotism is subjectively unique to each citizen. The origins of our citizenship are far different historically from all other countries. Prior to our fight for independence, government for the people did not exist. We established a new form of government that has been the aspiration of the world since. Our freedom was the direct outcome of a revolution against economic oppression, social injustice and government tyranny and we stood up for ourselves and won. That was the purpose of the Declaration of Independence and the inspiration for our flag. It was freedom for the common man to live as he please to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Understanding the American flag is the symbol of our country, the interpretation of that symbol varies widely by our citizens based on the different experiences they have endured in this country. The origin of the American flag was established not long after the Declaration of Independence in 1776, when George Washington realized it was a good idea for the Continental Army to have a flag of its own to distinguish itself from the tyranny of King George and the British Empire. The Continental Congress passed the first Flag Act and the “Union” of states was created.

Throughout the course of our country’s history, more people have emigrated to our shores to pursue their dreams than established natives exist. How they have identified themselves with the flag has often been different from those who are born here. And some of us were brought here without consent, through slavery, human-trafficking or as young refugees with our fleeing families. Our country is a complex tapestry woven of stories and tribulations where the enduring idea of freedom, liberty and justice for all are the foundation principles that we aspire to when we pledge allegiance to the flag.

Over the course of our nation’s history, our American flag has evolved both in its political prominence and personal interpretation. American citizens can be polar opposite in their views of what the flag means. While many of us agree that military service is one of the most important sacrifices that an individual of this country can make, how many of us have actually served since it is no longer mandatory without the draft in effect? Does that mean the rest of us are less patriotic because we opt to pursue more aspirational goals? Is starting a small business, working for a non-profit or simply building a prosperous life for your family unpatriotic?

Recognizing that there are brave men and women putting their lives at risk to defend our country and our freedom is a critical task. But other than Sunday football games, NASCAR races and the World Series, how many of us are thinking about this in our daily lives? And does everyone agree that those men and women should be put at risk in the first place? Our standing military in the past fifty years has been put in harm’s way more often than not for political purpose, not to defend our freedoms. And many of them have not been treated properly by the government when they return home alive or dead.

More important is the fact that many non-white Americans whose ancestry in this country goes back more than a century have had to endure numerous forms of economic and political oppression and social injustice. Slaves were not citizens and the American Civil War did not suddenly change the status of these people. For decades after, the ability for non-white Americans to live with the rights and freedoms of being an American citizen was non-existent. Political oppression in this country historically involved the prevention of non-whites to serve in the military, pursue public office and limited the right to vote. These are important parts of American citizenry that were denied to non-whites into the 1960s. Even today, there is continuing debate at the state level as to what constitutes an American citizen’s right to vote that favors white Americans over non-whites. This continued exhibition of unfair practices towards American citizens of different social, cultural and racial origins forces the American flag to be regarded with different viewpoints among our citizenry.

Actions speak louder than words. America’s flag represents a willingness to take action, to rise against oppression and fight for a cause that is greater than the individual. That notion motivated the Boston Tea Party to sabotage supplies of the British Empire. It motivated the Union to fight against their brothers in the Civil War. It gave Theodore Roosevelt the charge to lead the Rough Riders into battle. It inspired us to build ships and bombs at record pace to overcome Hitler and the Nazis. And it inspired Colin Kaepernick to take a knee in humility.

While the recent controversy created by our sitting U.S. President towards the National Football League may spark enormous debate about the American Flag, patriotism and national pride, what Colin Kaepernick did was as American as the flag itself. He spoke out against social injustice and economic oppression and he took action, first by sitting and then kneeling in humility to the flag itself. Sacrificing his honor and personal welfare for a cause that he believes needed to be given greater attention and care here in America, the controversy created by his actions has brought national discussion to the forefront on the very idea of who we the people are and what we want our country to be.

We must recognize that America, the country, has matured over the past two and a half centuries. We have evolved into a diverse citizenry of complex viewpoints and a broad spectrum of cultural history that has exploded on social media and every other channel of distribution in the information age. However, despite our many advances and tremendous progress, there are still many crucial issues that plague us.

Poverty, hunger, racism, sexism, classism and political segregation are all issues of economic oppression and social injustice that still exist in our country today. Police brutality, which is most commonly identified with attacks on non-white Americans, has sparked debate over whose lives matter more, the police or the subject being attacked? The answer should be that their lives matter equally as citizens of this country. We may not all agree with each other or do what is right all the time, but our patriotism should begin with our respect for each other as citizens, if nothing else.

When the National Anthem is played at professional sporting events and the flag is brought out on display, this is a form of propaganda and nationalism to promote allegiance to our country that is paid for by our military services. The challenge, however, is understanding the diversity of experience within the seats of the stadiums and televisions nationally, which see this idea very differently among themselves. Those American citizens who have been historically oppressed economically, who are experiencing social injustice continually and whose military service has been in vein of their experience here at home, do not carry the same emotions for our flag as those of us who have no experience to their situation. Our reference points are not the same. Older, white Americans, who can claim a long, valued heritage to this country’s history often seem to forget that their ancestry was once the oppressed, suffering injustices as the forgotten subjects of a mad king. This is part of the conversation we need to be having.

Paying homage to the American Flag in unity is an ideal that we should always aspire to as a nation. Our sitting U.S. President is clearly expressing his disdain in our lack of collective national pride. However, just as our individual experience needs to be shared, our leadership needs to show more humility for the American experience. Leadership is not about expressing your personal opinion and demanding attention as the person in charge. Leaders take consideration to everyone involved and help them focus on the greater good to move forward together. That is why Colin Kaepernick knelt. He was paying respect to the idea this great nation was founded on, that all men are created equal to enjoy the pursuits of life, liberty and happiness.