Editor’s note: Once a month, this column will tackle broader questions about what the country should do about gaps in achievement and opportunity.
Colin Kaepernick is a role model whether you like it or not. Many view Kaepernick’s choice of protest as disrespectful to the flag, our armed forces and America itself, but the vitriol toward the football player represents the fears that children may grasp the power of civil disobedience. Students who idolize athletes like Kaepernick may also mimic him at school and sit during the Pledge of Allegiance in protest.
Children in our broken U.S. school system have many reasons to take a seat.
Every morning in most public and private schools, students recite the Pledge of Allegiance, although schools can’t legally force them to do it. The 1943 Supreme Court decision in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette found that students are protected by the free-speech clause in the First Amendment of the Constitution. Consequently, schools can’t force students to stand, recite, salute, place a hand on one’s heart or acknowledge the pledge in any way if students object.
In 2014, teenager Mason Michalec refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and the Texas Pledge, which is tacked on in the Lone Star State. “I’m really tired of our government taking advantage of us,” said Michalec. The principal punished him for exercising his basic rights by giving him in-school suspension.
Last year, 16-year-old Lauryn Crawford of Lakewood High School in Los Angeles made waves by taking a seat during the pledge in protest to injustice and disgust with religious hypocrisy. A teacher reprimanded her, but the school didn’t pursue disciplinary action when Crawford and her family reminded them of the Barnette decision.
If Kaepernick’s actions influence more students to protest the pledge, it shouldn’t surprise us. Education has become about control, especially in schools that serve students of color. One example: More urban public schools these days require students to wear uniforms, an extension of the belief that schooling should teach students to fall in line. In some buildings, students are even forced to actually walk on white lines. This isn’t instilling the kind of discipline required for college—unless you’re planning to go to a military academy. Perhaps more nefariously, it’s subtly training students to bow to the status quo and not to take bold stands against injustice as Kaepernick did, and the teenagers in Texas and California before him.
Then again, it’s an American value to punish black children to make them learn—from the cradle, in terms of spanking, to the grave, in terms of police brutality. The uneven use of suspension and expulsion weighted heavily against black children reflects this value.
Black students are four times more likely to be suspended than their white peers. Even the babies aren’t spared. In Louisiana, more than 7,400 Louisiana children from kindergarten to third grade last year were suspended for loose charges like “willful disobedience” (aka being a kid). Is it because what’s labeled “willful disobedience” in school could become civil disobedience once kids get older, a true threat to the order of things? Learning has been reduced to compliance. But no self-respecting family should have their children genuflect to unjust authority.
As a parent, I applaud children, including my own, who protest the disparities they see every day. Black and brown students have a first-row seat to the racial differences between them and their mostly white, less experienced, teachers. Students in urban schools grasp the consequences of inexperienced teachers rolling in and out of their classrooms (pdf) each year. Youths see what’s fundamentally wrong with the way public schools are funded in America and how resources can provide laboratories, updated facilities and books, and how the lack of them can leave schools and children behind. The inequalities are especially clear when you’re a student-athlete traveling to other, more-well-off campuses. The differences in facilities, equipment and sponsorships are more intimidating than their opposing team.
Just as Kaepernick responded to “bodies in the street,” students’ experiences with inequitable funding, harsh discipline, inexperienced teachers and other disparities should prompt a response. But don’t blame Kaepernick if students take a seat. Instead, correct the injustices that have given students reason to exercise their constitutional right to demand better.