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Gerry ChidiacWhat motivates Colin Kaepernick? What is it about his actions that is so upsetting to so many people? Who is right?

Considerable controversy has been stirred up in the sports world and beyond by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Kaepernick’s decision not to stand for the American national anthem.

Some people view him as a villain and others see him as a hero.

It’s interesting that the anthem he refuses to stand for is that of the country that set the standard for individual rights. The United States Constitution is a powerful historic document unlike any the world had seen before 1787. Principles such as those contained in the document had been debated and philosophized over around the world, but this was the first time they were used as the basis on which to build a nation.

What is beautiful about the courageous actions of Kaepernick and other athletes is that they are using their celebrity status to get people talking. The United States is a great country and its citizens have reason to be proud, but it is imperfect, just as every nation is imperfect. There is racism in America, there is racial profiling and there is police brutality.

In the late 1980s, I taught and coached at an American high school. The vast majority of the students were from visible minorities and less than wealthy families.

What I experienced in this environment challenged my idealism and world view. I was quite taken aback when I recommended to students and athletes that they see a doctor and was told, “I can’t afford to go to a doctor.”

And I witnessed the racism that these young people were subjected to, as well as the impact of racism on American society in general.

I didn’t have an issue with the American national anthem, but when the Pledge of Allegiance was said before public gatherings, I found that I couldn’t put my hand over my heart and say, “with liberty and justice for all.” I stood respectfully with my hands at my side. I don’t know if anyone noticed or if they simply attributed it to the fact that I was a foreigner, but for me it was an act of conscience.

Had the statement been “striving for liberty and justice for all,” I would have happily complied.

There were and still are many people in the United Sates working to make life better for everyone. A long-serving African American staff member, for example, pointed out to me that the students from our school regularly went on to positions of leadership within their communities.

Having re-established contact with many of my former students on Facebook, I see that this pattern has continued. Our school clearly made a difference in their lives.

Perhaps what Kaepernick is pointing out is that we need to increase our investment in people, especially young people, regardless of their ethnicity or social status. When we do so, the results are phenomenal. Each person is able to achieve their potential. Crime rates drop, incarceration rates drop, income levels rise and life improves for everyone.

Whether we make this change by partaking in or refusing to partake in nationalistic rituals is up to us. The key is to follow your conscience, while respecting the conscience of your neighbour.

We must then work together to ensure that the ideals of the American Constitution, and every other statement of human rights that has followed, are respected.

Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students. 

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