Scott McKenzie, PhD Candidate, Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability (IRES), University of British Columbia and Sameer H. Shah, PhD Candidate, Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability (IRES), University of British Columbia
Colin Kaepernick played in only one NFL game in 2017, yet he made Time magazine’s short list for “Person of the Year” and GQ named him “Citizen of the Year.”
Kaepernick started a movement of players kneeling during the U.S. national anthem to call attention to systemic racism and the de-humanization of Black lives. His protest reflects a broader statement that many Americans, in particular Black Americans and people of colour, do not have equal protections or safe access to even basic services. In short, they are not treated as citizens.
But, along the way, some football fans argued the protest he inspired did not belong within the NFL. Others corrupted his message as anti-American. Some restricted Kaepernick’s argument to one that spoke out solely against police brutality in the African-American community.
We believe the fundamental tenet of Kaepernick’s message — racial injustice and social exclusion — is also critical when it comes to understanding and addressing recent environmental hazards and disasters in the United States.
The unequal outcomes of environmental harm — for example, why some areas seem so hard hit by storms or droughts, while others bounce back quickly — can be better understood when framed within a broader conception of “citizenship.” The many meanings of “citizen” have been a key focus for social scientists throughout history, including Aristotle, Cicero, Rousseau and Arendt; it has also been a primary focus of our research group at the University of British Columbia where we work on water governance and access.
Many ways to think about citizenship
According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, citizenship is not bound by race, religion or status — but by the shared values of freedom, liberty and equality.
In this sense, being an equal “citizen” means you feel welcomed and safe, that you have a voice in changing the status quo and that you’re governed by the same set of laws and principles as all other citizens. Any person, from a Daughter of the American Revolution to a newly arrived Syrian refugee, is part of this notion of citizenship.
But this is an idealized vision of citizenship — it is not reality.
Kaepernick’s protest is about what and who makes a team and a nation. The debate over Kaepernick’s action can be extended to look at the important ways environmental justice is connected to notions of citizenship.
Preliminary results from our recent fieldwork in South Africa and Ghana — places where the relatively well off have no trouble accessing a full range of services while the poor have limited access to drinking water and sanitation — suggest that one’s sense of belonging and inclusion are strongly tied to the ability to access basic environmental services.
Kaepernick’s message can (and should) be extended to recent environmental crises, including in Flint, Mich., and Puerto Rico. This is a broader interpretation of Kaepernick’s message that demands our attention.
Differentiated citizenship in Flint
In making dinner, filling a glass with water or taking a shower, we rarely consider how a faucet is connected to being a citizen. But many people do not enjoy easy access to drinking water — as the case of Flint has so powerfully shown.
In 2014, the town’s water source was changed to the Flint River from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. This cost-saving mechanism, combined with inadequate water treatment procedures, exposed Flint’s mostly Black residents to lead contamination from their aging pipes.
Residents noticed the difference. Yet their repeated requests to local and state officials were rebuffed until evidence showed the water was dangerous and imperilled the health of thousands, particularly children.
It costs $117,400 a day to provide bottled water and filters to Flint’s residents, yet they still live with serious lead contamination. As do many other U.S. communities.
There is a jarring contrast between Flint and nearby towns that are affluent with a majority white population. While residents of Flint are citizens, they are being excluded from equal benefits and protections.
Our research highlights the often underlying issues of citizenship — protection and belonging — behind environmental problems. If we want to address these crises we must better understand the root causes.
Citizenship divides our political opinions
Just as mutual strength and support unite a team, “citizenship” is a common thread that unites Americans — as it does people in all countries. Unfortunately, in the U.S., notions of citizenship have resulted in polarized political debates. Too often, citizenship is treated as a clear-cut issue of who belongs and has the legal status to stay or travel.
President Donald Trump’s border wall and unconstitutional visa bans to keep Muslims out of the U.S. are two clear cases of citizenship as status.
But the in-custody deaths of Freddie Gray and many others, the drinking water crisis in Flint and, most recently, Puerto Rico’s miserly disaster aid after Hurricane Maria serve as examples of a different type of citizenship, one where “citizens” do not have equal access to protection and justice in their daily lives.
Kaepernick has challenged us to rethink whether these values and rights are held equally across our differences. He has highlighted another way of thinking about citizenship: One that moves away from a strictly legal definition to involve inclusion, belonging, equity and protection — facets of everyday life.
Rethinking our public policy
Over 3.4 million U.S. citizens live in Puerto Rico. While the damage from Hurricane Maria may exceed US$30 billion, Trump made sure to blame Puerto Rico’s “broken infrastructure” and “old electrical grid” for the scale of the island’s suffering and damage.
Trump’s own reasoning suggests that broader forces of social exclusion are at play. Kaepernick’s kneeling can serve to raise awareness for environmental discrimination in Puerto Rico. Even as officials admit that as much as one third of the island’s citizens do not have access to the power grid, FEMA has announced it is cutting off emergency electricity and water supplies.
The island’s short- and long-term vulnerability highlight the need to ensure that our public policy strives to provide equal access to services and protections for everyone.
Kaepernick and those participating in #TakeaKnee say they love America, but wholeheartedly believe the country can do better in upholding the principles of equality and justice ostensibly woven into the U.S. flag.
We hope that as Kaepernick’s message continues, it will extend into everyday facets of inclusion, equal protection and belonging — from getting a glass of clean water to receiving federal aid following a disaster.
Where Trump’s State of the Union speech touted “merit-based immigration,” the border wall and the visa lottery system as somehow unrelated to the fear-mongering over immigrants, Kaepernick is pushing us to interrogate what it means to be a citizen.
A team supports, welcomes and respects its members, and society must also strive for this. Something to think about during the Super Bowl, especially if during the national anthem, NFL players take a knee.
This piece was first published at