This is the final post of my 4-part series exploring the ongoing protests taking place in the NFL. For context, I recommend starting with Part 1.
Beneath all the talk about troops and patriotic displays, where most of the arguments about the NFL protests ultimately reach an impasse is with regard to the legitimacy of the cause. Very few people would be upset about the method of protest if they felt the protestors had a valid grievance. The divide on this is broader and long predates the current conversations sparked by any NFL players, so I’m not so naïve as to think I’m going to convince anyone to change their mind on it in a short-form editorial. But what I can do is share my own personal journey of how I’ve come to think differently about this question over the years, and maybe even encourage the genuinely curious and open-minded to check out some more thorough material on the matter.
I grew up in the era of ‘color blindness,’ where the guiding mantra was: don’t see race; just treat all people the same. The spirit behind this tenet was good and my parents had the best of intentions in instilling this in me. But it only addresses racism at the individual, conscious level; it doesn’t touch the systemic or unconscious. A good argument can be made that we are largely beyond the days of overtly racist individuals. To be sure, they still exist (see: Charlottesville), but they’ve been largely repudiated, stigmatized, and pushed to the margins of society. But along with them, the term ‘racist’ itself has become so stigmatized that we can’t even talk about it without causing such a visceral reaction that it shuts down conversation, because we’ve turned it into no more than an individual label, prompting the automatic defensive, “How dare you accuse me of that!”
This is unfortunate, as the terms ‘racist’ and ‘racism’ didn’t always have such a narrow meaning. There can be racist policies, for example, or institutionalized racism resulting from unjust infrastructure and reinforced through the unconscious biases of society over time, and not necessarily the result of a specific individual bigot. Just like we know black holes exist (even though we can’t see them directly) because of the physical effect they have on the cosmic bodies around them, we know this type of injustice exists because of racially disparate outcomes, regardless of intent. From current lending practices, to redlining and other legacy housing policies that still have a disproportionately negative impact on minority neighborhoods; to the War on Drugs’ disproportionate impact on people of color even though whites are equally likely to sell and use drugs; to specific drug laws with disparate impact such as sentencing laws for crack—the form of the drug found in poorer, urban ghettos—being 18 times as high as the penalty for the same amount of cocaine—another form of the exact same drug more common to affluent white suburbia (a recent ‘improvement,’ by the way, over the former 100:1 disparity); to racial disparities in discretionary sentencing for the exact same crime that have been repeatedly demonstrated; along with many other aspects of the criminal justice system and prison industrial complex that have resulted in disparate outcomes.
There are mountains of data to support the existence of these disparities—to anyone skeptical or genuinely curious, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is a great place to start. But at the very least, I hope the one thing we can agree on is that it’s much more complicated than the question, “Is that officer a racist?” We have to zoom out to look beyond the controversial big-headline stories to see the vast underbelly of subtle injustices that eventually led up to it. Our stubborn insistence on limiting the term ‘racist’ exclusively to the realm of an individually internalized heart condition is, at its core, narcissistic. Outcomes are what matter, not just what’s in the heart. And the Bible says we shall know a tree by its fruit. We have to get beyond our fear of the word, and acknowledge that there are subversive, institutionalized practices that result in inequality regardless of intent, before we can work together to fix them.
Listening to the Personal Experience
Lastly, I’ll end this series with a reprise of a theme I touched on in Part 1 by re-emphasizing my own need to listen to the stories of people of color and understand that my own white middle-class perspective is not the ‘default’ or ‘right’ perspective on America. The ‘age of colorblindness’ made me blissfully unaware of things I can no longer ignore. Beyond just the practical impossibility of ignoring it—in the last few years my wife and I have been guardians to a Filipino teen, host parents to a Latina exchange student, and are raising our own Black child (pictured above at NMAAHC)—I’ve come to realize that my station in life doesn’t give me the luxury to say race doesn’t matter or isn’t an issue. Of course it doesn’t matter or isn’t an issue—for me. Why should it? But I can’t expect my neighbors of color to feel the same way; I haven’t lived their experience.
By analogy, it would seem a bit like a millionaire telling a friend who’s struggling financially: “Just don’t worry about money so much—my secret is I don’t let it create stress or rule my life.” There’s nothing wrong with that philosophy toward money—in fact it probably couldn’t be more right—but it would be pretty tone deaf for someone, to whom money truly isn’t an issue, to say that to someone who doesn’t know where their next rent payment is coming from. Likewise, I’m just not in a qualified position to tell someone else how much or how little race should matter to them.
But what about those who will take advantage of that? Play the race card simply to exploit an advantage that wasn’t warranted? What about those who will claim victimhood to abuse compassion beyond its intended bounds? For the love of God, what about black-on-black crime?
In short: not mine to assess. We are still fallen humans, regardless of race, but just as we talk about personal responsibility: others are to be accountable for their own actions, and I am to be accountable for mine, which is why I will always default to an attempt to listen, understand, and extend compassion anyway. If you, too, desire to hear more of the personal experience side, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is a great place to start, a profound individual reflection of personal anecdotes and life experience; a counterbalance (purely from a genre standpoint) to Alexander’s more data-driven book referenced above.
In order to work together to fix injustice, we must be willing to acknowledge that we might be one who benefits from the existing power structures, listen to the perspectives of those who might not, and recognize that the challenge is more complex than our interpretation of individual attitudes. That is to say, your personal status of ‘not a racist’ doesn’t give you a pass from helping solve the problem. Having won the genetic lottery, I won’t be that guy who tells someone race doesn’t matter just because it doesn’t matter to me. And this is the reason I strive not to respond with indignation or dismissiveness toward athletes making a provocative statement, or the hurt and angry reaction of a community reeling from a racially charged incident, unless I’m absolutely sure I fully understand their history, worldview, and life experience. And I don’t. But I want to, and I’m trying.