TakeAKnee Part 4: The Legitimacy of the Cause

Raised Fist

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.

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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.

<< Back to Part 3

TakeAKnee Part 1: The Respectability of the Posture

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This is the first in 4-part series of my exploration of the ongoing saga of the national anthem protests in the NFL (which has recently spread to other sports as well). As always, dialogue is welcome. In this first installment, I will explore the protest act itself and the initial reaction it has sparked—namely, that it’s disrespectful.

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First, I’ll preface by saying the method of protest is not one I would have chosen. That said, I’m trying my best to listen and give the benefit of the doubt to those who have chosen it.

Why? Well, in part because I’m a white, middle-aged, middle-class, middle-management male in a prosperous corner of this country—the recipient of near-maximum privilege any way you cut it. Not that I think that’s a show-stopper—I don’t subscribe to the automatic invalidity of one’s opinion on an issue based on their identity. But it humbles me enough that I attempt to give the benefit of the doubt to those with a perspective that I don’t always see because of my privilege. That doesn’t de facto mean they’re right, but I take it upon myself to listen and open my mind to it as best I can.

The posture is probably not as disrespectful as you think

So what do I hear when I listen? Well, enough to at least give me pause before assuming the worst of the protesting players. When Colin Kaepernick first began sitting for the anthem, his teammate, Safety Eric Reid, engaged him in discussion about it, as did long-snapper and former Green Beret Nate Boyer who wrote an open letter to Kaepernick basically saying his initial reaction was hurt and anger, but that he is trying to listen and understand. Reid expressed interest in joining his cause, but expressed concern over the perception of the gesture, that sitting perhaps signified apathy, and they didn’t wish to disrespect the country or veterans. To his credit, Kaepernick listened. Together, and even after a consultation with Boyer himself, they decided to kneel instead. A posture of kneeling traditionally connotes honoring, or at least a greater solemnity, while still making their statement at the same time. As Reid expressed in a recent op-ed, they saw it as more of a statement of bereavement over injustice rather than a statement of disrespect toward veterans or anyone else, and that they imagined the posture resembling “a flag flown at half-mast.”

Now, you don’t have to agree or buy into that rationale yourself, or suddenly adopt it as your own form of protest. But at least we should agree it doesn’t seem like a middle finger, either. It’s thoughtful. Something to engage with. Listen to. Dialogue about. Have a beer summit over. Learn another perspective that might even sharpen us in some way, whether you come out on the other side of that conversation agreeing or not.

What you might mean to say is that you feel disrespected by it

Claiming that something is disrespectful can mean multiple things. That (a) the person has the intent of overt disrespect—toward Americans, conservatives, cops, veterans, you personally—fill in the blank. Or (b) that one or more of the aforementioned parties feels disrespected by the action, regardless of the protestors’ intent. It is also possible that both (a) and (b) are true at once. I’m not convinced (a) is true—i.e. that the act of kneeling during the national anthem constitutes overt, intentional disrespect—based on how the players have articulated it as discussed above. But some will counter that if people are feeling disrespected by it, and they’re still doing it anyway, then it does show disrespectful intent regardless of their stated rationale (so that (b) necessitates (a) by default). After all, they’re not being sensitive to the feelings of those being offended, which serves to divide. Okay, that’s one way to look at it. But frankly it sounds a little like saying, “They need to act out their beliefs in a way that doesn’t offend me or violate my safe space, regardless of whether that’s their intent.” The irony is that many who offer this objection would decry it in other contexts as the millennial, snow-flakey take on it.

Our hang-ups on respectability are likely missing a larger point

So is the chosen method of protest disrespectful? The answer is likely in the eye of the beholder. Maybe it is to some extent, but likely not to the degree that some of the more visceral reactions, with their hyperbolic rhetoric around troop-hating contempt for freedom, would suggest.

But in any case, have we considered that this conversation about what’s disrespectful might be a red herring in the first place? It is, after all, a protest. The civil rights movement was born out of protest. Our very nation was born out of protest. And it was all disrespectful to someone—namely, the status quo of the existing power structures. As MLK said, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” You may feel the comparisons are unfair because the current cause is less worthy, and if you’re inclined to stick with me on this journey I’ll explore that angle at greater length in part 4, but in the meantime let’s agree that any protest is going to ruffle the feathers of someone, or it’s kind of pointless. At the very least it’s started a conversation.

It might not have been my chosen form of expression, and I certainly don’t seek to invalidate the feelings of those who take offense to it. But it’s that next step beyond the offense where we ought to pause before becoming prescriptive. As soon as I, as one who benefits from the existing power structures, start dictating the where, why, when, and how the oppressed should feel about their oppression, as soon as I suggest how they ought to act out their frustration toward it, as soon as I demand they do it in a ‘respectable’ manner as defined by me, that’s on my timetable, doesn’t make me uncomfortable, and doesn’t violate my ‘safe space,’ that’s when I’ve gone too far, made it more about me, becoming what MLK described as the white moderate, and need to check my privilege at the door. I’ve failed at that many times in the past, and this time just trying to shut up and listen, understand, and empathize.

Continue to Part 2 >>