It’s all about race

Football player Colin Kaepernick began silently kneeling during the national anthem as a protest against racial injustice and police brutality in August of 2016. Since then, other football players have joined him in peaceful demonstration as an act of solidarity. Despite their efforts to shine a light on one of America’s most glaring humanitarian crises, people—particularly white people and the media—have chosen to instead discuss the First Amendment, as well as the national anthem, the American flag, and the patriotic ceremonies which surround them. But this should not come as a surprise. Flipping the script on discussions about racial injustice is an American tradition that has been carried on throughout the decades. People—particularly white people—cannot bear shining a light on the nation’s racial wounds, so they change the topic as a way to silence dissent and escape the discomfort associated discussions of race.

For example, when a few among thousands of peaceful protesters vandalized a Baltimore CVS in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death, a discussion about police brutality was seized away in favor of a conversation about the integrity of personal property and the importance of brick and mortar. No one wanted to talk about the fact that Gray’s spinal cord was 80% severed or that he had crush injuries to his larynx. No one wanted to talk about the fact that he was so forcefully apprehended after willingly surrendering to the police. (Unsurprisingly, charges were dropped against the police implicated in Gray’s death.)

When Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy, was shot and killed by Cleveland Police, calls for justice and sympathy were drowned out by claims that the shooting was “tragic” but “reasonable.” No one wanted want to talk about the fact that Tamir was a child in middle school. No one wanted to talk about the fact that the police officer who killed Rice was later terminated after lies were found on his job application. According to the Los Angeles Times, Officer Timothy Loehmann was sacked for “not disclosing that he had resigned from his previous position as a police officer in Independence, Mo., to avoid being fired for insubordination, emotional immaturity, dishonesty and mishandling his gun.” (Unsurprisingly, charges were dropped against Timothy Loehmann.)

“To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” – Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers.

These are just two examples of hundreds cases where the police shot and killed unarmed Black people and got away with it—add to that the number of cases where some punishment was applied, and add to that the number of civil cases settled outside of criminal law. The sum total of these incidents represent a human rights atrocity. According to a study by American Journal of Public Health, Black men are nearly three times as likely to be killed by legal intervention than white men. It is because of these injustices that football players have taken a knee during the national anthem.

“It baffles me that our protest is still being misconstrued as disrespectful to the country, flag and military personnel. We chose it because it’s exactly the opposite. It has always been my understanding that the brave men and women who fought and died for our country did so to ensure that we could live in a fair and free society, which includes the right to speak out in protest.”- Eric Reid, San Francisco 49ers.

Many people—particularly white people, especially white people on the political right—will say that there are other ways to protest. They will say that the sanctity of the American flag and the national anthem is directly tied to the value of the lives of the people who have fought and died for the country. It’s a drum beat that has been carried on by the president of the United States who encourages all citizens to respect the flag and “the men and women of the United States Armed Services.”

But it’s hard not to notice that a large number of people who recite the aforementioned rhetoric were noticeably silent when then-candidate Trump disrespected a Gold Star family, or when he disrespected the service of Senator John McCain who was imprisoned in a Korean military camp for five years, or when he most recently disrespected yet another Gold Star family. These incidents were quickly explained away as politics as usual, fake news, and fabrications from people who just want to hate on 45. But the disproportionate scrutiny applied to football players verse the person who leads the country seems a little suspicious.

It seems suspicious that it wasn’t neo-Nazis or the KKK, nor the death of children like Tamir Rice, nor the extrajudicial murder of unarmed citizens which mobilized millions to speak out but rather it was kneeling football players that really angered people. It’s seems suspicious that the anemic hearts of those who actively ignore issues of injustice and inequality are now hemorrhaging over symbols, ceremony, and respect.

Instances of hypocrisy are rife on both sides of the aisle and all walks of life, there is no doubt about that, but none more glaring than that which comes from those who speak out against Kaepernick under the guise of patriotism, liberty, and justice.

These protests are not about the military, those who serve in it, the American flag, or the national anthem. Anyone who says otherwise is either actively or ignorantly evading their own discomfort with racial topics. These protest are about racial injustice and they always have been and they always will be.


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The soul of the nation

The events that took place in Charlottesville and the days after laid bare the soul of the United States. No matter how hard this nation tries, we cannot rid ourselves of the seemingly everlasting scourge of white supremacy. Early movements for civil rights sought to change our institutions in favor of more equitable policies and that tradition continues today through the efforts of those who advocate for criminal justice reform, for example. But even though it’s been proven possible to effect change in institutions, the notion of white supremacy persists in the attitudes of many white people—whether they are stanch white nationalists or oblivious liberals.

Recently, the president of the United States compared the two sides who clashed at the Charlottesville rally, making a moral equivalence between white supremacists and anti-racists. And even though his assessment rightly offended many people, in some ways it is representative of national tradition. Our country has a rich history of contemplating the humanity of Black people as matter of acceptable public discourse.

In 1787 after a contentious debate, it was decided that that Black slaves were three-fifths a person. Seventy-four years later, the nation entered civil war over the humanity of slaves. The following decades were defined by battles against the KKK, a fight for voting rights, and tensions associated with a segregated South. Today, the nation grapples with the morality of mass incarceration and the extrajudicial killings of Black people. The worthiness of Black lives has always been up for debate in the United States. What is unique about the modern era is the ever-present idea that we are a post-racial society.

There is a perception that George Wallace was the last segregationist to exist, that Martin Luther King Jr. healed all the nation’s racist attitudes, and that Lyndon Johnson rid our institutions of racism and discrimination. Many believe that these acts of social sorcery ushered in an era in which our racist past was no longer relevant.

A brief exercise in critical thought exposes how absurd these assumptions are. But nevertheless, such perceptions serve as a point of departure for many debates surrounding race in America today.

Most Americans are familiar with the images of the Birmingham Campaign in 1963 when non-violent Black protesters were blasted with fire hoses and attacked by German shepherds. Similarly, images of the sit-in at Woolworth’s lunch counter continue to be emblematic of the Civil Rights Movement. But somehow, despite these historic scenes, people believe that they were just an isolated moments in time.

But where are those people now who dowsed Anne Moody in condiments at the lunch counter or the cops who released attack dogs on Black men, women, and children? Were those people, and their community of like minds, suddenly washed over with feelings of compassion and equality with a swipe Lyndon Johnson pen? The events that took place in Charlottesville prove that is unlikely.

It cannot be underestimated the amount of people who carry the torch of hate and bigotry into the 21st century. Many people look at Donald Trump and say that he is the creator of these attitudes. But that is an error in thinking. Donald Trump is just a purveyor of hate looking to capitalize on an already abundant resource. He now serves as an umbrella under which cowards can hide from the rains of reality.

Even though these white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists tend to align with the political right, white liberals and moderates, too, have some ownership to take when it comes to dismantling racist notions in their own backyards. Simply announcing one’s allegiance to a certain political affiliation or ideology doesn’t automatically make them immune to being part of the problem. Of course liberals do not thrust their hands out into a Nazi salute; oftentimes, though, they meet communities of color with only lip service, apathy, and silence. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail:

“First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”

Just as feelings of hate and ignorance have been inherited by people on the right, apathetic and blasé attitudes have been handed-down to the white liberals and moderates who stand to the left of them. Colorblind-ism is likely the most pervasive viewpoint that liberals hold which serves to invalidate and undermine Black folks and their experiences. (For more information on the problem with saying you don’t see race, see here.)

Racism is a system and depends on many different moving parts. Right wing extremism may represent the pistons that drive the engine, but ineffectual and shallow support from liberals serves as lubrication. It all works together.

Even though we have a long history of deliberating whether Black people are deserving of respect and humanity, it does not mean that we need to further that tradition. Though our nation has gone through even harsher social and political unrest, the level of regression we are facing now is unparalleled. Emboldened white supremacists who now feel safe to slither out of the shadows have been legitimized by the so-called Leader of the Free World.

In these uncertain times, it is important for people who are committed to justice to review what Karl Popper called the Paradox of Tolerance. The philosopher theorized in 1945 that societies could be tolerant to a fault. Liberalism says that tolerance is an unbreakable virtue but Popper said this was a misstep in thinking. He said that there is one thing that we should not be tolerant of and that is intolerance itself.

“Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.   In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.”

Even though the theory is an exercise in reading comprehension, the concept is quite simple: be tolerant to all people but reject those who hold intolerant ideologies such as white supremacy.

So many people talk about what they would have done if they were there during the Civil Rights Movement. Well, that opportunity has presented itself again and this era will be defined by who stands up for justice and humanity.


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