Culture and Society

Why?

When they knelt, what did you feel?

Did you feel anger?

Or was it pride?

Or nothing at all.

Here’s a different question: How far down on the list of emotions was curiosity?

Did you ask yourself why?

How come a man who gets paid millions of dollars to play football just knelt down in protest during his country’s national anthem? Why did he refuse to pay homage when we saluted a flag that represents a society that hundreds of thousands of men and women have died for and tens of millions more, like me, have sworn to protect?

What answer did you get?

How much work did you put in to getting it?

Twenty generations have passed since a Dutch merchant ship landed at Jamestown and traded African slaves for repairs and supplies. The first 13 generations were born into slavery. They had the same basic rights as livestock for two centuries. Of the 20 generations that have come to pass since African slaves were first brought to America, only two have reached adulthood in a time in which they were not legally segregated from the rest of society and prohibited from education, jobs and full participation in the democratic process.

The outcome is inarguable modern inequality.

African Americans suffer twice the poverty rate of other Americans. They make half the income of white and Asian Americans. And they have twice the rate of unemployment. They have not had equality of opportunity. And they have not had equality of outcomes.

Those are facts.

And this is the reality:

In an economy that has begun, in earnest, to devalue low skilled labor and pay higher and higher premiums for higher skilled labor, something else is happening. What was once segregation that was mandated by law is now transitioning into economic segregation because of the widening wage gap. More African American children attend schools of majority African American population today than they did in the 80’s. Our urban populations are now a majority minority for the first time in our history. America is walling ourselves off from African Americans again. We just don’t need to build the wall ourselves anymore. Economics and math are doing it for us.

It’s not getting better. It’s getting worse.

So, how should the three living generations of African Americans feel about the inequality that inarguably comes from a country that treated the first 17 generations of their ancestors like a lesser species of man?

Respectful?

Grateful?

Angry?

How about conflicted?  If they are unhappy, which ones should speak up? Those with power? Or those without it?

Like it or not, showing up on my television is power.

When an African American is shot and killed by a white police officer, how should a black man feel about it? Is it respectful to feel the same way I feel when a white man is shot? Don’t break the law and you’ll be ok?

Or is it different for some reason?

Should I feel different about the justice system if I’m black?

If I’m treated differently by the American justice system, does that matter?

African Americans are nearly three times as likely to be stopped for a traffic violation than I am. They’re half as likely to be granted bail and 40% more likely to be sent to jail after an arraignment instead of released on their own recognizance. They’re 50% more likely to receive a plea that includes prison time instead of probation, time served or community service. They’re twice as likely to have a juror struck from the pool during their trial due to a fundamental disagreement with the death penalty. They’re twice as likely to receive a life sentence or longer in prison.

Does it matter how much of your country’s history passed before she protected you?

In the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s, bills outlawing lynch mob extrajudicial punishment passed in the House of Representatives. Each time, they were struck down in the Senate. In 2005, the Senate of the United States of America formally apologized for never passing an anti-lynching law. Between 1877 and 1950, a year in which both my parents were already alive, there were 3,959 African Americans killed by lynching.

More Americans than were killed on 9/11.

More than the American servicemen that died in Afghanistan.

Does any of that change how the African American community feels when a black man is killed by white authority figure in America. Or is it all just water under the bridge?

Different question now:

How come them?

Why NFL Players? Why men who play a game and make millions?

Why “millionaire crybabies?”

Better question:

Who else?

There are 540 billionaires in America. Three of them are African American. Oprah, Michael Jordan and private equity investor Robert Smith. If entertainers and athletes don’t count, then who? Is only Robert Smith allowed to protest? He’s going to get tired. And you don’t know what he looks like. But you could pick out Michael Jordan’s shoes from across the room.

Imagine how early this discussion would have started if MJ knelt?

Is he still a billionaire if he did? Maybe. But only because he played basketball better than anyone in the history of the world. All others, no chance. African Americans were excluded from the activities that lead to American wealth accumulation in the post WWII period, the greatest economic growth our country has ever seen.

No mortgages.

No access to real estate.

No college education.

No union jobs.

There was one African American in all the trade unions in Chicago the year my mother started college. That’s why 50 years later, there are three African American billionaires.

An entertainer. A basketball player. And a businessman.

And for five minutes Sunday night an old white guy who lives in Texas.

Protests are supposed to be disrespectful. That’s why they’re protests. They’re disruptive and uncomfortable. Like throwing tea in the harbor or sitting at lunch counters reserved for people with different colored skin.

The response is always the same from those being protested against.

“shameful”

“insolent”

“disrespectful”

“uppity”

If that last one bothered you more than the first three, why?

These were the answers to the hard questions I had when faced with the unambiguous lack of respect NFL football players were showing a ceremony that honored a country I swore to defend.

If you don’t have any of your own, I’m not sure I can help.

24 replies »

  1. Great article. Can you point me to the source for your statistics on bail and sentencing and such? I might want to use those someday, and I want to be able to cite the source where they came from. Thanks.

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  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Standing up for our country and kneeling down to call it to be better than it is are both patriotic.

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  3. Thank you – even though I already feel humbled by what the football players are doing, I appreciated your call to make sure I really am asking “why” instead of just assuming that I know their motivations. A lot of the discussion on this issue has to do with pride – an idea that I’m finding myself more and more suspicious of and disconnected from. The very idea of having “pride” in one’s ancestry or history is the source of so much discord, with various groups accusing others of not having enough “respect”. I wish we simply learned about, admired, and tried to live up to the best ideals of our country and world instead of focusing on who is the most “proud” of them. Pride seems to somehow suggest that one can just sit down and be contented with the path that led up to your position in history, rather than continuing to strive for the best and most egalitarian future.

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  4. Right on the mark! Most of the progress in this country has been made when people used protest to expand the rights of those who have been marginalized. My family is proud of Colin Kaepernick and the NFL players who are leading this protest.

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  5. For those many, many white people I have heard comment that they “support the right of the protesters” but that such a display at an NFL game during the national anthem is “not the right time and place” for this expression, my response is this: What IS your idea of the right time and place for this expression of protest by people of color to the disproportionate discrimination, violence and sometimes death – often with the tacit or even overt complicity of the US legal system? Why not a venue for peaceful protest that reaches a large and perhaps sympathetic audience that might align with them to combat these injustices? Should they simply protest out of your line of sight or earshot? Would that be more appropriate to you?

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  6. Thank you. May I recommend Slavery By Another Name. That book more than anything brought home how systemic the racism is in the judicial system, indeed how institutional policing in America evolved from slave patrols. To quote our dear leader, “Who knew?”

    For white people who want to understand I suggest Speaking Treason Fluently which are bite size essays to help you understand the issues. Also by Tim Wise is White Like Me. I am white but grew up in black Buffalo. Despite living with injustice surrounding me, I didn’t understand these issues until I moved to Olympia. Two years ago two black kids were shot for shoplifting. It was totally unjustified. This incident led me to do research to understand more the context for the outrage. Also all of the police shootings.

    The footage is available. I don’t know how, say with Philando Castile, and others, that people can come to the conclusion he did anything wrong to get killed. It is willful blindness at this point. I have been waffling on football due to moral issues, notably the concussion one, but feel at this point, due to the protests, I will stick around. I don’t want to be seen as leaving due to protest. It was surreal to see Jerry Jones take the knee, and he was looking around all self satisfied afterwards, but I never thought I would see that happen. Even Rex Ryan, who I have no love for, was speaking out. Damn. Could this be a tipping point?

    Great essay Sean, great essay.

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  7. Great article, Sean. Well thought out as usual and I agree with your logic. Next question after “Why?”… “So what?” What is the desired outcome? Reparations? Respect? Increased representation? I don’t have any answers but I’m curious. What is the equality we seek? Equal opportunity or outcome? How many generations will be long enough or is that the wrong question? Do we really believe it doesn’t matter “who your father was” in this country?

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    • More history here from an Atlantic article. Books mentioned above are great but this is a more concise summary. I’m still left with the same question… So What? Coates seems to argue for a congressional study on reparations. (HR40) I’m not sure what that would accomplish other than more talk and ultimately more political division. In the current political environment, I also think reparations are unrealistic. What other options are there that would unite the country rather than divide it? Can the current political environment create a national leader that’s even capable of tackling the issue? Sadly, I am very pessimistic.

      https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/

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  8. Great, now balance the statistics with the black rates or crime, police contacts initiated by blacks, black-on-black crime rates, the decay of the black nuclear family, drug use and firearm possession and start over with what a black community might ought feel in the face of being a black community. But separately, since you’re into considering the plight of the oppressed, why not recite the history of oppression of women? It’s certainly a longer and more complex narrative than that of slavery in the USA.

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    • Sean has already blogged in support of women’s rights. But I get the distinct impression that this was not your point here.

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  9. If they feel that strongly, maybe they should quit football and go out on to the streets and preach to downtrowden black americans, how they too can have it all, through had work, sacrifice, and making the effort. No one is going to had it to them, like the football players. If not for the God give talent, they too would be hanging on corners doing nothing. Stop inciting people to riot for race. Teach them, as they have tired, in the same classrooms as white kids, to move on up. No one is going to hand you anything. YOu cannot run, cannot catch, cannot kick a football. You are just plain old Americans like the rest of us. Stop raising these sports figures into the millions and stop treating them like they are gods. Half of them can barely speak English, even though they were born here, educated here. Get over it.

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  10. Thanks for laying out the arguments in simple terms of curiousity. It is high time that we move past the spectacle and misplaced outrage to finally address the issues driving these leaders to protest.

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  11. Chris Rock, in one of his stand-ups, once compared the relationship between African-Americans and the USA to the relationship between a nephew and an uncle who paid for his college-education, but molested him as a child. Who decides how the nephew should feel?

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  12. What a rabbit hole.

    First,I appreciate your service.

    My initial feeling was: What an amazing country this is where people can express their thought and beliefs freely without persecution or punishment.

    My next feeling was a question: Is this the time and place for their protest?

    My next thought was: What are these players doing off the camera to help the cause and move the needle in the right direction? What example are they setting for people?

    If someone is intelligently committed to a cause and to having an impact and improving a situation, they are smart enough to identify the proper time and place to send a message, protest, whatever.

    I love the American Flag. The National Anthem. They are beautiful and sewn together by the sacrifice and bravery of men better than I will ever be. We are American, respect them both. Find a better-more productive way to voice your grievances.

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  13. You are certainly correct in your summary of a protest – If people don’t disagree or are not at least uncomfortable that it is not a protest.

    Your lynching stat from 1877-1950 of 3959 is likely a bit high. It come from Equal Justice Initiative and is about 400-500 higher than anyone else has claimed (still a very high number) note about 25% of these are blacks lynching blacks. Also in that period there were 1200+ whites that were lynched. Certainly a high percentages of the black lynchings were the result of racism, but in this period lynching was seen as a punishment for crime. Unconstitutional yes, racist not necessary.

    The real question is not how we feel about the protest – but how to correct the problems. Most the the protestors have no solution and those that do have no understanding of the further damage their ideas will cause

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