I had an extended FB exchange about kneeling athletes with people I know well. All good men in their 30s and 40s. One of them had posted a photo of several people, hands over hearts, saluting a flag while in front of them President Obama stood without his hand over his heart. Next to it was another photo of kneeling football players, all black. The caption was, “This is where it started.” My response was, “Yes, it started with a black president and black athletes.” It did not go down well.
It was eventually a productive exchange. Mutual listening took place, but it got off to a rocky start. The issue, they said, is about unpatriotic disrespect for the flag and nothing else. To suggest that racism or issues of racial injustice have anything to do with it is personally offensive, and ignores how deeply important respect for the flag is to them. Quit trying to change the subject, they said. It’s about respecting the flag, that’s all.
Of course patriotically honoring the flag is not what it’s all about. Race, racism and racially motivated systemic injustice is at the core of the matter. Kneeling in protest upset a social norm that offered a momentary appearance of unity before the game. Was standing for the anthem a genuine show of patriotism? For some, yes. For most I suspect it was an absentmindedly observed social ritual? Either way, upsetting it illuminated the uncomfortable reality that a significant portion of the population still doesn’t enjoy all the freedoms symbolized by the flag and anthem. Whose fault is that? Obviously, if blacks are protesting, it must be whites who are guilty, and no one likes accusations of guilt thrown at them in a public arena supposedly free of that sort of thing.
Unwilling and unable to admit the validity of the protest, for them it had to be about disrespecting the flag, and only about disrespecting the flag. To admit anything else would be to admit there is something seriously unjust in the way many Americans are treated by the justice system. To admit that would mean having to pay attention to people we don’t want to pay attention to. It would mean having to examine our own share of responsibility, and if we are honest, admitting that so call white advantage is a real thing. A thing we don’t want to admit we have, don’t want to give up, yet know has to go anyway. It’s better to pretend it doesn’t exist, and stick with patriotism. Add a little self righteous anger at overpaid, privileged players, and the book is closed.
Hotheaded liberal response on social media, mostly from hotheaded white liberals, as been epitomized by broadsides of equally inflexible vehemence, accusations, uncharitable commentary on character and pedigree, sometimes ending with a token shot at a coherent argument. It’s an effective tactic for cementing the other side in their conviction that they were right all along. Radical liberals are out to destroy everything good about America, starting with the flag and anybody who is patriotic.
I’d like to offer Country Parson’s Miracle Elixir guaranteed to open doors to a national conversation of a more adult nature. I don’t have one. Given the current administration, it seems unlikely anyone else does either. Maybe the best we can do is to continue exchanges in small groups, by whatever means, where established mutual respect creates opportunity for mutual listening to take place.