Monday, September 25, 2017

A Divisive and Self-Defeating Protest

Over the last couple of days I’ve found myself in a few debates on social media over the protest by professional athletes, primarily NFL football players, who have “taken a knee,” stayed off the field or sat during the national anthem. I’ve outraged some of my more liberal or leftist online friends for not following the popular, politically correct line of supporting the players. Before I launch into that let me start with the points where I agree with those to my political left:
  • Racism is a problem in the United States. It always has been.
  • President Trump’s 2016 campaign exploited the many divisions in our country including the racial divide. His statements and tweets as President have continued to sew division.
  • Right wing extremists, including white supremacists, have taken the election of President Trump as vindication and justification of their racist views. Racism has become socially acceptable again after decades where that wasn’t true. The racism was always there. Now it’s out in the open again.
  • Law enforcement and the criminal justice system, like any other large group of people, have proverbial bad apples among them including racists. African-Americans suffer mistreatment at the hands of police in disproportionate numbers. This includes black people who have been killed and clearly should not have been.
Colin Kaepernick’s original protest, when he was the first to “take a knee” as a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, was a protest against what he sees as unjustified police shootings and killings of African-Americans. People in the black community and most on the political left support him. Many on the right were and are outraged. Kaepernick found himself without a contract this year. An NPR News story put it this way:
"This season, no team has signed him, and some supporters believe NFL owners are avoiding him because of the controversy."
In football terms this is the equivalent of being fired, which is what President Trump, during a speech in Alabama and in subsequent tweets, suggested should happen to all athletes who are disrespectful of the flag and the national anthem. I’ll admit freely that I thought precisely the same thing even before he said it. The difference is that I am not the President of the United States and my impact when I do speak out is minimal. President Trump’s statements once again exploited and expanded on the deep divisions in our country in a way almost nobody else can.

Most Americans take great pride in this country. Those who do, myself included, see the symbols of this nation, our flag and our national anthem included, as almost sacred. That sort of nationalism or patriotism is a positive thing. For me it’s part of my gratitude for the opportunities my parents, both legal immigrants, both Holocaust survivors, were given here. Their life story is an example of the American dream. They came here with next to nothing, worked hard, were successful, and built a very good life for themselves and their children. Very few countries in the world offer that level of opportunity. So, yes, when the country as a whole is disrespected it bothers me no end.

Let’s also take a look at the protesters. Professional athletes earn hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars a year. They are highly privileged individuals regardless of the color of their skin. They are wealthy and successful in ways most Americans can only dream about. Yes, that includes most white Americans. These are not victims of oppression. Is it any wonder both the style of protest and who the protesters are breeds resentment?

For my part daring to speak out against these protests has led to accusations of racism on my part. I’ve been told I would not have supported Rosa Parks because she offended the segregationists of the day. In addition to being incredibly insulting it’s a ridiculous statement. Rosa Parks’ act of peaceful civil disobedience struck directly at segregation and the racism behind it.

The Jim Crow laws, including the one Rosa Parks protested, no longer exist. At least in law, and to some significant degree in daily life, the civil rights protests of the 1950s through the 1970s were successful. We are not the same country today. Yet some on the left insist we are still a “white supremacist country” and act like no progress was made. Didn’t we have an African-American President for eight years?

50-75 years ago the opportunities that the NFL players and other athletes have were closed off to African-Americans. They were excluded. American professional sports before Jackie Robinson was a whites only affair. These protests would have been impossible. They are possible today precisely because of the successes of the civil rights movement.

I’ll agree when people say that the struggle for civil rights is not over. I’ll agree if they say more needs to be done. We are nowhere near reaching racial equality as a society. What I will not agree with is the hyperbole of the left that condemns the country as a whole as racist. I also will not agree with protests that attack the institutions and symbols of our country, in effect attacking the country as a whole.

As NPR reported NFL players are anything but unified on this. While most of the Pittsburgh Steelers stayed in their clubhouse during the anthem one,
“Army veteran Alejandro Villanueva, ventured out of the tunnel and placed his hand over his heart during the singing of the anthem.”
From what I am seeing online veterans and those serving in the armed forces are among those who are most offended by these protests.

My point, which my friends on the left entirely miss, is that most of the country is moderate in their views. Most people really aren’t hateful racists. A protest, no matter how well justified, won’t make haters stop hating. However, a protest that offends many who don’t hate will drive natural allies and supporters away. I’m not opposed to peaceful protest in any way. The athletes certainly have a First Amendment right to speak out. That isn’t in question. The problem is that this particular protest offends many of the very people that need to be reached to bring about change. This particular set of protests is self-defeating.

These protests do nothing to help raise awareness of a real issue which exists in law enforcement which needs to be addressed. They do nothing to rally support for changes which are needed. They do not open much needed dialogue. They do not promote racial justice in any way. Rather, these protests damage the chances for real change and real reform. They deepen divisions. The protests buttresses President Trump and those like him who seek to exploit the racial divide in this country.