Our opinion: Don't jump into the fiery ditch lit by the president

For many of us who tuned into watch the NFL this weekend, the discussion about statistics and percentages and quarterback ratings never got off the ground because we were too busy arguing about whether athletes who refused to stand for the Star Spangled Banner were being disrespectful to the flag, the song and those who served, were wounded or died while in uniform.

You know the background. It started with Colin Kaepernick's sideline protest over the treatment of African Americans at the hands of law enforcement. For the past year, his actions and those of a handful of other football players has kept the discussion simmering, but it wasn't until the man in the Oval Office went on a Twitter rampage did it all boil over. Needless to say, his proclamations did nothing to clarify our long-running debate about injustice and inequity in our systems and institutions and the implicit bias we all have, despite our protestations otherwise. So, lacking a president who can unify the nation and draw us forward toward equality for all, it's up to us, the ordinary Americans, to take a stand or a knee, if we find it appropriate.

And there's the rub — the president has dug a deep ditch down the middle of the heart of America, filled it with incendiary rhetoric and set it afire with his unhinged declarations, leaving no common ground where agreement can be reached.

As John Pavlovitz writes, we have watched with dismay as many Americans — mostly of a European ethnicity — have lost their minds in response to Kaepernick and other NFL player's peaceful National Anthem protests. "I've seen them question these young men's patriotism, malign their motives, attack their methods, and treat them with the kind of open contempt usually reserved for serial killers and child molesters." And what is this horrible message these "contemptuous and privileged" athletes are seeking to convey? "An effort to foster a conversation about the deaths of young men of color at the hands of police ..." writes Pavlovitz.

Instead of stepping back, taking a big breath and considering for even a few seconds that these men have a valid point, too many white Americans have gladly leapt into the ditch of fire lit by the president and fanned by his enablers, his sycophants and the opportunists hoping to return the nation to its pre-FDR robber baron days.

As Pavlovitz noted, maybe institutional racism is real and maybe Kaepernick and others are worth listening to. "White friends," he writes, "if your immediate response to the shooting of a man or woman of color is to try and justify why he or she is dead instead of asking why they were shot, you may be the problem here. If you're more comfortable calling out kneeling football players than marching Nazis with torches, you may want to ask why that is. If you're more incensed by a black reporter's assertion that the president is a supremacist, than the fact that he is endorsed by supremacists, I'd look at that very carefully."

But, more importantly, he writes, "If you aren't greatly burdened with grief for the families of people of color and you aren't moved with compassion for the way scenes of their premature passing repeatedly kick people of color in the gut — you need to ask yourself some difficult questions about your own patriotism, your own appreciation of freedom, your own civic responsibility. You need to ask yourself whether you're really for Liberty — or just white comfort."

And, as Conor Friedersdorf, writing for The Atlantic noted, kneeling for life and liberty is historically patriotic. Allegiance to the founding principles of our nation is what defines a patriotic American, not whether he or she stands or kneels while an anthem about the flag is performed, writes Friedersdorf.

Just for a moment, asks Friedersdorf, consider what these athletes are doing: "[They] are pledging their honor and risking their fortunes in political protest ... They are kneeling in an effort to defend the very core of the Declaration of Independence. No political act is more patriotic than petitioning government for that purpose.

If you are able to forgive the founding fathers for their imperfections "of owning slaves while advancing life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," notes Friedersdorf, "but [find it] hard to forgive young black men for merely kneeling while they try to advance life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in their time ... [your] double standard is indefensible."

What has been lost in this national argument over First Amendment rights and respect for the flag, the anthem and veterans is the reason Kaepernick first refused to stand for the Star Bangled Banner — the unjustified deaths of minority citizens like Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, and, most recently, Magdiel Sanchez.

Instead of demonizing Colin Kaepernick and instead of blaming shooting victims, notes Pavlovitz, and instead of shouting down our brothers and sisters of color as they mourn — we should be listening to them. "We should be digging deeper and facing our own acquired blind spots and inherited prejudices, and acknowledging the deeply embedded privilege that makes those things so very difficult to assess on our own. We should stop defending songs and flags and pre-game ceremonies, and some cheap, ornamental nationalistic pageantry — and actually be about the work of life and liberty those things are all supposed to point to. We should be binding-up wounds instead of people of color, instead of heaping on the salt of shame and disdain."

We are not asking our fellow Americans to kneel in solidarity with these athletes and risk the wrath of their neighbors, but we are asking them to ignore the flame-breathing of our dragon-in-chief and take a moment to consider that these men deserve to be heard and that their method of protest is not unprecedented.


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