Every year on Martin Luther King Day, I see quotations by Dr. King on Facebook, and I have to wonder how many of them were grabbed from Goodreads or Brainy Quote and plastered on a picture. It’s almost as white people were saying, “See, I get it.”
And then I see memes like this on Facebook from the Saints’ loss on Sunday:
As if seeing a black man kneeling in protest of injustice is personally offensive. As if men kneeling in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick personally hurt their family or their livelihoods instead of just hurting their feelings. Rather than digging into the reasons why they kneeled, people shouted that they were boycotting the NFL. Boycotting so hard, I imagine, that they are STILL watching play-off games and will STILL watch the Superbowl.
What’s interesting to me is that I haven’t heard a peep about those who don’t have their hands over their hearts, like in this photo. Just maybe it’s not about disrespect at all.
Even if Kaepernick were operating from a flawed perspective (something which I do NOT believe), American “patriots” should be celebrating the fact that he was countering the perceived injustice with non-violent protest. He wasn’t perpetrating violence. He wasn’t looting or rioting or demonstrating Hulk-like rage. Instead, he protested non-violently. He was kneeling. He wasn’t even burning a flag. Rather than celebrating the fact that he was exercising his Constitutional right non-violently (Why hello there, so-called Constitutionalists!), white people felt personally offended that he knelt for the national anthem before our flag.
I’ve seen white people praise Martin Luther King, Jr., and yet curse Kaepernick, who is literally doing what Dr. King exemplified: protesting non-violently.
Because it’s something they didn’t like. Is it because they feel that First Amendment rights only belong to some Americans? Or is it that some people—white people—feel that they have the right to dictate how others should protest? “That’s so disrespectful,” I’ve heard. “There’s a time and a place for protesting, and this isn’t it.” If this isn’t the time or the place—at a football game with a national audience—when IS the right time and place? In a back alley somewhere where no one would see it? Would that make white people more comfortable?
Protest is supposed to make people uncomfortable. It’s supposed to disrupt the status quo. It’s supposed to start discussions and create awareness and spark change.
Maybe it’s because some people feel that they have the right to impose their values on others, that they have the right to tell others what they should care about. That’s the essence of “Whataboutism.” When someone protests police-on-black violence, someone unfailingly brings up unvetted statistics on black-on-black crime. “But what about…?” It’s an exercise in misdirection (let’s focus on this and not that) and attempted control (YOU should care more about this than that.)
It doesn’t address the reason for the protest. Which is, in case anyone has forgotten, that police have perpetrated violence against non-violent black citizens. Instead of shooting only in the case of self-defense, police are murdering black people who a) don’t pose imminent threat to life or person and b) people who have not been found guilty by a jury of their peers.
Not only are they being killed, but they’re also being robbed of due process which is a Constitutional right. (Why hello again, so-called Constitutionalists!)
Lots of white people are more upset about the perceived disrespect of football players than the murder of non-violent black alleged offenders.
Is it because we’re intellectually lazy? Sure, it’s easier to think in black and white—literally. It’s easier to allow outrage (at perceived slights to what a symbol means to us) to control us than it is to examine—objectively and dispassionately—the catalyst that created the need for a protest to begin with. Which, again, I’ll state for the record, is the killing of black people by persons of authority.
For whatever reason, some white folks chose to be offended. Because of the perception of an action without the examination of its root cause. Because of disrespect to a symbol. And not just a symbol, but the white perception of a symbol. And for that, they wanted to silence Kaepernick, and all of those who took the knee with him. They didn’t want to see someone disrespecting a symbol of what this country means to them, but especially a black man’s so-called disrespect. Cause that’s uppity, amirite?
It’s easier to subscribe to absolutism. Black and white, wrong and right, especially when offended sensibilities are, by default, right. It’s easier to pull in all sorts of arguments and “whataboutism” than actually face the possibility—just the possibility—that maybe Kaepernick’s reason for kneeling was sound.
“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” This is directly from Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail.”(1)
It’s one of the most powerful pieces of writing I have ever read. I first came in contact with it in a philosophy class, my first class back in college after a decades-long “break.” We studied pieces of writing, brilliant, complicated pieces of writing, and I fell in love with the school experience all over again. We read selections from Plato, Hume, Aquinas, and Heraclitus. We studied Locke, Paley, and William James.
But it was Dr. King’s “Letter” that haunted me.
“My Dear Fellow Clergymen,” it begins. His intended audience isn’t political leaders, or even his fellow black Americans for whom he marched. It was other ministers, predominantly white, and he called them out.
He called them out—those who dismissed protesters they saw as “rabble-rousers” who were actually “working through the channels of nonviolent direct actions.” He held responsible those who continued to dismiss nonviolent protesters and who “refuse[d] to support our nonviolent efforts,” for the “millions of Negroes, out of frustration and despair” that would “seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies, a development that will lead inevitably to a frightening racial nightmare.” (1)
When people who are trying desperately to be heard and white Americans dismiss their protest as “disrespectful” or “inconvenient,” who truly holds responsibility when actions escalate? Those who are desperate to be heard, or those in power who refuse to hear? When non-violent means of protest fail, when those who protest are arrested and their voices are silenced, actions to be heard will escalate.
Because voices have yet to be heard, and reasons have yet to be examined.
Those of us who are white must be willing to admit that maybe, just maybe, everyone does not see the same events in a similar light, and that maybe, just maybe, our perception of events isn’t the only one that matters. We must allow for the possibility that we could be wrong.
Many of us like to wave flags and judge each other by the level of our patriotism. What is our nation if not our people? What are we supposed to be loyal to? What are we supposed to be patriotic about?
Our borders? Lines drawn on a map? Our economic output?
The foundation—the very essence—of a church is its people. Not its building or its property. If there are no people, then it becomes a landmark from which people give directions. “Turn right at the old church.”
It is the same for our country. It is the people. All the people. Not just the ones that look like us or think like us. If our nation is not its people, then it becomes something flat and useless on a map. “Turn left at that land mass between Canada and Mexico.”
I hold the belief that you cannot—you absolutely CANNOT—love America but loathe its people.
You cannot allow for due process for some but keep it from others. You cannot regard those who agree with you as “patriots” and dismiss those who do not as “losers.”
To make a building great, you must first focus on the foundation and build from there. You cannot place the top of a skyscraper without first addressing its structure. You cannot build greatness upon a foundation which has been corrupted. We must examine our foundation; we must must learn to look with an objective eye and address the issues that make our foundation unsound.
We must reset our foundation.
Dr. King wrote wrote of the
“white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which 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 actions of direct action’; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advised the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’” (1)
If the foundation of our country is not justice, then we fall. Those of us who are white must face our discomfort; we must shift our focus from perceived slights to actual injustice. We cannot live “by the myth of time” and say, “Let’s wait for a more appropriate time and place.”
“It has to start somewhere It has to start sometime
What better place than here, what better time than now?” (3)
We cannot prefer an absence of tension to the presence of justice. Because there is no absence of tension. There is always tension. Those of us who are white just have the privilege of turning a blind eye to it.
We must reset our foundation in order to “hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” (2)
Otherwise our country is just another building, serving as–not just a signpost–but a warning to others.
[Image Credit: Karma meme from Facebook.
Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid ABC.News.Go
Smaller image of Kaepernick and Reid via Jersey Girl Sports (Post removed)
Warning Drowning via Textures.com. ]
(1) “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail.” Entire text can be read here.
(2) Declaration of Independence. Entire text can be read here.