For the second week in a row many NFL players opted to kneel rather than stand, or otherwise used the pre-game anthem ceremony as a way to lodge a protest a against police treatment of African Americans and to racism in America more broadly. These protests and gestures have now spread to the collegiate and high school levels as well. The loudest and most obnoxious voice against these protests has belonged to Donald Trump, who has attacked African American athletes as a way both to appeal to his racist base and to draw some attention away from his administration’s abject failure to pass any significant legislation, corruption and the ongoing questions about how closely his campaign collaborated with a hostile foreign power.
Trump’s criticism of these football players and other athletes has been cleaned up, phrased more delicately and expressed more articulately by numerous conservative pundits and political thinkers. Most have argued that while football players have a right to protest, they should find a way to do this that does not involve disrespecting the flag or the anthem. This is a polite way of telling the football players to shut up, stand up and play ball.
Demanding that people respect national symbols, including flags and songs, is the stuff of authoritarian regimes, not democracies. We all respect the individuals who have sacrificed through military service, but the flag and anthem stand for much more than that. Moreover, exercising your rights as an American is precisely how to honor those who, in some cases, fought and died to preserve those rights. Respect in general, is always earned. If it is simply given on command, is rarely sincere. Demanding respect is what the bully does to the weaker kid on the playground. It is what happens in the military where there is a hierarchy of command. It is not how free and equal citizens interact with each other in a democracy. If some people feel that peacefully, and quietly, protesting during the national anthem is disrespectful, that is their problem, not the problem of those lawfully exercising their constitutional rights.
There is another, more explicitly racist, dynamic that is occurring here as well. African American football players are told they shouldn’t protest because they are successful. According to this argument, America has been good to them so they should just play ball and keep their politics to themselves. This is an absurd and racist argument for many reasons. First, white people are not held to that standard. Most obviously, the current occupant of the White House is a rich man, albeit one who inherited rather than earned his money, who has spent the last two years seeking to undermine the country through his words and acts. If you have a problem with ungrateful rich people, there is no better place to start than Donald Trump.
This kind of thinking also strips African Americans of their voice in politics. If high profile African Americans in sports, entertainment, business or other areas should not speak out because they have done well in our system, despite its racism, who from the African American population should? If those who have the biggest platforms are told they cannot use them, than African Americans generally, are less likely to be heard. Moreover, suggesting that African Americans, uniquely among citizens of the US, should be so grateful to have achieved something that they should not protest against racism, or anything else, is both infantilizing and racist.
Critics of these football player should pause a minute from advising African Americans about the appropriate and inappropriate ways of protest and reflect on how extraordinary it is that African American football players are so patriotic that their protests during the anthem have been peaceful, solemn, and dare I say it, very respectful. Moreover, the gesture they are making indicates a belief in the promise of the US, despite the centuries of African American history suggesting that promise has always been aspirational at best.
Respect between equals must be reciprocal, but we have not seen that from Trump or even the more mature conservative critics of the NFL protesters. Instead, we, and the protesters themselves, have been given pious comments indicating how much has been accomplished on racial equality in America because occasionally a white police officer gets convicted for shooting an unarmed African American youth and because one of our 45 presidents was African American. Meanwhile these same conservative pundits participate in conversations online, in print and on television about whether Donald Trump, who is only half a step away from turning the White House linen into a costume for his next Alabama rally, is indeed a white supremacist.
At a moment where racism is threatening our country anew and where racists feel emboldened by an ally in the White House, this new form of protest has emerged. The response from much of the right underscores how divided we remain, how far we are from solving any of these problems and that for too many Americans respect still is something white people demand, on their terms, to be shown by African Americans.