Can’t we be trusted to express ourselves?
Below, you’ll find a letter we wrote one year ago to the editor of The New York Times. Then (as now) Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protests had caught the attention of the nation’s media. At the time, the growing popularity of Kaepernick’s protest prompted Times commentator David Brooks to pen a column entitled, “The Uses of Patriotism.” Brooks’ column remains one of the most succinct expressions of the bizarre notion that protests against injustice are somehow counter to the goal of righting injustice.
Our letter went unpublished. However, as the 2017 NFL season begins, our message remains relevant. Colin Kaepernick still doesn’t have a team, despite evidence that players of his talent are almost always signed at this point in the season.
Unfortunately, we shouldn’t be that surprised. Protests against the continued injustice that America visits upon Black people have always been described using the same narrative. The actors may change, the policies up for discussion may shift, but America’s reaction to protest remains largely the same.
So long as Black people suffer from the deprivations of a racist society, there will be activists who call for justice. So long as their protests call attention to the ills of racism in our nation’s continuing history, there will be voices standing at the ready to tell them to protest differently, to be less vocal, to give it a bit more time, to wait.
The centuries-old lifetime of this national conversation means that our letter, while a year old, arrives just in time.
Last Friday’s David Brooks column purported to offer advice to the diverse group of high school football players who have adopted Colin Kaepernick’s ongoing national anthem protest. Mr. Brooks stated that he considers their gestures “extremely counterproductive,” and went on to provide historical context for his opposition to their actions.
By Mr. Brooks’ account, the original efforts of America’s European settlers were fueled by a desire to create a “good and just society” built on a “civic religion” of “radical hope and radical self-criticism.” Despite its appeal to history, Mr. Brooks’ critique differs little from many of the less sophisticated arguments against Mr. Kaepernick’s act of defiance.
Brooks’ description of settlers who “put intense moral pressure on themselves” fails to account for any of the horrors inflicted upon the millions of people that already inhabited this land. His portrayal of our civic religion’s “moral premise – that all men are created equal” casts aside over 400 combined years of American slavery, discrimination, and institutionalized racism.
By passing over the darker periods of our nation’s history, Mr. Brooks did not consider the factors that might compel Mr. Kaepernick and others to protest. In his condemnation of these acts, he similarly fails to recognize the passionate exercise of one of our nation’s most dearly held Constitutional rights. Instead, he considers these gestures impious and unpatriotic.
According to Mr. Brooks, the actions of Mr. Kaepernick and those he has inspired risk making others “less likely to feel that you are part of their story.” Yet, the viewpoints of Americans like the Woodrow Wilson High School football team (as featured in the column’s accompanying image) are left out of Mr. Brooks’ consideration. Theirs is a viewpoint borne of the struggle to succeed in one of America’s poorest and most dangerous cities.
Thankfully, these young men and their peers nationwide are no longer subject to the barbarism of slavery and Jim Crow. They are, however, subject to new, pervasive forms of marginalization. The parallel hazards of housing and employment discrimination, mass incarceration, and the ongoing threat of murder by law enforcement officers demonstrate that they are not yet equal parties to Brooks’ American story.
Without these considerations, Mr. Brooks’ column becomes yet another high-profile example of a long-running tendency by some Americans to silence those who seek social justice. In an attempt to distinguish his argument from this worrying history, Brooks points to Martin Luther King’s own piety before the altar of our “civic religion.” In doing so, he neglects to mention that Dr. King’s efforts were once characterized as “extremely counterproductive.” In contemporary polling, 85 percent of white Americans felt that peaceful protests like Freedom Rides, sit-ins, and marches were “hurting” the cause of civil rights.
We submit that the young men of Camden, Colin Kaepernick, and countless other peaceful protesters of this era have engaged in forms of dissent that reflect the finest traditions of our nation. Yet, in the years since the deaths of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, such protesters have been told not to disrupt, not to inconvenience, and not to make too much noise lest they alienate fence-sitters. It now appears that even silent dissent produces an unacceptable level of discomfort.
These gestures should be welcomed, their value acknowledged, and their intent discussed. Mr. Brook’ argument, like many before it, distracts from the meaning of these protests; a desire to draw attention to the inarguable and inexcusable maltreatment of black people in America.
We reject Mr. Brooks’ account of America’s story. Our America cherishes righteous dissent and her story has been, and will continue to be, written by the patriots who demand equity in the face of injustice.
This is the American story we know. This is the civic religion to which we pray daily.