Over the past several days, progressives have been having a variety of frustrating arguments, not only with conservatives and Trump supporters who are wrapping themselves in the flag and the anthem in an attempt to ignore black people’s civil rights, but with white moderates who profess to support black lives, but who find the temperature of the debate troubling.
Here are some good ways to think about the debate and respond.
Focus relentlessly on policy
As I’ve written previously, our politics constantly tries to draw our attention to surface-level issues such as the nature of a protest or athletes’ free speech rights instead of what’s actually being protested — in this case police brutality, mass incarceration and policies that make it harder for black people to vote. Take sports journalist Nick Wright’s lead, break down those excuses, and stay focused on policy.
We should also take Rev. Dr. Barber’s advice and refuse to be drawn into a debate about whether or not someone is personally racist. Racists have all kinds of dodges and labels they will use to hide their racism (e.g. the “alt-right”). It’s better to debate the racist outcomes of the policies they support instead. If someone is okay with the Republican party making it harder for black people to vote, for instance, their protests that they aren’t personally racist certainly ring hollow.
Finally, remind people that Black Lives Matter has a robust policy agenda. Challenge them to debate that on its merits rather than engage in sophistry about the nature of a protest. And if they’re actually engaging, ask them to think about why that policy agenda never makes it into the coverage of Black Lives Matter protests on Fox News or why Presidnet Trump never mentions what they’re actually fighting for.
Make haters own and regret their arguments or at least learn that their views are embarrassing to share
There are plenty of excuses floating around for ignoring these protests. Here are a few quick responses that expose the vapidness of these arguments.
The players are rich and successful and should be grateful. Actually, NFL players only get to play for a few years if they’re lucky and often suffer brain damage, which the league hid from the public. Are there any poor black civil rights activists you’d listen to instead? Nope? Then maybe you’re just finding a roundabout way of calling black people uppity.
They’re disrespecting the flag. No, they’re not. Colin Kapernick started taking a knee because a veteran suggested it would be a respectful way to protest. Here’s some black people respecting the flag by fighting for it. Do you think we should honor them by fighting for black people’s rights here at home?
But they shouldn’t protest during the anthem. Oh…your problem is with WHEN civil rights activists in the NFL are doing their activism. Can you lay out what time, specifically, is good for you to care about black people’s rights? Or maybe it’s the case that your personal preferences for how a protest is done are less important than what’s being protested.
But I’m super offended that they’re disrespecting the flag and anthem and I have the right to express my opinion. Well, you CHOOSING to be offended is YOUR PROBLEM. The athletes have been 100% clear that their protest is about making our country live up to its democratic ideals. Veterans have endorsed their protest, too. So if you refuse to listen to black athletes who are actually doing the protest, that’s YOUR FAULT, not theirs.
Listen to Bruce Maxwell, the first MLB player to #TakeAKnee.
“The point of my kneeling was not to disrespect our military or our constitution or our country,” Maxwell said. “My hand was over my heart because I love this country and I have family members, including my father, who bled for this country, and who continue to serve. At the end of the day, this is the best country on the planet. I am and forever will be an American citizen and grateful to be here, but my kneeling is what’s getting the attention, and I’m kneeling for the people who don’t have a voice.
“This goes beyond the black and Hispanic communities because right now we have a racial divide that’s being practiced from the highest power we have in this country saying it’s basically OK to treat people differently. I’m kneeling for a cause but I’m in no way disrespecting my country or my flag.”
Or listen to Jackie Robinson, a veteran and the first black MLB player, and what he said about the anthem.
There I was, the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people. The air was sparkling. The sunlight was warm. The band struck up the national anthem. The flag billowed in the wind. It should have been a glorious moment for me as the stirring words of the national anthem poured from the stands. Perhaps, it was, but then again, perhaps, the anthem could be called the theme song for a drama called The Noble Experiment. Today, as I look back on that opening game of my first world series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey’s drama and that I was only a principal actor. As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.
Your complaints and your feelings do not cancel out their arguments — it just shows that you’re not listening.
That’s it, I’m done with the NFL and am boycotting their games also I’m going to burn my season tickets. Huh…it’s almost like you’re saying protesting something is an effective way to get your point across. Anyway, there’s already a civil rights boycott of the NFL, so I’m sure those folks are happy to have your support!
Uhhh…uhhh…Chicago! Black on black crime! You have no idea what you’re talking about. Black Lives Matter Chicago is fighting systemic racism, including police brutality and the conditions that lead to violence within black communities. Maybe you should listen to black people doing the work instead of conservative propaganda about their beliefs and actions.
The people making this argument have probably never thought about why it exists. It perpetuates myths about being black and being violent, for sure. After all, the same people who bemoan black-on-black crime never talk about all that white-on-white crime. It also confuses violence between people with violence from police forces, thus tricking the listener into forgetting why the protests started in the first place.
A little history goes a long way
American history is often passed on to us as a series of comforting lies, culminating in Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks solving racism forever sometime in the mid-60s.
But racism thrives because history and economics and consequences are more important than the myths we tell ourselves. Never the less, people are drawn to denying our racist history. So I often remind myself and others that the last Civil War veteran died in 1956.
That’s not a typo. My mother was born BEFORE the last Civil War veteran died! One year later, President Eisenhower sent in the National Guard to desegregate a public school. The Little Rock Nine are the same age as many of our moms and dads. They’re alive today and still active in the civil rights movement, too.
Meanwhile, redlining and housing discrimination against black people continues to this day. In a country where one’s ability to invest in a home is the number one tax break the average person gets, that kind of systemic racism obviously holds people back and contributes to injustice. And we’ve compounded that racial discrimination through a broken criminal justice system and denying black people a voice in our politics. A court recently struck down a Republican backed law in North Caroline that made it harder for black people to vote, noting it targeted black people “with almost surgical precision.” That’s happening now, in 2017.
This isn’t just history or even recent history. This is living history!
Of course, white people often defensively talk about their own struggles, too, to downplay the racial element of injustice. I always say…yeah, we’ve all suffered. We live in an unjust society. Now imagine going through all that in black skin. Harder, right? Imagine going through all that and your great-grandparents were literally someone’s property and your parents and grandparents were constantly denied the opportunity to build wealth and exercise their freedom. Maybe we’d all be better served by recognizing our shared suffering and helping our country become a better, more just place to live! And importantly for working class and working poor white people — we have to recognize that our struggle is shared with our black neighbors and that solidarity works in everyone’s favor.
And going back to the national anthem itself - it literally contains a verse we don’t sing about killing “hirelings and slaves,” a reference to British forces conscripting enslaved people to fight in the War of 1812 against the government that enslaved them. Not until the Civil War would enslaved black men be given the chance to fight for their government AND their freedom.
Get white moderates off the sidelines
Protests make some white moderates and white liberals uncomfortable. GOOD. That’s the point of a protest. A lot of people unfamiliar with civil rights actions don’t get this. They think politics is what’s popular. But politics is about choosing sides in disputes and fighting for power.
The March on Washington and other civil rights protests were unpopular in their time.
But they won. So it’s only in retrospect that we celebrate MLK and the march organizers.
Today, Black Lives Matter activists are asking white moderates to get off the sidelines. To fight together for justice. To put our white bodies on the front lines with their black bodies — to work together to fight for the poor, the working class, and everyone who is denied justice in our democracy, especially our black neighbors.
They are echoing the words of Dr. King, who wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail:
“First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is 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 methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”
The point of a protest — the point of any political action — is to make our choices clear. There is no perfect protest. There is no good protest that does not provoke and force us to take sides.
So take sides.
Whatever you think you would have done in 1963, whatever side you would have taken, that’s what you are doing right now.
Get off the sidelines. Get on the right side of history.