An African-American football player, a professional making more money in a year than many will make in their lifetimes, kneels during the National Anthem before a game. (As someone who has stood on the field holding the national colors while the band played The Star-Spangled Banner, jet fighters roaring overhead, and watching 65,000 people stare at the red-white-and-blue on the end of the staff I was holding, I can tell you that it is easy to forget we all got together to watch twenty-two men play football.) This player’s kneeling creates seismic convulsions on social media. Somehow his income is seen among those who revile him as cause to negate his right to protest. He is protesting the shooting, usually killing, of unarmed black men by police officers, most of whom are later acquitted or never tried. He is compared to Tommie Smith and John Carlos, captured forever in a picture from the 1968 Olympics, the pairing raising Black Power Fists on the medal podium. Like them, he is accused of unpatriotic behavior.
The anthem joins us as a nation. Right? The inference is that, really, we all are equal under the law. Our anthem celebrates the courage of people fighting for freedom for themselves, even as slavery was legal in the country where the battle raged.
So how come white people are not dying at the same rate as black people when pulled over for motor vehicle violations? (There are studies on racial bias that, on first blush, can suggest my question overreaches. Read the data, analysis, and all the findings on the link at the Harvard Law and Review website before deciding.) How is it that African American men are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites, that the imprisonment rate for African American women is twice that of white women? Why, according to this study from 2017, is the median net worth of a black family in this country sitting at $11,000 and that of the median white family holding at $134,000?
I grew up in the suburbs of middle Georgia, coming of age in the late 1970’s. The smoke from the Civil Rights movement had cleared. No riots, no marches, no protests. Status quo ante. The nicest and most-revered buildings in the largest, nearest town – Macon – were icons of the Civil War. The smoke from that war never cleared. Until I entered the US Army, the great American homogenization machine, I thought nothing of white people in circles absent anyone of color using what we now rightfully call “the N-word” in polite conversation. The “stars-and-bars” (aka the Confederate flag) was, and is, ubiquitous throughout the region I call my birthplace. I went to high school, played football, went to college, and trained in the Army as an ROTC cadet in fully integrated settings.
Everything was cool.
I was in charge of a tank platoon on the then East-West German border in 1985, and it was then, through an exchange with an African American sergeant under my authority, that I received my most memorable block of instruction regarding race relations. I commented that I might fly a Confederate flag from one of the antennae of my tank, a distinctive marker so that my guys could find me quickly if necessary. The exchange lasted less than a minute. We were standing in the motor pool, lines of tanks parked in perfect rows, about to do weekly maintenance. The Soviet Forces of East Germany were a 30-minute drive from us. That made us feel important, being a speed bump should the war start and the hordes pour through the Fulda Gap. The black staff sergeant who heard me make this comment about the flag fixed me with a look of pain, anger, and frustration. “Don’t do that,” he said. “Don’t ever do that.”
Dumb as a mud fence, I asked, “Why?”
“Are you kidding, sir?” He waited. “Do you not know what that flag means?” Other men in my platoon of sixteen – consisting of many races and ethnicities – stopped what they were doing to listen. I felt like God’s own spotlight shined down on me. I knew my next sentence would define me forever in their minds. Was their leader a racist? I had not in my twenty-three years on the planet ever been confronted with the reality of that flag – the enemy’s flag – from the bloodiest war our nation ever fought.
“I’m sorry,” I replied. “I did not realize…” My sentence trailed off. I was the naked emperor. I had walked down a life without anyone, any credible person, ever pointing out that things I took for granted were seen as reprehensible by the rest of the world, except those who felt history was more important than progress.
Thirty years later, I can recall the numerous instances when I was I asked to show what I thought about race, gender, sexual orientation, or any disenfranchised group I touched. I learned much. Hopefully, I improved.
How is it that the marginalized in US society seem to stay that way? Even with the progress realized from the last Civil War to whenever the next one starts, a journey of miles seems to have only moved a few feet, and then stalled.
I had been searching for an answer to these questions when I tripped over One-Dimensional Man by German philosopher Herbert Marcuse. Except for the yellowed pages and the dates stamped on the copyright page, I was certain Marcuse wrote these words for me, right here, right now. His lines came off the page at me like the tank I used to ride. I found his work as relevant to the narratives of 2019 as they were in 1964, and which I predict will remain relevant in the next generation unless we see powerful, effective leadership from the highest levels of government.
While considering Marcuse from afar is like seeing a rise in the ground from a great distance only to realize upon drawing near that it is one of the higher peaks on the planet, I will hazard that these lines from One-Dimensional Man describe the social construct we are living today, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future:
“…’the people,’ previously the ferment of social change, have ‘moved up’ to become the ferment of social cohesion. Here rather than in the redistribution of wealth and equalization of classes is the new stratification characteristic of advanced industrial society. However, underneath the conservative popular base is the substratum of the outcasts and outsiders, the exploited and persecuted of other races and other colors, the unemployed and the unemployable. They exist outside the democratic process; their life is the most immediate and the most real need for ending intolerable conditions and institutions. Thus, their opposition is revolutionary even if their consciousness is not. Their opposition hits the system from without and is therefore not deflected by the system; it is an elementary force which violates the rules of the game and, in doing so, reveals it as a rigged game. When they get together and go out into the streets, without arms, without protection, in order to ask for the most primitive civil rights, they know that they face dogs, stones, and bombs, jail, concentration camps, even death. Their force is behind every political demonstration for the victims of law and order. The fact that they start refusing to play the game may be the fact which marks the beginning of the end of a period.”
Colin Kaepernick, the kneeling quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, quit football under a cloud of controversy. His statement to the media explained his motives rather succinctly. "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," Kaepernick said. "To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder." The official statement from the team was respectful if oblivious. "The national anthem is and always will be a special part of the pre-game ceremony. It is an opportunity to honor our country and reflect on the great liberties we are afforded as its citizens. In respecting such American principles as freedom of religion and freedom of expression, we recognize the right of an individual to choose and participate, or not, in our celebration of the national anthem."
What is not said in the responses is that Kaepernick is right, and no one cares enough to affirm the assertion except to acknowledge a right to free speech. It would be as if someone claimed to be trapped in a burning building, and those not affected by the flames concurred that everyone has a right to say what’s on his or her mind. The official statement from the National Football League on that matter was equally tone-deaf. "Players are encouraged but not required to stand during the playing of the national anthem." We accept a person’s right to point out that the building is on fire, but we encourage residents to honor the building regardless of the pain and suffering that those subjected to the alleged flames must endure.
A report from the Guardian in 2015 predates and reinforces the truth of Kaepernick’s assertion. Another report from Vox using FBI data continues to indicate that unarmed black men have reason for grave concern that they would be shot if they come in contact with police. Take the 2018 case of Stephon Clark in Sacramento, California. According to the US Census Bureau, the city of Sacramento is a reasonable mirror demographically of the US writ large. About 13% of the city identifies as African American. According to a report by the Sacramento police, only 4.3% of the officers on the force are African American. Hardly the hotbed of Jim Crow culture, Sacramento holds itself out as a diverse and welcoming city of over 500,000 people. More specifically, the city’s politics look like the rest of the country on a map of polling data from the 2016 presidential election, with hard splits among neighborhoods voting for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Sacramento police shot and killed Stephon Clark in the area known as Meadowview in the southern part of the city. While the polls in Meadowview show a liberal slant, the areas adjacent to Meadowview went almost 2-to-1 for Trump in 2016.
Why do the voting trends matter? The president, through his spokesperson, declared on March 29th, 2018 (eleven days after the shooting, with no findings from an investigation at that point) that the issue of black men being shot was a “local issue.” According to a New York Times article tracking fifteen such deaths, this local issue has, since 2014, occurred in California, Texas, New York, Minnesota, Oklahoma, North Carolina, and South Carolina. At some point, the individual tiles create a mosaic. On March 2nd, 2019, a year after the shooting, prosecutors in Sacramento decided not to prosecute the officers who shot Stephon Clark twenty times. Protests in Sacramento erupted in response, a local response to a local issue.
On July 26, 1948, President Harry Truman officially ended segregation in the US Armed Forces. Of note, one of the last five-star generals, Omar Bradley, declared in response that the Army would desegregate when society did. Two thoughtful people connected the actions of the federal government to reality at the local level with utterly opposite conclusions. In September of 1957, black students arriving at a Little Rock high school had to be escorted by Army soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division because another former five-star general who became president decided race relations were not a local issue, much to the chagrin of the Arkansas governor. In May of 1963, President Kennedy responded to Alabama Governor George Wallace’s refusal to integrate, employing federalized Army National Guard troops to resolve that local issue.
A pattern emerges when the federal government leaves foundational problems such as race relations to be solved at the local level. Fifty-plus years later we are, again, at a place where solutions at the local level are failing.
Marcuse saw this then. His assertions are relevant today.
President Trump’s response to the protesting football players is telling. He plainly states that they should be punished, or maybe they should be deported. While his comments cannot by themselves erase the progress in race relations realized in the later half of the 20th century. For example, it is no longer illegal for couples of different races to marry, and no one with a functioning brain can imagine returning to such a social condition. But Trump’s words and inaction certainly facilitate the pause in progress we see today with regards to equality under the law. The president’s leadership is powerful and effective, and best described as reactionary.
In Montgomery, Alabama, there stands a monument to local issues. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice records 4,400 solutions to race issues resolved at the local level. One hundred Percent of those solutions ended with an African American hanging by the neck. No courts, no lawyers, no federal troops riding in to save the day. Just an angry mob of white people left to their own devices to resolve a local issue.
With our current leadership at the helm of the federal government, the rest of Marcuse’s quote seems equally prescient. Marcuse says: “Nothing indicates that it will be a good end.”