My Turn: Protests: Not just what, but why

  • By Phil Campbell
  • Sunday, October 9, 2016 1:02am
  • Opinion

Opinion polls reveal substantial opposition to San Francisco football player Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the playing of the national anthem. Kaepernick has stated that his protest is meant to highlight racial injustice in our country.

Public opinion notwithstanding, the protesting during the playing of the national anthem is spreading and has now extended to other patriotic observances such as Anchorage Assemblyman Patrick Flynn’s kneeling during the Pledge of Allegiance at a recent meeting.

Such actions are not new. I was a pastor in Denver in 1996 when Nuggets basketball player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf drew ire when he sat during the national anthem. Decades earlier, baseball icon Jackie Robinson wrote in his autobiography that “I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag. I know that I am a black man in a white world.”

The protests testify to the reality Langston Hughes captured in his 1935 poem, “Let America Be America Again”: “America never was America to me… There’s never been equality for me, Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free.’”

They are also reminiscent of what songwriter and producer Ice Cube said about his hit recording, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted: “I spelled America with three ‘K’s’ (an overt reference to the Ku Klux Klan) because that’s what America means to me. When I see the Stars and Stripes or hear the national anthem, I feel nothing. What I see is white supremacy.”

I quoted Ice Cube in a 1991 sermon. The specific act in the news then was flag burning.

As is the case with many social issues, responses to recent protests divide along racial lines. About 63 percent of blacks and only 24 percent of whites support Kaepernick’s actions.

The majority of people who oppose the protests do not believe they should be outlawed (thankfully), but what I find discouraging is that much of the (mostly white) public reaction to them has been about their being disrespectful and unpatriotic. What if instead of denouncing the protests the discussion focused on why the protests are happening? What if seeking to understand our neighbors’ plight dominated the discourse rather than reactive defense of our country’s greatness and the rightness of patriotic displays?

In my view, racial injustice is the affront to our country, not the refusal to stand for our anthem. Disparities in education, health care, rates of incarceration and treatment by police are well documented. As Spelman College President Emerita Beverly Tatum has said, “Every social indicator from salary to life expectancy, reveals the advantages of being white.” And it starts early.

The Civil Rights Data Collection survey reveals that black preschoolers are 3.6 times more likely to be suspended than white preschoolers, and that black students are 2.3 times more likely than white students to be referred to law enforcement or arrested as a result of a school incident. Native youth are three times more likely than whites to be held in a juvenile detention facility. The school to prison pipeline indelibly impacts students of color and its effects last a lifetime.

Black and Native incarceration rates are many times higher than that of whites. It behooves all of us — civic and religious leaders, school, police, and criminal justice officials, and the citizenry as a whole — to reflect seriously on the disproportions that endure in our supposedly free and equal society. Why is the reality so different from the vision, and what will we commit to doing about it?

It is wonderful that the flag and national anthem serve as powerful symbols of freedom and opportunity for many. But the statistics tell the troubling story that “liberty and justice for all” remains elusive. It is discouraging and outrageous that despite progress so many inequalities persist. My prayer is that beyond the protests and reactions to them we will overcome weariness and resistance and all will recommit to the struggle for equity and access for everyone.

In the defiantly hopeful words with which Hughes ended his poem, “O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath — America will be!”

• Phil Campbell is a Juneau resident and pastor of Northern Light United Church.

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