Last week, before Donald Trump called NFL players sons of bitches and before more than 100 of those supposed SOBs knelt or sat during the national anthem Sunday, four NFL players (three current and one former) sent a 10-page memo to commissioner Roger Goodell.
In the memo, published by Yahoo, the players did not demean the military or denigrate the flag, and they mentioned the national anthem only in passing. Instead, Michael Bennett, Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith, and Malcolm Jenkins spent hundreds of words outlining ways the NFL could help alleviate racial disparities in the criminal justice system, from bail reform, to mandatory minimum sentences to accountability for police to the criminalization of poverty.
Then on Sunday, Bennett’s Seahawks refused to take the field during the national anthem, Jenkins raised his fist as the song played, Smith knelt, and Boldin spoke passionately on ESPN about Trump’s comments. In light of the memo, their was no ambiguity about their cause. They were protesting for racial justice.
But despite the players’ frank explanation of their purpose and repeated insistence that they took no issue with the American military, they have been accused over and again of disrespecting the flag, betraying the troops or hating America’s essence. No matter how often and how clearly Bennett, Boldin, Smith, Jenkins, Colin Kaepernick, and dozens of others explain their cause or bend over backwards to praise the armed forces, they are labeled as anti-patriots and charged with traitorous thought crimes.
In some cases, this deflection might be ignorance, as people assume why the players kneel without listening to their actual cause. But in so many other instances—including where the President of the United States is concerned—the misrepresentation is deliberate, a way to change the subject away from what Kaepernick and company have always hoped to call attention to.
Let’s look at some stats: The United States has less than five percent of the world’s population and more than 20 percent of the world’s prisoners. Black people are incarcerated at a rate five times that of white people. African-Americans are statistically more likely to be stopped by police, to be searched, to be killed by police, to be charged with a crime, to be denied bail, to be sentenced harshly, to be placed in solitary confinement and to be given the death penalty. It is inarguable that the American criminal justice system treats black people (and many other people of color) more harshly than it treats white people. It is also inarguable that such institutional discrimination has destroyed black communities, continuing a cycle of poverty and violence that swallows entire neighborhoods and leads to the inner-city murder rates white Americans hear about on the news.
Many Americans, particularly white people, don’t want to hear about that and certainly don’t want to do anything about it. Admitting that black people are systemically disadvantaged would mean admitting that they are advantaged, that certain benefits they enjoy (most notably, their freedom), might be as much about racial privilege as about personal virtue. It would shatter their perception of a post-racial country in which black people have simply gotten what they deserved and would threaten their deep-seated belief that a harshly punitive justice system serves only to protect the Good Guys from the Bad Guys or more basically, Us from Them. Gosh darn it, the realization might even ruin their Sundays. Who can enjoy football when forced to confront the systematic oppression of millions of citizens within their own country?
And so many white Americans deflect, deflect, deflect. Confronting what NFL players actually kneel for requires grappling with one’s own complicity in the country’s continued sin. For those with no interest in such introspection, turning the conversation to the flag or the anthem or soldiers who have died in service shifts all blame to the players—those black millionaires whom White America has so generously permitted to entertain us.
Don’t let them trick you. The NFL players who kneel are not looking to burn flags and spit on the graves of dead soldiers. They simply want an equitable America, where black people are not disproportionately likely to wind up in prison or dead at the hands of police. The protesting NFLers have said so again and again, on social media, in postgame comments and in the memo Bennett, Boldin, Smith and Jenkins sent to Goodell.
We should all support the protest movement that Kaepernick started last fall, not only because the first amendment permits free speech but also because the cause is just. The players have protested repeatedly, knowing they would be bashed on the internet and booed by their home fans, because they believe one’s race should not affect how he is treated by the justice system and by America at large. It is not enough to acknowledge the players’ right to protest. We must also recognize and support what they protest for. The players are not making a statement about the military, the flag or the anthem. They are calling attention to—and offering solutions for—the insidious and unshakeable plague of racial injustice.
If you oppose the players’ protests, you oppose equality and justice for black Americans. Period.