Identity politics and excessive tribalism suppress the conversation we could be having in the spirit of NFL anthem demonstrations. When Colin Kaepernick began this movement, the popular narrative was that he sought to promote awareness about police brutality, specifically as it occurs in the black community. Implicit here is the suggestion that police would shoot less unarmed black people if celebrities and athletes generated more awareness. This suggestion warrants some scrutiny.
Information is so easily disseminated now that is unlikely that lack of awareness is limiting social progress in the United States. Video footage of these shootings is everywhere and as influential as some celebrities may be, broadcasting what amounts to, in some cases, an execution on one’s cellphone or computer on countless numbers of easily accessible media platforms probably generates sufficient awareness. I do not mean to suggest that Kaepernick was wrong to do what he did or that the players who wish to participle in the anthem demonstrations should not be permitted to freely express themselves. The method, demonstrating during the anthem, might not be effective in advancing the intended message though. There is an overabundance of information and awareness. Social media platforms and advertisers compete for our attention. Consequently, the things that tend to win over our attention are now devoid of nuance or meaningful details.
The demonstrations might be emotionally satisfying or an act of team solidarity. However, if the demonstrations are effectively reminding us that racism is bad and that unarmed people don’t deserve to be shot by the police, it is unlikely that more awareness will promote the types of policy and training discussions that address the real problems. Demonstrations feel good because they give people a voice and a way to act on the compulsion to “do something.” In the age of social media, all it takes to demonstrate or raise awareness is a hashtag. We have enough hashtags, though.
Lack of information and awareness are lesser problems than the superficiality that pervades most political exchanges. Many of us “like” and recirculate articles we haven’t read because the headline confirms what we are already certain to be true. “#Takeaknee” won’t prevent a poorly trained police officer from shooting an unarmed person. In the short term, hashtag campaigns might elicit platitudes from elected officials and civil service leaders. However, leaders should seek to identify critical problems within their organizations regardless of a hashtag’s virality. While some problems are only obvious in hindsight, proactive leadership remains preferable to reactive leadership.
While most hashtag movements are likely well intentioned, they are also generally rhetorical. It is not uncommon to hear self-identified activists say things like “#resist” and “if you’re not verbally condemning racism then you’re condoning it.” But this is not a contest to see who can be the loudest or most self-loathing, as occurs in people who constantly grieve about their “privilege.” Performance and theater are not to be confused for concrete political action. It is probably safe to assume that virtually every player in the NFL is opposed to unarmed people being fatally shot by law enforcement officers. Kneeling during the national anthem is one way to demonstrate disapproval for something most people find completely deplorable. People who chose not to kneel during the national anthem may be just as passionate about social justice as those who kneel, though.
Kneeling during the national anthem is a strategic decision with potentially profound consequences many of which may have nothing to do with the actual reason for the demonstrations. People who chose not to kneel during the anthem or those who question the strategic wisdom of the gesture are not necessarily apathetic, uncaring, or racist. The suggestion that questioning a movement’s tactics is an indictment of one’s moral legitimacy is an intellectually dishonest practice that suppresses crucial dialogue about race. If I were an NFL player, I personally would not kneel during the anthem as I think it’s a poor strategic decision that inevitably derails actual conversations about important social and political issues. The approach taken by players like Doug Baldwin, Anquan Boldin, Malcolm Jenkins, and Benjamin Watson resonates with me much more. I would fully respect my teammates who did choose to kneel, however, as ultimately most of us desire the same social ends, even if we disagree about the means. Similarly, NFL owners are not necessarily racists because they acknowledge that kneeling during the national anthem might be a poor business decision with no tangible beneficial impact on social justice.
The central point here is that details matter, yet these details are rarely discussed even in the depthless charades that are today’s political debates or social media exchanges. It’s much easier to call an adversary a name than to propose a solution to a problem that by its complexity is intrinsically flawed. Details and intellectual honesty are incriminating when exchanges are about winning and losing and not about advancing ideas. No candidate knows what effect his/her policies will have on something like economic growth, as an example. Perhaps a reality TV host holds the highest political office in the nation because politics is just that. We crave melodrama and outrage as they’re more comforting than uncertainty about timeless issues.
The original impetus for kneeling during the anthem was unjustified police use of lethal force against innocent people, particularly those from the black community. Implicit here is the notion that racism is a causal factor in these shootings. Some commentators suggest that there is an epidemic of unarmed black people being shot by the police. The data here is highly politicized and unreliable. Without complete transparency from law enforcement and responsible, objective reporting from academics and the media we’ll never know if black people are indeed disproportionally shot by police, all other factors being equal. Cellphone recordings, tweets, and Facebook posts are not the mediums from which we should make generalized conclusions about social phenomena. While there are certainly racist police officers and remnants of racist policies that create friction between police and certain communities, it’s a big leap to effectively characterize all these shootings as hate crimes or as racially motivated.
This is why more, not all, of the focus needs to be on better training for law enforcement officers. Patrol officers are generally woefully undertrained for lethal force encounters. Law enforcement SWAT teams and military special operations units train almost daily to engage in potential gunfights where they deliberately outnumber a known adversary or suspect(s). Patrol officers rarely get adequate training in the nonlethal and lethal use of force tactics that they usually have to employ alone or when accompanied by only one other partner with no deliberate mission planning.
Patrol officers often have a lower margin for error when they must utilize force against a member of the community but with a fraction of the training of a tactician whose sole responsibly is high-risk warrants and raids. The latter works mainly using the element of surprise in a suspect’s place of residence in low light conditions. Patrol officers typically apprehend members of the community in public places during daylight hours. The administrative, financial, and logistical changes that need to occur to better prepare law enforcement officers are substantially more involved and thus less conducive to hashtagging than the notion that racism is the causative factor in these shootings. To be clear, grossly negligent officers must be held accountable for their actions and have their carrying privileges rescinded. A negligent officer’s singular acts are almost always reflective of some degree of organizational dysfunction. Police officers take incredible risks to protect the public. They deserve better training than that which they typically receive.
Another narrative is that explicitly racist polices or more insidious “structures” create conditions whereby undertrained officers are more likely to unjustifiably use lethal force. If this is indeed true, overtly racist polices and concrete ways in which institutions stifle social progress for historically disenfranchised groups should be identified. The Civil Rights movement reversed many gross inequities in policy, so the crucial issue now is the extent to which centuries of overt oppression contributes to current social injustices. It seems reasonable to say that despite important legislative victories the slate is not yet clean and that historical injustices still have some influence on race-based disparities in things like economic and educational status. While some of how structural racism is defined can be problematic, for the sake of this discussion structural racism is “how much of the present day disparity is the result of previous discrimination.” In other words, even if previously discriminatory policies are “fairer” now, are these policy reversals sufficient to break a historical cycle of oppression?
The answer is almost certainly no but breaking the cycle remains complex.
Here, Glenn Loury underscores what questions we have to ask to advance this conversation. Many highly intelligent, sincere people fail to agree on the solutions to these issues. This conversation requires that we revisit timeless philosophical dilemmas, the answers to which are contingent upon the relative weight we ascribe to different values and assumptions. Logical discourse has to start somewhere, and it’s difficult for even highly rational and ethical people to come to the same conclusion when there is no universal set of underlying assumptions. Determining how much of the present-day disparity is the result of previous discrimination and what can be done about it is the fundamental question in advancing social justice. It’s a conversation that should be continually ongoing regardless of who’s doing what during a sporting event.
He wanted our attention after he wore pig-cop socks. The perception of the messenger matters when trying to modify other people’s behavior or manner of thinking. Clarity of the message and even the messenger’s conduct influence the recipients’ perception. Recipients of the message can’t always decipher the intent of a message when they’re distracted by the manner of delivery. The soundness of a message can, therefore, be compromised by the delivery. To be clear, Kaepernick should not be completely discredited as an activist for a singular clothing choice, but his conduct when he had our attention is worthy of acknowledgement. Despite these tactical miscalculations, Kaepernick still deserves the benefit of the doubt. He shouldn’t be vilified, but he need not be lionized either. He’s a complicated figure, but in these binary times, it’s unlikely that he’ll be generally accepted as such.
Additionally, the message has to be consistent. Since President Trump referred to anthem demonstrators as “sons of bitches,” taking a knee became more about dissatisfaction with him than about police brutality or institutional inequity. The president’s handling of this situation reflects a complete lack of professionalism and behavior unbecoming of the office. Players, owners, and coaches are justified in collectively expressing their disapproval for him. The original message is compromised, however, when we conflate the president with structural racism and undertrained police. Those issues existed before he was elected and will remain after he leaves office.
The president’s ascendency to power speaks to the dysfunction of the political system. Even people who voted for him might have wondered if he was the best candidate his party could offer. He somehow ended up there, however. President Trump didn’t just win the election; other candidates, from all parties, also lost the election. The losers in the election made strategic errors. Social change requires political power. If it’s concrete progress we’re after, we should demand that our candidates or party of choice implement a more successful strategy at every level of government. The president didn’t win the past election because hordes of latent racists were suddenly galvanized or because his supporters are necessarily OK with unarmed people being shot by police. These explanations are only satisfying because they resonate with people’s oversimplification bias.
The president has been more productive as an instigator and a tweeter than as a policy reformer. People empower him when they frantically swim for the chum he throws in the water. How divisive would these tweets be if everyone unfollowed him and refused to recirculate his content, even retweets meant to mock him? The current political climate is a reflection of who we all are, not just the people we find objectionable. Social media algorithms essentially perpetuate click bait, which promotes binary, extremist ideologies not the complex, nuanced analyses that help formulate crucial legislative and institutional boundaries. Sharing things we despise creates a greater platform for the very people we seek to discredit. It’s the reason I didn’t refer to the aforementioned religious group by name.
Additionally, recent reports suggest that foreign governments and bots are manipulating these algorithms with anthem demonstration hashtags to create more division. Think before you click and share. The witty comments we post to elicit “likes” and shares from fellow members of the tribe have consequences we can barely comprehend. The divisiveness is not all President Trump’s fault. We’re all responsible.
Moreover, there is enough redundancy and inertia in government that the president is only so powerful. Having worked for the government, I’m confident that most military members, civil servants, and government employees are people of decent character, regardless of their ideological predispositions. Social progress never seems fast enough but, in many ways, the last 50 years have been unprecedented in this regard. This admission need not promote complacency but remind us that the process isn’t as broken as we are often led to believe. The progress has been substantial enough that a few setbacks should not incite social fragility or impending doom. Neither is the flag so fragile that taking a knee should be an affront to the ideals it supposedly espouses. This type of dissent and scrutiny strengthens robust systems. Besides, there are more pertinent and difficult questions that warrant our attention. As stated by Dr Loury in the article referenced above, “most of our moral and political inquiries are superficial, and we rarely come to terms with history.” Now more than ever, depth and detail are needed because binary thinking is dominating our attention.
About the author —
A former U.S. Air Force Pararescueman, Doug Kechijian has deployed throughout the world to help provide technical rescue capability and emergency medical care to U.S and allied forces. He is a nationally certified paramedic with advanced training in emergency, trauma, and wilderness medicine. Doug currently co-manages a private sports medicine practice and human performance consulting company in New York City. Doug received his AB in Biology from Brown University and MA in Exercise Physiology/Doctor of Physical Therapy from Columbia University.