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.