I spent a recent Friday evening at a high school football game. As I sat and watched the game with my sister, it was impossible not to notice that the home team, which opposed my alma mater, possessed a student section dressed in red, white, and blue. In addition to wearing those colors, students waved American flags. The whole thing struck me as odd because those were not the team’s colors, and it wasn’t any patriotic holiday of which I was aware.
We concluded that the dress code must have been a response to San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and his recent decision (followed by other NFL players, women’s soccer player Megan Rapinoe, and even a high school football team in Seattle) to kneel during the national anthem. The movement has, unsurprisingly, sparked rebukes from near and far-off sources such as U.S. Soccer, the men’s U.S. hockey coach, former St. Louis Cardinals’ manager Tony LaRussa, actor James Woods, and even Supreme Court Justice Ruth Ginsberg. I guess it isn’t that big of a surprise, then, that a high school student body in Northern Indianapolis might also choose to get involved, but the move begged several questions for me. Most notably: why are so many of us threatened by an NFL backup quarterback who chooses to kneel during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner?
Why does it offend us so intensely?
Some would argue – credibly, I think – that Kaepernick’s initial statement about race and police brutality has gotten usurped by a reactionary conversation about symbols and patriotism. As Kaepernick recently said, “There’s a lot of racism in this country disguised as patriotism.” It is my opinion that what I saw at the high school football game is a careless response to the controversy; that is to say that the students, like Kaepernick, have every “right” to do what they did, but my lament is that the discourse as a whole is flippant and borderline lazy. We are actively choosing not to hear each other, which is, unfortunately, the nature of conversations about politics in today’s climate. To nerd out on rhetorical theory, the discussions as a whole lacks stasis, i.e. a basic agreement about what we’re even talking about. Instead, we are full of slogans and hashtags and images, we are all “raising awareness” for something, and there is far too little concrete detail in the midst of all the abstract. It is as if anyone who picks up a cause just expects us to believe him or her (or them) before they even do the work to persuade us, and then if we don’t jump on board then we get bullied with shame tactics. Thus, we seem to have lost the ability to even have a debate. Refer to recent U.S. presidential debates if further evidence is needed; we’re much more comfortable calling each other names (ad hominem, anyone?) than we are generously discussing issues with the hope of finding common ground.
Kaepernick isn’t immune to the shortcoming of discourse in general. The day after the interview during which he explained why he wasn’t standing for the anthem, I tweeted my affirmation of Kaepernick’s freedom not to stand while also lamenting my doubts that he will tie specific objectives to the resistance. At least three people urged me to watch the 18-minute interview, and so I finally did. The result was disappointing, but again, not surprising. Kaepernick spoke his share of criticism but stayed vague in a lot of his word choice. He wanted to “make people realize what’s really going on in this country,” “it’s things that have gone on this country for years and years, and it’s never been addressed,” “I’m going to continue stand with the people that are oppressed,” and “There’s cops getting paid leave for killing people.” Well-intentioned, yes, but high on buzzwords and low on specifics.
I was interested, momentarily, when Kaepernick shared a glimpse of personal experience. He said cops with guns drawn barged in on him and a friend one time, but that’s about as many details as we got. If we cut away all the “privilege” posturing and the arguing about which lives matter, I think the tension at hand is about police violence and especially the perception that African Americans seem to get targeted (and ultimately killed) more than other races. Given our nation’s history of mistreating African Americans, it’s certainly not an unreasonable possibility from the outset, but making the claim is the beginning, rather than the end, of the work. How might one go about establishing it?
If personal experience is one possible starting point, one would need to move pretty quickly to distinguishing between the experiences of African Americans with police and comparative experiences of other races. So for example, I, as a white man, have had my car searched (in hindsight, I never should have let him) by a policeman for no other reason that I can think of other than the fact that I apparently crossed the highway center line and had long, curly, hair while driving just south of Savannah, Georgia, after St. Patrick’s Day. Another time, quite recently, a couple cops with hands on their guns approach me after pulling me over at night for tail lights that don’t work (in my mixed, somewhat poor Indianapolis neighbored). As I reached for my license in my pocket, the officer who was closest to me demanded that I take my hands away from my pocket, which I did. So how were my experiences different what a black person’s might have been? Answering that question sounds like quite the sociological study in and of itself.
If we can get as far as establishing through individual experiences that there is reason to be concerned about how police officers treat African Americans, the next obvious and necessary question has to be: are these experiences representative? Are they indicative of a wider problem? This is where some hard, macro data helps. How many people have police officers shot (or battered) in 2016? Or last year? Or in the past decade? Or in the last fifty years? And in those instances, why did the policemen (or women) feel it was necessary to resort to a violent response? Were they under attack? How many of the victims were black? What is the percentage of black victims of police violence relative to the overall percentage of African Americans in the U.S. population? Thankfully, I have seen some of this data recently in The Washington Post. The 2015 data does reveal a racial disparity: African Americans make up 13 percent of the population but 24 percent of those who are killed by police. According to the same newspaper, the numbers in 2016 are quite comparable to the numbers in 2015.
There were also aspects of the data that surprised me, though, especially given the extremity of the contemporary narrative. For starters, for as violent as the U.S. is, the number of people who are killed by police each year in the U.S. is lower than I expected to be. If the number who are killed per year is about 1,000 (that overshoots the Washington Post number for 2015), and if the American population is about 324,500,000, that means we all have about a .00031 percent chance of losing our lives at the hands of a police officer. If you’re looking for a comparison point, much has been made about the dropping abortion rate; there are still about a million reported abortions per year (that number is higher than Center for Disease Control statistics and lower than Guttmacher Institute numbers, and some states haven’t released numbers in recent years). That doesn’t make police violence acceptable or good, but it does frame the current discourse in perspective. The number of officers who lost their lives while on duty in 2015 appears to be 130, so there is an apparent power differential when compared with the number of civilians who lost their lives in the same time frame.
More white people are killed by police in the U.S. than are black people, but at a lower percentage relative to the population. Hispanics are close behind black people in sheer numbers. Another interesting angle is the gender disparity: 97% of people killed by cops in 2015 were men. Melissa Batchelor Warnke has also made the point in the Los Angeles Times that it’s also male officers who are doing the killing. So it least seems worth asking: why are men so much more prone to be on the giving or receiving end of police violence? My guess is that most of us won’t assume this is a discrimination problem, which is in and of itself an interesting veer, but let’s set that inconsistency aside for a moment. Isn’t male violence an important societal problem? It certainly wouldn’t be easy to confront, but we could at least acknowledge it.
Let’s get back to the original issue at hand, though, and assume the data doesn’t take us in all kinds of tangential directions, that it mainly serves to confirm the concern about racial disparity with African Americans receiving the worst of police violence. If we can get all the way there, our work still isn’t done. The next step is to ask what needs to change. What kinds of reform are we proposing? At what goals or objectives are our activism aimed? Articulating these more clearly are what would, in my estimation, make Kaepernick’s decision to kneel much stronger and more productive.
If Kaepernick were to say, “I will kneel until ___________ happens” and then actually achieve the desired outcome, he would be in good historical company. The Sons of Liberty threw tea into the Boston Harbor not for the thrill of it, but because they didn’t want to be taxed without representation. Rosa Parks refused to move on the bus not arbitrarily but rather to protest institutionalized bus segregation. Martin Luther King Jr. and company didn’t march on Selma to “raise awareness”; they did it as a demand for the right to vote.
So how will we get to less deaths at the hands of policemen/women? Is it, as Kaepernick seemed to suggest, a training issue? How much more and on what will the training focus? And if reforms do get enacted, what will we do to ensure that we don’t just go endangering the lives of police officers even more, as seems to have happened recently when a Chicago female officer got beaten almost to the point of death, all the while refusing to draw her weapon because she didn’t want the press coverage that would surely follow if she used her gun? What we will we do to make sure cops have some sort of defense when they are legitimately in danger?
The “I love America,” #BlueLivesMatter crowd isn’t any more off the hook than Kaepernick and #BlackLivesMatter. How does kneeling during the national anthem equal not loving America? Why is kneeling disrespectful to soldiers? Why is the flag so important anyway? These claims have no more right to be trusted blindly than do any of the ones above. And if these tactics are anything other than red herrings – thrown out to avoid a conversation about race – then make the arguments! Maybe you think police responses aren’t systematically discriminatory: where is your data? How are we to interpret the recent deaths of African American men like Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and others, some of whose deaths we have quite literally watched on video after the fact?
I suspect there’s a reason we engage the way we do, and why we strategically leave out what we leave out. Maybe the more specific we get, the more painful voices and stories we invite into the conversation, the more complicated things would start to look. Maybe the result would be more nuance and less dogma. Maybe we’d get around to accepting the paradox of shared personal and corporate responsibility, and thus have less reason to spend all kinds of energy blaming one person or group. I suspect in the end, we’d have to wrestle with the fragility of human experience. And if we went there, perhaps we would learn to talk about important issues with enough humility to treat “opposition” with a spirit of generosity.
Chris Schumerth is an academic advisor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis’s School of Liberal Arts. He is an alum of the Teach For America program and the University of South Carolina’s MFA program in creative writing. In addition to writing an occasional essay for The Porch, Chris has also been published by The Miami Herald, Salon, In the Fray, Comment Magazine, and other places. You can see more of his writing at http://chrisschumerth.com/ or follow him on Twitter @ChrisSchumerth.