Statues and Flags

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I was talking to a friend of mine last night – you might say it was more of a rant! - about the buzz around the NFL’s “will they take a knee during the Anthem or won’t they?” kerfuffle.  I said, “It seems like for months now, while really important things are happening, all people want to talk about are flags and statues.  North Korea claims we’ve declared war against them.  Congress is trying to destroy the healthcare system without a decent replacement again this week.  Puerto Rico has been devastated and has no means of rebuilding itself without assistance.  There was another shooting at a church yesterday.  But all anyone can talk about today is whether NFL players are being sufficiently respectful to our National Anthem!  What matters now is the same thing that has always mattered: who gets access?  Who gets access to natural resources, and capital, and representation in the government?  These other things don’t matter at all, they won’t make one ounce of difference in anyone’s lives, but people are having disproportionate responses to them, at every point along the political spectrum.  I don’t get it!”

My friend, who’s a fairly wise man, said calmly, “Steve, flags and statues are symbols, and symbols matter.  Symbols matter a lot.” 

I’ve been thinking about it ever since!  And of course, he’s right.

I’ve been thinking about what the symbols mean, and realizing that the way we talk about the symbols enables us to talk, as a society, about the meanings behind the symbols without speaking directly about them, and that transference enables us to address very difficult topics. 

A statue is far more than a lifeless hunk of bronze, it’s on a pedestal: it’s literally a depiction of someone you are intended to look up to.  When people speak about statues of generals in the Confederacy, they’re not discussing history or what really caused a conflict that began over a hundred and fifty years ago – even though that’s what they’re saying on the surface.  What they’re really talking about is access.  For people that think in terms of race, or assume that their genetic material has any bearing on their destinies - personally, I don’t, but I know many people in this country do – the predictions of demographic trends are frightening.  If demographic trends continue, sometime around 2045, non-Hispanic Caucasians will be a minority in the United States.  I believe we’ll be stronger as a nation when that day comes, because maybe by then we’ll have moved beyond judging others by their skin color – a person can dream!  For people that still think in terms of race, though, it’s a cause to worry about whether “people like me” will have access to the same opportunities.  It’s telling that the tiki torch marchers in Charlottesville were chanting (among other things), “You will not replace us.”  To them, the removal of a lifeless hunk of bronze was a metaphor for the erasure of their own identity, because they’d based the core of their identity on the color of their skin.  The challenge for all of us is, how can we, as a society, get people to stop thinking of “people like me” in terms of skin color – how do we change that population to “fellow human beings?”  Maybe that’s why we’re having passionate conversations about statues: because we can’t yet answer that question.

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Also, think about what those statues raised during periods of racial strife mean to people whose family histories include slavery.  They are invited to look up to people that fought and died to keep their ancestors in a system that defined their ancestors as three fifths of a human.  It doesn’t matter physically to them now, but as a symbol, it says, “The people that fought to dehumanize your ancestors are worthy of emulation.”  What message does that send about their own access to dignity, or the value of their own history?  Who is given access to history, those that oppressed and lost the right to oppress, or those that survived the oppression?

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NFL players were kneeling during the Anthem to make a statement about access to justice, at first, and subsequently to make a statement about access to free speech.   For some, this is a legitimate expression for concern for a trend in our society, namely, that African Americans in the United States are three times more likely to be killed by police officers than white people.  For others, any type of protest is excessively demanding or ungrateful, and is met with outsized hostility.   Think of how popular the topic of running over protesters became – and how popular it remained, even after it happened in real life. 

When we discuss the details of the salaries of NFL players, or how established the tradition of standing for the anthem is at NFL games, or whether the action disrespects the military, or whether it’s “the right time” to protest, the question we’re dodging is: who has access to justice in America?  Those that support the knee believe there’s still unequal access to justice in this country for some, based on the color of their skin.  Those that are incensed by the knee fundamentally believe there’s no inequality of access to justice for that reason.  But because this subject is so difficult to raise and discuss rationally, we speak about the details around the knee – passionately.  How do we get past talking about the surface topic of standing for the Anthem, and instead talk about the things that matter?

When can we as a people start having honest conversations?