BY A. LAWRENCE CHICKERING AND JAMES S. TURNER
Among all conflicts that concern transpartisans, those resulting from language alone—‘conflict’ caused by using words differently—pose the most straightforward problems to address. When people use words differently, they can appear to conflict even while saying the same thing. Today the country has such a conflict of meaning about the NFL, football players and the American flag.
The origins of the conflict seem well-known, the details less so. It began last year when Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid knelt during the National Anthem in protest against racial injustice. Kaepernick had sat during the Anthem for three previous games with little notice. Kneeling catapulted the matter into public consciousness.
After consulting with a retired Green Beret and former NFL player, Reid proposed kneeling as a respectful statement about the flag. As Reid wrote in the New York Times September 25th:
We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture. I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.
It baffles me that our protest is still being misconstrued as disrespectful to the country, flag and military personnel. We chose it because it’s exactly the opposite. It has always been my understanding that the brave men and women who fought and died for our country did so to ensure that we could live in a fair and free society, which includes the right to speak out in protest.
President Trump, applying his well-known ability to rub sore spots, called the kneeling players SOBs and basked in his media coverage. In interviews individual players critical of Trump said they intended the protest to be about race and not the flag
Since 1931, when Congress adopted the Star Spangled Banner as the National Anthem, the flag and the Anthem celebrate the principle that all people are created equal. The flag and Anthem also honor the principle that when individual government officials fail to apply the law equally, they are violating the oaths they took to uphold the law. Racist actions dishonor the flag.
On the commitments to flag and country, all sides can advance beyond conflict by committing to a national conversation on how ‘the system’ can overcome the real challenges underlying the race issue.
We believe that racial conflict is mostly rooted in isolation: lack of personal engagement. We are not talking here about ‘integration’ measured by objective body-counts. We are talking about subjective connection, which moves people beyond conflict to real relationships based on trust and on seeing others as human.