As civil relations between Americans of different races (and Americans in general) deteriorate, I often find myself reflecting on an incident that happened to me while I lived in Hartford, Connecticut.
Early one morning I pulled my car up to a stoplight. A man on the sidewalk began yelling. “Hey lady, I have a question.” Having received unwelcome sidewalk catcalls in the past, I didn’t care to know what the man’s question was. I ignored him.
That’s when things got crazy. He came right up to my window and berated me through the glass. I was a racist, he shouted.
Until then I had not felt particularly safe, even inside my car, but being impugned made me foolishly bold. I’m not proud to admit I cracked the window to tell him off before hitting the gas.
He happened to be a black man, but his race was not the reason I felt aggrieved.
This seems as good an analogy as any for the state of our country the day after some of the nation’s leading footballers “took a knee” during the national anthem. Hardly anyone is thinking clearly and everybody hurts.
One can object to much of President Trump’s profanity-laced speech calling for NFL teams to fire players who won’t stand, and still grasp why his comments resonated with many Americans. (National Review’s Rich Lowry nailed it.)
Colin Kaepernick, the player who inspired the “take a knee” movement, isn’t stupid. The young man is intellectually consistent. He speaks admiringly of Fidel Castro, and of Malcolm X, who only late in life turned away from a violent, racially divisive ideology. By choosing to target the anthem, Kaepernick struck at the heart.
When millions of Americans turned their TV’s on yesterday, the only symbolic gesture many of them saw was a giant middle finger toward them, their dead loved ones, their brothers and cousins overseas, everything they are and value.
It was Jeremiah Wright damning America and blaming the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks all over again.
It was the Trinity College professor who shared a vicious (and of course anonymous) screed called “Let Them F***ing Die” – “them” including people like Rep. Steve Scalise.
It was the heartless mockery, in explicitly racial terms, of anyone who was frightened like a normal human being in the face of such rage and hatred.
It was the voice of every white liberal they’ve known who returned from a two-week jaunt in Europe with nothing positive to say about his homeland.
Last year I tried to warn one former classmate, who was carping on Facebook about how much America sucks, that even people who don’t spend their days chanting “USA, USA, rah, rah, rah” tire of being constantly run down – and that come November, a statistically significant number of them might express their cumulative weariness at the ballot box.
Fantasies about speaking truth to power ring hollow coming from sports stars. This country has given Colin Kaepernick an adoptive family, an education, and material prosperity that far exceeds what most of us will see in our lifetimes.
Many Americans perceive him and his fellow players as men who have fully achieved the American dream, only to turn and punch down at those of us with a lesser share of it. No nuanced explanation negates the sting of it.
In America, there are vastly more decent people alienated by Kaepernick and his fellow players attacking the anthem than there are bigots who don’t mind seeing unarmed black men get killed. These decent folks feel attacked, and they are responding accordingly.
Those students at my high school who normally were too cool to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance stood at attention the morning of September 12, 2001.
One “#NeverTrump” pundit dismisses this visceral reaction as “fake patriotism.” I disagree. I think it’s the same galvanization a lukewarm Christian feels with the sword of martyrdom at his throat: time to commit, because the faith actually, really matters.
The rub is that all this ill will has not saved a single life, black or otherwise—a point brought home dramatically by concurrent news of Chicago’s 500th homicide of the year and a fatal shooting at a Tennessee church (I sincerely hope everyone wasn’t too busy protesting to notice).
One man did stand out, literally, for his simple courage yesterday. That man is Pittsburgh Steelers offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva, who alone among his teammates stood for the anthem. Not surprisingly, he’s a three-time veteran of Afghanistan – and a Catholic.
Catholics as a group could find legitimate reasons to fall prey to anti-American sentiment. The Catholic was persona non grata in most of the original colonies. We have been targets of mob violence. Convents were burned. It was a battle to be allowed to have our own schools.
The one nominally Catholic president in more than 200 years obsequiously agreed to the exile of faith from the public square. Nowadays, sitting U.S. Senators unapologetically and unconstitutionally grill Catholic nominees for the judiciary on their religious beliefs.
In spite of this, I’m not angry at America, and neither are most Catholics I know. Blindness to our country’s flaws is one kind of malady; blindness to its unique merits is another. I am hard pressed to name many places in the world where the biracial child of an unwed mother and an absent father could grow up to be an educated multimillionaire.
I firmly believe America is more than shootings and Klan rallies and identity politics. Perhaps it even bears some resemblance to the Church, which has always been greater than the sum of the wretched sinners in the pews who place their hope in it.
I am truly sorry to see more players double down on this ill-conceived protest. I also want justice for all innocent victims of violence. But, like Villanueva, I’ll stand for the anthem, and do my kneeling in front of the tabernacle to pray for my country.