It has been nearly three years since Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the pregame performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” to protest racial profiling and the killing of unarmed black men. Now, recently, he shamed the shoe brand that cuts his paychecks into pulling the original U.S. flag from one of its sneakers.
Predictably, reactions have been divided. The governor of Arizona vowed to pull a recently promised subsidy to Nike for manufacturing shoes in Arizona — then sported swoosh footwear two days later. Less comical have been the commentators ignoring a link between the 13-starred flag and the institution of slavery.
Such debates often veer into the American psychodrama of guilt and denial, resentment and accusation. And with all the tired assumptions, falsehoods and misrepresentations.
Falsehoods such as: If you don’t love the flag — any version of it — you don’t love the country. Or: If you are proud of any aspect of this country’s heritage then you embrace its entire flawed history.
Similarly false are claims that slavery and its effects ended in 1865 — or within a generation or two; or that segregation and discrimination ended in 1965 — or within a few years of the Civil Rights Act; or that the election of President Barack Obama proved that racism is no longer a serious problem.
Progress, depravity wrapped up together
There is a meaningful discussion to be had about the ambiguities of history — specifically the gross imperfections of our experiment with self-government — but not amid all the contempt and ignorance, exaggerations and omissions.
The Constitution with its Bill of Rights is a beautiful and enduring document that was not originally intended to protect women or nonwhite people or even white people who did not own property, but it did challenge the all-too-common slide toward tyranny. George Washington really was a hero in the realization of self-government even if he wasn’t enlightened enough to condemn slavery.
So can we be proud and ashamed of the same past at the same time? Can we simultaneously celebrate progress and critique depravity? How do we treat the symbols that represent both?
The city council of Charlottesville, Virginia, voted this month to stop observing as city holiday the birthday of Thomas Jefferson, who spoke against slavery but owned 600 enslaved people. Charlottesville will instead have a holiday in honor of the day Union soldiers entered the city and emancipated the people enslaved there.
Kathy Galvin, the lone city council member to vote against the change, said that “doing away with Thomas Jefferson’s birthday doesn’t do away with the history.” She cited Jefferson’s contributions to the country and to Charlottesville and added, “That birthday is still here. What he has done in the past is there.”
She is right. No one can change the past — but we can more accurately and respectfully express our ideals in the selecting of whom and what we honor.
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I believe most people are sincerely conflicted, unsure how to synthesize pride in country with the ugly legacies of the past. The search for answers is a personal and sometimes painful one. It is something with which I have tried to help the students I have the honor of teaching in Los Angeles.
They are pretty much all descendants of oppressed people. The legacy of that collective oppression is a visceral hopelessness that tempers their youthful idealism. Most of my students don’t like to be reminded of all the ugliness, but they also feel disrespected when the ugliness of what happened to their ancestors is ignored. They want to understand why things happen, and they are impatient with the pace of human moral progress.
How do I help them? That is a question I ask myself every day, even after 28 years. How to put the ugliness in perspective without minimizing the suffering? How to explain human brutality without justifying it?
Optimism on the decline
Empathy helps but has its limitations. Students have asked me whether I believe I know what it is like to be black. The answer is of course not. I can try to imagine, but imagination is never the same as experience. It isn’t close. I think sometimes kids ask me that question as a way of asking whether I am sincere in seeming to care about them and to care about the historical injustices. How can I be so offended by racism — or xenophobia or sexism, for that matter — if I have not personally been harmed by it?
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I don’t really know how to reassure them other than to keep caring and exposing them to the idea that some people care about those they don’t know, those who are different from them and even — sometimes — those who don’t care about them.
In the nearly three decades that I have taught African-American children, I have seen an evolution in the way that many of them feel about their place in society. It has mostly been a positive trajectory — starting at a low point in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating, Latasha Harlins shooting and the 1992 Los Angeles uprising.
By the early 2000s, it seemed like more of my students felt optimistic. We had read Langston Hughes’ poem “I, Too,” and they could imagine the progress Hughes was dreaming: “They’ll see how beautiful I am; and be ashamed — I, too, am America.”
“America never was America to me,” Hughes wrote in a different poem. “And yet I swear this oath — America will be.”
But the past few years seem to have stolen at least some of that optimism. An increasing number of students express to me feelings of hopelessness about the way our country regards them. Shouldn’t we be trying to change that before we worry about honoring the good that was inexorably wrapped up in the very bad?
Who exactly suffers when an athlete engages in silent protest or a shoe company pulls a style or a birthday is no longer a holiday or a statue comes down? How much pain is inflicted and on whom? And how does it compare with the pain of African Americans when they see a symbolic reminder of slavery and lynchings and American apartheid?
I cannot answer that question because, as I have told my students, I don’t know what it is like to be black, and believing imagination equals experience is the height of arrogance. So let’s trust black people when many say these symbols of the past are insulting, humiliating and otherwise injurious.
If racism were an extinct social artifact, then it might be easier to quietly acknowledge it along with the accomplishments of our democracy as embodied together in the flag Betsy Ross sewed to represent the birth of a profoundly flawed nation. But racism lingers, and right now we are going through a period of renewed and intensified animosities. If we have to shelve some shoes, put away the old flags, get rid of a few statues and change some holidays in order to recognize everyone’s humanity, then that is the price a still flawed nation ought to be willing to pay.
When we end racism and sexism and xenophobia, then those who wish can freely admire the past without implying anyone’s inferiority.
Larry Strauss, a high school English teacher in South Los Angeles since 1992, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and the author of more than a dozen books, most recently “Students First and Other Lies” and, on audio, “Now’s the Time” (narrated by Kim Fields). Follow him on Twitter: @LarryStrauss