I was a student who wouldn’t say the pledge of allegiance in school. I’d still stand, but wouldn’t put my hand on my heart, or actually say the words. Not only did the words “under God” not sit with me too well, but I knew from an early age that the promise of “liberty and justice for all” was not nearly realized. It’s also against my beliefs to pledge allegiance to any object or nation. The practice is nationalistic at best, and tyrannical at worst. I’m not proud to be a member of any nation, but rather a member of the human race, as I think we all should be. I like America; it’s awesome, and having traveled the globe, I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. But that’s something pretty far removed from pledging my soul to the nation’s flag.
Imagine my reaction when I saw professional athletes taking a knee during the national anthem as an act of protest. What one man started has now become a national movement and topic of discussion. Despite the media’s incessant focus on all the irrelevant issues, discussions about race are visibly taking place country-wide. The point that merits discussing here is not who is taking a knee, but why they are doing it.
It is impossible for me to understand the life of a black person in the United States, but as a Pakistani Muslim immigrant, I can certainly appreciate the impact of racism on my own life. From airports, to traffic stops, to work, I experience racism fairly regularly. This was particularly true in the years immediately following 9/11. From being called names, to having things thrown at me, to being questioned by homeland security agents, I’ve experienced it all. I’m not talking about things like micro-aggressions, or anything so soft. No, I’m talking about real, systemic racism.
Here’s the deal, a large portion of the American population is ignorant about race-related issues. While many may have good intentions, they are usually misinformed. In an age where real research has been replaced with sensational headlines and experts have been replaced by celebrities, it’s hard to find out what’s really going on. But research study after research study has consistently demonstrated racial disparities in law enforcement. Racism exists; that’s a fact, and people of color experience it every day.
Personally, I think #TakeAKnee is a wonderful attack on that ignorance, and it is unfortunately being overshadowed by this notion of “disrespecting the flag.” Let’s be clear; this has nothing to do with the flag itself. But like voting for Donald Trump, taking a knee is an act of speech by a disenfranchised population expressing the reality of their experience in this country. The black experience has seen men and women go to war, only to return and not be allowed to sit in the same restaurants as white people. The black experience has seen political districts be redrawn to diminish the power of the black vote. The black experience has seen their people be shot down by cops who received paid leave after clearly committing murder. That is the black experience in America, and it needs to be recognized and addressed.
The brilliance of #TakeAKnee is that it gives this experience a dramatic and impactful voice. The act is so visible it forces observers to acknowledge it. That it’s being carried out by athletes in the most American sport possible makes it all that much more powerful.
The reaction, like it usually is, has been counterproductive. We have a tendency in this country to say “that’s wrong!” instead of asking “Why is he doing that?” The reality is that a protest is designed to instigate; it is designed to draw out emotion from the other side because it is a clear display showing that everything you thought was alright actually isn’t. So instead of having a knee jerk reaction defending a piece of cloth, which we so readily disrespect in many other ways, we should ask what it would take to get these men and women to stand. How does America earn the respect of its citizens? Particularly those citizens who have, as a whole, been robbed of the American dream that the rest of us get to share? How can we work with them to make the flag worthy of standing before in their eyes?
Government, country, and society are only valuable insofar as they protect your rights. That’s the entire reason we form these institutions to begin with, because we cannot protect ourselves in a natural state. When member of that same covenant, of these same institutions, do not receive the same protections everyone else is guaranteed, then that warrants protest. And that protest is protected under freedom of speech, the same freedom that this country was built upon.