The National Football League’s top brass has finally gotten around to an awkward apology for squelching protests against police brutality by some of its Black players, who knelt during the national anthem in recent years.
The league blackballed the leader of that protest, Colin Kaepernick, and already had paid reparations to him in a court settlement before the uprising over George Floyd’s death. Kaepernick was a pretty darn good quarterback who took the San Francisco 49ers to the 2013 Super Bowl. He’s also a highly religious and careful man who got the idea of kneeling, rather than sitting, from a white Green Beret veteran and Seattle Seahawks player.
We all know that hell will freeze over before the president of the United States apologizes for inflaming white patriotic fervor at a 2017 Alabama rally and urging NFL owners to “get that son-of-a-bitch off the field right now.”
Meanwhile, polls show that most of us are finally coming around to embracing the worldwide protest of the last month as the essential founding impulse in the Declaration of Independence: courageous democratic resistance to injustice. The equality of humankind (“all men are created equal”) is the very first of the “self-evident” truths proclaimed in that document, a truly radical anti-establishment provocation against the divine right of kings in 1776.
This equality idea is arguably the most important single thing about our nation, even though some founders and Declaration author Thomas Jefferson himself later acknowledged their hypocrisy in that the “peculiar institution” of slavery belied the original statement.
Racial justice fighters and heroes from Frederick Douglass to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to former President Barack Obama have all emphasized that this striving for greater equality is more patriotic than easy sentimental expressions of nationalistic pride, raising a flag on your doorstep, singing “God Bless the U.S.A.” at the top of your lungs or even venerating military veterans (such as myself, U.S. Navy, Vietnam era).
Most of our civil rights leaders throughout history also have warned against despair, hopelessness and utter rejection of America as irretrievably racist and thus destined for destruction.
It was at a 2008 campaign stop in Cannon Falls, Minn., where Obama said that “there’s nothing wrong with America that can’t be fixed.” Obama also warned in a speech shortly after taking office against the extreme view of “white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America.”
As we celebrate summer freedom anniversaries at a social distance — the 244th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, and the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth, a belated celebration of freedom for African Americans — traditional nationalistic swagger and confidence seems to be slumping, both nationally and in Minnesota.
Reasons why are obvious: Widespread death, sickness and fear from a pandemic that the U.S. seems to have handled less effectively than other nations, causing a sudden and deep recession which in turn has exposed and inflamed deep economic unfairness in our American fabric. Divisive partisan polarization plays a part too.
COVID-19 and Derek Chauvin have conspired to tear the scabs off both overall economic inequality and insecurity, and to vividly remind the world that white America has had its knees on the necks of Black Americans for four centuries. Minnesota is taking a deserved beating, as insiders and outsiders are reassessing our claim to progressive prosperity and quality-of-life.
This is all good, or can be. As they say in the addiction recovery world, hitting bottom is often necessary for recovery. The first step is realizing the unmanageability of our current course and that we have been in denial and individually powerless over both racism and overall inequality between the top, middle and bottom. The unhealthy denial extends to climate change, interconnected to injustice in many ways. Group effort can restore us to sanity and pride in our selves and community.
Opinion polls also show an astonishing leap in the percentage of white Americans who now approve of Black Lives Matter and who agree that racism is systemic and institutional. This reality is something that diversity trainers in many of our public, private and nonprofit institutions have been trying to inculcate for at least a decade.
Those efforts and a growing profusion of new information — dozens of nonfiction books, journalistic efforts such as the New York Times’ “1619” series on the 400th anniversary of slavery in the colonies and movies based on that information — were quietly illuminating our consciousness before Chauvin knelt on George Floyd.
We can draw from this new knowledge as the statues come down, place names are removed and policies changed. In their place, we will need to elevate the mostly unsung heroes of color and other excluded people who fought to liberate themselves, such as Minnesota civil rights leader Josie Johnson, and not just their white male allies, such as Hubert Humphrey.
A most appropriate replacement for the toppled statue of Christopher Columbus, for instance, would be one of the mostly forgotten Native American Minnesotans, such as Dennis Banks, who founded the American Indian Movement, right here in Minneapolis in the late 1960s.
All of us who peacefully protested over the last month can take patriotic pride in the distinctly multiracial dimension of the uprising, in Minnesota first and then everywhere. Eventually, our place and response may be viewed as a historic turning point, another Selma for the nation and world.
As the Rev. Al Sharpton said in his eulogy for George Floyd: “There is a time and a season, and when I looked this time, and saw marches where in some cases young whites outnumbered the Blacks marching, I know that it’s a different time and a different season.”
Sharpton elaborated with an anecdote. “Years ago [when] I went to march … I remember a young white lady looked me right in the face and said, ‘N*****, go home.’ But when I was here [in Minneapolis] … and as I was talking to a reporter, a young white girl, she didn’t look no older than 11 years old, she tagged my suit jacket and I looked around and I braced myself, and she looked at me and said, ‘No justice, no peace.’ It’s a different time. It’s a different season.”
Dane Smith is a senior fellow at Growth & Justice, which advocates for a more equitable and inclusive Minnesota economy. He is co-editor of the Minnesota Equity Blueprint, a policy guidebook with 140 recommendations for addressing racial, economic and regional disparities.