Sunday, June 3, 2018

Keep 'em In Their Place

I am a white senior citizen who grew up in the racially segregated South. Even as a child, I sensed there was something terribly wrong with the way we were living. Nothing made any sense. I felt I was getting stop and go signals simultaneously.

Love your neighbor as yourself, said the church my family attended. But I was also taught I could not love my black playmates in the full sense of love. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” said my church and school. But this, too, was not what segregated life exemplified. Blacks were not treated as whites treated themselves. Aunt Sarah and Uncle Bill, the black couple who worked for my parents on the Virginia farm where I grew up, did not sit and eat with us at the same table. Why? When I asked my mother whose sister was Aunt Sarah, she patiently explained, after recovering from the shock of my question, that “Aunt” and “Uncle” were titles of respect that white children used for older colored people (Colored was the term used in the South during the 40s and 50s.) Well, then why didn't we respect them and eat together and visit together?

I was getting more and more confused. My brother and I could play with the children of our black neighbors at home but we could not go to church or school or movies or parties together. Nobody could explain in any way that made sense to me why we were had to live a divided life--intimate friends and playmates privately but separated in all public areas of life. I would sometimes examine my skin in a mirror and I knew that if my skin were brown I would be the same person but I would not be treated the same.

Whites, some in my own family, said, “Good niggers know their place.” It was mostly men who used this language. My brother and I knew that if we used that "N" word, we would be punished as severely as if we cursed. I wondered about this “place.” What was it? Where was it? It was clear it was not the same “place” whites reserved for themselves. I later learned it was a subordinate place. But why? What had whites done to earn a place of privilege?

The answer, of course, was nothing. They believed their white skin was enough to ensure privilege. It was their security blanket. But to maintain that superstition, they had to invent laws and traditions that punished Blacks for no reason other than the fact that they were not white. Sadly that attitude is a rabid infection in our culture today. Because of the changing demographics many whites act terrified of losing the privilege they believe they own solely because they happened to have been born with white skin. Instead of working to transform society and make things better for themselves and everyone else, they are beating a militant retreat into the racist sewer.

What Roger Goodell and the NFL have done by banning the respectful taking of a knee is the equivalent of segregationalists using every tactic at their disposal to put and keep Blacks in their “place.” The NFL was already guilty of gross injustice by effectively banning quarterback Colin Kaepernick from football because he exercised his First Amendment rights in the most respectful way. Taking a knee is basically a prayerful posture. This new policy takes the NFL to the bottom of the racist barrel. It is offensive that the NFL has chosen to endorse Trump’s blatant racism rather than showing leadership and acknowledging that athletes who take a knee have a constitutional right under the First Amendment to do so. Depending on which analysis you read, Black athletes make up some 70 percent of NFL players. Without those Black athletes, football as we know it wouldn’t exist. Black athletes are in leadership positions throughout sports. The NFL’s action says loud and clear: “Put those uppity Blacks in their place.”

I can’t believe I’m writing about football. I’m not even a football fan. But this is much bigger than football. It’s about the racist dregs of white supremacy being used punitively against Blacks who dare to bring attention to a huge social problem--police violence and brutality that target and criminalize Black men and boys in particular. In a sane world, their protest would be heard, examined and lead to vigorous efforts to transform the culture that continues to criminalize and punish Blacks. It is my hope that entire teams--and spectators, too--will protest in solidarity by taking a knee on the field and off. It would be great to see a stadium of spectators take a knee when the national anthem is played. Democracy is on the line here. Its promise still has not been fulfilled. It would be gratifying to see the NFL follow the Black athletes’ heroic lead toward greater democracy rather than taking us backwards into one of the ugliest periods of our history. It is no less ugly today.