Bending the Knee for America And Not Against: An Answer to Quin Hillyer

This is a response to Quin Hillyer, a contributing editor for National Review and a senior editor for the American Spectator, who has tagged the NFL protests “disgusting.”

Dear Quin,

The protesting NFL players are not insulting America. They are patriots, trying to correct a wrong and encourage America to live up to its ideals. And if we are anything, we are a country deeply based on noble ideals, which marks us out as a nation, as does our ever present determination to try to live up to those ideals.

The players are using the opportunity given them to make the most effective public protest they can about the racial inequality harming our country — and in particular the series of high-profile fatal shootings of black men by especially violent police officers.

Maybe we should rehearse some facts here.

Obviously, it isn’t only black men who are being killed. And one can quibble about the comparative numbers — with neither side of that argument helped by the risible data-collection of the FBI. But there are plenty of serious studies around to suggest that unarmed black males stand a greater chance of being shot dead than unarmed whites.

One study — by a professor at the University of California, Davis — found “evidence of a significant bias in the killing of unarmed black Americans relative to unarmed white Americans, in that the probability of being black, unarmed, and shot by police is about 3.49 times the probability of being white, unarmed, and shot by police on average.” The study found also “no relationship between county-level racial bias in police shootings and crime rates (even race-specific crime rates).”

In short, the difference can’t be explained by the level of local criminality.

A detailed analysis by the Washington Post found that, “when factoring in threat level, black Americans who are fatally shot by police are, in fact, less likely to be posing an imminent lethal threat to the officers at the moment they are killed than white Americans fatally shot by police.”

And across the board there’s evidence of racial bias in policing. For example, a Department of Justice inquiry found in Ferguson, Missouri, “a pattern or practice of unlawful conduct…that violates the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and federal statutory law.” The investigation noted: “Officers expect and demand compliance even when they lack legal authority… They are inclined to interpret the exercise of free-speech rights as unlawful disobedience, innocent movements as physical threats, indications of mental or physical illness as belligerence.” And the inquiry found the police department saw the black population as a revenue stream in terms of fines that could be imposed.

There are several studies around suggesting that blacks and Latino drivers are more likely — on average twice as likely — to be stopped by police, even though on the whole contraband is more likely to be found in cars driven by whites.

Of course, more whites are killed by police than blacks, a reflection of the different population sizes. And we should be as appalled by the loss of white lives as much as black ones. (I do not understand how the fatal shooting of anyone who is unarmed can be justified. In the event a police officer feels his life threatened in a fist fight or by someone armed with a knife, the shot should be to a leg or arm, not to torso or targeting the head. We should expect and demand a high level of professionalism from all our police officers.)

But because of the differences in policing, as studies show consistently, black athletes are justified in singling out police brutality towards African-Americans. And that becomes even more justified when it is placed in the context of racial inequality generally. You write on your blog this: “This nation of ours has provided more freedom, more dignity, and more material benefits to its citizens, and has given more of its blood and treasure for the sake of others, than any nation on Earth.”

Indeed so. I am not an accidental American, but an American by deliberate choice — a naturalized one who came not to escape persecution but to embrace an idea. But America isn’t perfect and your narrative leaves out the bad, including enslavement. We are still working through the consequences of that ugly part of our history — and the protests of the NFL players are just one of the consequences.

You write: “There are right ways and wrong ways to protest. Respectful ways, and obnoxious ways.” But I see nothing obnoxious about the way the athletes are protesting.

The disgusting NFL protesters

What I do see is sorrow and dignity.

They bend the knee for America; not against it.

They ask in their silent protest for America to be better. They do not punch the air with a clenched fist. They do not burn the flag or stomp on it. They bend a knee towards it, asking for change.

What would be the right way to protest? Where it can’t be seen? Where it would have less effect? They protest in the most public way they can, hoping to prompt change, to shake the conscience of a nation. Yes, it is uncomfortable. Protest isn’t meant to be easy or non-controversial; it is meant to challenge. And they are challenging us to improve as did the civil rights protesters before them — their demonstrations were also awkward, irritating, and at first for a majority of white Americans infuriating and wrong.

I see some polls out this week suggest a majority of Americans think professional athletes should stand for the national anthem, although the numbers supporting the NFL players are slowly rising, apparently. The majorities against the bending of the knee are not as big as those against the civil rights protests of the 1960s. And I am heartened by that — because on the whole I believe that too many white Americans resent black protest as a whole, almost regardless of the cause. That is another, alas, consequence of an American past we need to do much more to overcome.

But the President has chosen another road. I fear you make light of his outburst that has highlighted these protests. “And even if some supposed leader goes overboard in criticism in terms of what he says and how he says it, that doesn’t make the protests any more justifiable.”

Trump isn’t just any leader (I am curious about your word “supposed” here, mind you), he is the President of the United States. And so his words have added significance — they can help heal or harm, calm or provoke. It strikes me a national tragedy that the bully pulpit, which many presidents regardless of party affiliation have used to try to unite, is being turned into a bully’s pulpit, used to divide and inflame, both as a distraction from legislative failures and to pander to a base.

In fact, by singling out NFL players and calling them SOBs for exercising their free speech rights, he has indeed made the protests more justifiable for two reasons. First, because as President he has failed to heed — even hear — their request for the address of their grievances; that should sadden all of us, because if our fellow Americans are hurting, we should embrace their right to be heard; and, second, he has attacked their free-speech rights, making it essential, I think, for all Americans to bend the knee for America.

I do understand some veterans see these protests as an insult to the flag they fought for and their comrades died for — others, I have spoken with, don’t. But surely it behoves us to listen to these protests, to understand their roots in our history, to avoid the use of inflammatory language such as SOBs. Our goal surely is to live up to our motto E pluribus unum.