America is supposed to be the land of the free and the home of the brave. But for African Americans and other people of color, the fight for equality remains a bitter struggle.
The NFL players who kneel or raise their fists during the national anthem are protesting police brutality and racial inequality. The countless murders of unarmed black men by police officers and a criminal justice system riddled with racial disparities are Jim Crow-era issues. These silent, peaceful and non-violent protests should be commended, not vilified.
While African-Americans comprise only about 12 percent of the total population, they represent 33 percent of the federal and state prison populations. In 2016, African Americans comprised 27 percent of all individuals arrested in the U.S. But the disparities do not end there.
1 out of every 3 individuals that are killed by police officers in any given year is African American. 69 percent of African American victims of police brutality were suspected of a non-violent crime and were unarmed. To make matters even worse, 97 percent of the cases of police brutality that were tracked in 2015 did not result in any officer-involved being charged with a crime. This is not just shameful, it’s legalized assault and murder.
After the Civil War, most African American veterans risked mistreatment and murder by simply wearing their uniforms. Nothing changed after the first World War when many veterans of color were denied the benefits and disability pay they had been promised. Yet even with these miscarriages of trust, more than a million African American men signed up for World War II to fight for their country. But when these patriotic war veterans returned home, they were shafted again. The G.I. Bill had been written in a way that most of its benefits – mortgage support, college tuition and business loans – were not available to them.
It has become customary for small groups of NFL players to meet at midfield after games to form prayer circles. Should we vilify these players for exercising their first amendment rights because some atheists feel offended, or should we respect their freedom of speech? Unlike tariffs, when it comes to the constitution, we cannot pick winners and losers.
The double standard that exists in America today reaps of hypocrisy. A baker who refuses to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple is applauded for his discrimination on religious grounds, while NFL players who hold silent protests during national anthems in a country that oppresses African Americans and people of color are booed and called traitors.
The right to protest does not come with rules and restrictions. To say that the national anthem or a football game is off limits for protestors is ridiculous. I understand the frustrations of drivers when protesters block highways and disrupt traffic. But protest methods are not negotiable. Dissent, by nature, is not politically correct.
African American athletes have a long history of highlighting social injustices by protesting the national anthem. Track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos cemented their place in history when they raised their black-gloved fists at the 1968 Summer Olympics. Four years later in Germany, Vince Matthews and Wayne Collett were barred from the Olympic Games after taking the podium but refusing to face the flag during the national anthem.
When Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was suspended in 1996 by the NBA for not standing during the national anthem, the controversy was not about patriotism or disrespecting the flag. It was the fact that the league was undermining democratic values by attempting to force its players to participate in a patriotic exercise.
Unlike citizens from less democratic nations who are mandated to attend morning flag-raising ceremonies, Americans – including African Americans – have a choice. NFL players like Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid have proven that America is indeed home of the brave. However, until police officers are held accountable for their actions and the criminal justice system is reformed, America will never be the land of the free for people of color.