This past weekend, nearly 200 NFL players protested in some way during the pregame national anthem. Reading social media before, during and after the weekend showed me once again how profoundly divided we are as a nation. But what if we talked to (instead of shouting about) each other? I like to think it would go something like this:
Bob is headed to his car after a long day at work. He sees his co-worker, Jamaal, in the parking lot.
Jamaal: Hey, did you see that game yesterday? The Texans almost pulled it out.
Bob: Man, I am done with the NFL. I’ve got better things to do than watch a bunch of spoiled millionaires who don’t respect the flag.
Jamaal: Oh, so you’re one of those people, huh? Tell me, how exactly does it harm you that some football players are kneeling during the national anthem?
Bob: Listen. My dad fought in Vietnam. I had a great uncle who I never met because he died in Korea. I have a nephew who’s in Afghanistan right now, so I don’t appreciate the attitude.
Jamaal: Okay. But I don’t see how what we’re talking about relates to that.
Bob: People died for that flag, okay? If you’ve ever seen a flag-draped coffin or seen someone hand a folded flag to a widow, you wouldn’t be asking these kinds of questions.
Jamaal: Well, my parents went to an all-black school in a raggedy old building that had no air conditioning, while the white kids had a beautiful school across town. When they finally integrated, none of the white kids even talked to my parents. It’s like they were lepers. Daddy’s family used to talk about a cousin who got lynched in Mississippi. Oh, and then there’s the fact that the whole bunch of us were slaves once upon a time.
Bob: I don’t see what that has to do with this…
Jamaal: I know. There’s no way you’ll ever understand. You’ve never had someone cross the street when they saw you walking their way. I’ll bet you never had your girlfriend’s parents make her break up with you because of your color. You’ve never lost a job because you “weren’t what they were looking for.” You’ve never been pulled over when you were doing the speed limit, just because you’re a black dude driving a late model car. You haven’t grown up in a neighborhood with liquor stores and payday loan joints where supermarkets and restaurants should be, and streets that haven’t been fixed in years, and all because some white politicians redrew the voting maps so you couldn’t have a black city councilman to stand up for you. You don’t know what it’s like to be defined by your race everywhere you go, constantly reminded that you’re different, that you don’t fit in.
Bob: Oh, I see. All us white folks are racist, I guess. And that’s why life didn’t turn out the way you wanted it to.
Jamaal: Don’t put words in my mouth, man. I’m just saying there’s some injustice in this country, and it’s about time some prominent black men spoke up about it. If kneeling during the national anthem gets us all talking about it, then it’s worth it.
Bob: Has it ever occurred to you that these athletes are disrespecting a country where they are so “oppressed” they make millions of bucks playing a game you and me used to play for free? I’d love to be the victim of that kind of injustice! And if this country is so messed up, how come so many people are trying immigrate here?
Jamaal: I don’t see disrespect. I see people using their First Amendment rights. Last time I checked, that’s the most patriotic thing you can do.
Bob: Whatever. These guys aren’t exactly moral paragons. I want to say, “Hey thug, stop beating up girls and having kids out of wedlock before you try to lecture us about social issues.” You still haven’t answered my question: What’s so wrong about a country where everyone in the world wants to live?
Jamaal: Well for starters, someone needs to speak out for all the unarmed young black men who are being shot by cops in this country. I mean, why are you more concerned about a piece of fabric than you are about those lives?
Bob: There’s thousands more black men being shot by other black men in Chicago. Where’s the outrage over that?
Jamaal: Stop changing the subject. I’m talking about cops here, the people who are supposed to protect us.
Bob: You think they don’t protect you? They put their lives on the line every day keeping you safe. To hear you talk, every cop is corrupt. This isn’t Birmingham in the sixties, you know. Stop rehearsing the past, get over this victim mentality and get on with life. And while we’re on the subject, how on earth does it hurt you to see a statue of Robert E Lee or Stonewall Jackson? Why is everyone out to erase history?
Jamaal: Erase history? There’s this thing called books, my friend. That’s where history is. And speaking of history, you realize the South lost, right?
Bob: Of course I do. I’m not a moron. But what’s wrong with us remembering some heroes who defended our country?
Jamaal: Our country? Last time I checked, they were fighting against the United States of America, against that flag you claim to love so much.
Bob: Stop twisting things. They were fighting for state’s rights.
Jamaal: Yeah, they were fighting for a state’s right to keep slavery legal.
Bob: I have relatives who fought in that war. None of them owned slaves. They went to war because they loved their state and didn’t want Yankees pushing them around.
Jamaal: Spin it any way you want to, Bob. You can’t deny that if it hadn’t been for slavery, there wouldn’t have been a Confederacy. If the South hadn’t been so intent on keeping their slaves, there never would have been a war.
Bob: And if those liberals in Charlottesville would have let those Nazis have their parade, it all would have passed without incident. But no, they had to go stir up a fight. And then they act surprised when violence breaks out.
Jamaal: I sure hope you’re not blaming the violence on people who were standing up against racism. And you should realize that most of those statues were put up during the Civil Rights era. That wasn’t a way of remembering heroes. That was a way of saying, “We white folks are in charge here, and you black folks will always be second class, no matter what the federal government says.”
Bob: Again, you’re just assuming you know how those people thought. You don’t know that for sure. And you still haven’t answered my question: How does a statue hurt you?
Jamaal: How does a protest during the national anthem hurt you?
Bob: Look, if everyone would just mind their own business and do their jobs, this country would be just fine. It’s identity politics that’s tearing a perfectly good country apart. And you’re buying into it, hook, line and sinker.
Jamaal (raising his voice): You know Bob, I can’t help thinking that talking to you is just like listening to Fox News! Have you ever had an original thought?
Bob (shouting): And I can’t help thinking we’d all be better off if you people would stop listening to Al Sharpton and Black Lives Matter!
Paula (who happens to be passing by): Hey! You guys okay? Do I need to call the cops?
Jamaal: No, Paula, we’re okay.
Bob: Yeah, just a couple guys having a discussion.
Paula (walking away): Alright. Just settle down, okay?
Bob (quieter): I’m sorry, man. That was out of line.
Jamaal: Did you actually say “you people”?
Bob: Yeah, that didn’t come out the way I meant it.
Jamaal: If you say so.
Bob: Truth is, I’m a Christian, and this is something I know I need to work on. My pastor has been talking to us about it, and I didn’t really want to hear it, but I think he has a point.
Jamaal: I was out of line, too. Sorry about that. But hey, I didn’t know you went to church. We go to Mount Moriah AME.
Bob: We’re at Trinity Bible. Sunday, the sermon was about the Good Samaritan, and how following Jesus means caring when your neighbor is hurting. He said if we hear…you know…African Americans or whatever talking about injustice we should care about it, just like the Samaritan cared about the Jew who was attacked. We should go out of our way to bind up the wounds. I’m not sure exactly what that means, but I know I need to change.
Jamaal: I gotta say, that’s a really beautiful thought. It makes a lot of sense, you know. And honestly, I was about to walk away from you just a minute ago. I was thinking, “People like Bob never change their minds about anything. Why waste my breath talking to him?”
Bob: That’s the problem, isn’t it? We just stay in our little camps, talking to the people who already think the way we do. We’ll never get anywhere that way.
Jamaal: Yeah, I guess that’s true too.
Bob: So…can I ask you something? These football players who are protesting…Are any of them doing anything to make life better? I mean, do they donate to charities in the inner city or volunteer at schools, or are they just interested in stirring things up?
Jamaal: I’m sure some of them do. But I don’t know, honestly. Can I ask you a question?
Jamaal: If a bunch of football players refused to stand for the national anthem because they were upset about all the unborn children who are aborted in America, would you feel the same way?
Bob: I don’t know, honestly. I need to give that some thought.
Jamaal: Just out of curiosity, are there any black folks in your church?
Bob: I think I’ve seen a couple. Any white folks in yours?
Jamaal: Not many.
Bob: Well, maybe I’ll drop by sometime.
Jamaal: That’d be great. But you better be ready for the long haul. By lunch time, our preacher’s just getting cranked up! And I don’t know if you people can handle our music.
Bob: Did you just say “you people”?