Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Anthem Antagony

ISIS just got crushed. North Korea keeps threatening and ain't goin' away. Tax reform is on the table in DC. There are many weird things about the Vegas shooting that have not been explained. Things surrounding the Uranium One scandal make it one of the most dastardly cases of political corruption in American history.

With all that going on, the fact that people are still spending hours of their lives venting about the NFL's national anthem protests is a sign they've lost their sense of proportion. However, that flap is so much the issue de jour that not commenting about it almost feels like a failure of civic duty. Shouldn't feel like that, but does, so here I go.

Of course there are two issues involved -- on one hand is the protest itself, on the other is President Trump inserting himself into the picture -- so it must be made abundantly clear that your opinion about one need not bind you to a predetermined opinion about the other. Unfortunately, people seem unaware of that should-be-obvious fact and as a result they tend to fall into either of two camps. One camp asserts that the protesters are wrong and Trump is right, while the other asserts that the protesters are right and Trump is wrong. But from my vantage point, the protesters and Trump are both wrong.

Although brevity is not my strength, I will try to be as brief as possible. If you intend to read this and are all-in with either of the two camps I mentioned, I only ask that you read my post in is entirety (and with an open mind) before deciding whether I'm an ingrate.


The Players
The headline to a recent column by Tampa Bay Times sportswriter Tom Jones read: "Rather than criticizing anthem protests, we should be asking about the reasons for them." That is wrong. Jones has it backwards, for when a person decides to stage a public protest, that person has a baseline obligation to volunteer his reasons for it and back them up and make his case, since that is, after all, the whole point of protesting.

The onus is on the protester to offer his explanation, not on the public to ask him for it, and a protester who fails at that very basic obligation is a protester who deserves to be ignored.

If you make a spectacle about having an opinion yet don't give the basis for it (or even bother to be clear about what your specific opinion is) you can't criticize people for concluding that you don't know what you're talking about.

And let's face it, so far the player-protesters from the athletic world have had a much closer relationship with vagueness than they have with clarity. Sure, they've made broad pronouncements that 99 percent of the public would never disagree with (e.g., police brutality is bad, racist white cops beating up innocent black citizens is bad) yet they have not offered any evidence that police brutality really is rampant, nor have they offered any evidence that cops really are using their weapons in an "open season on blacks" (if you don't mind me borrowing a phrase that has been used quite a bit since Ferguson).

Point to your melanin and tell me it has caused some store clerks to watch you closer than they watch shoppers with pale complexions, and I will definitely believe you. Point to it and tell me that the cop who pulled you over spent more time gazing into your vehicle than he would have spent looking into mine, and I will probably believe you (and the reason I only say "probably" is that I myself was once threatened and harassed for several days by an FBI agent who mistakenly assumed I had knowledge about somebody he was investigating).

But tell me that police officers all over the country are shooting black Americans practically at will, and at rates disproportionately higher than they are shooting white Americans, and your belief alone, even when combined with personal anecdotes about your own unfair (but notably non-violent) encounters with individual cops will not suffice for me to believe that such a sweeping and damning claim is accurate.

I need something more in order to entertain, much less accept, an accusation that attaches itself to so many human beings and that borders, if not crosses, the threshold of slander. I need much more.

And while I promise to come back to the matter of evidence, let me now pause to talk about...


The President
When Donald Trump decided to go tweeting that the NFL's anthem-kneelers should be fired or suspended (I don't know his exact words because I'm not on Twitter and not in the mood to look them up) he correctly read the public's mood. He knew that most Americans are greatly turned off by the protest and that many of them are outright repulsed by it, so he calculated that criticizing the protesters would play well and help him politically.

Trump's calculation was correct, but he was wrong to act on it the way he did. And he was not only merely wrong, but really most sincerely wrong. And damned wrong on top of that.

The President of the United States is universally recognized as the leader of the free world and widely considered the most powerful person on the planet. This has been the case for all of my 46 years, and for many years before I was born. For the man holding that office to publicly declare that private citizens (whom he was elected to serve, not rule) should be deprived of their pay by private employers (whom he was also elected to serve, not rule) is so obviously inappropriate that I shouldn't have to point it out.

Imagine if you went to a town hall meeting during your city's mayoral election, and asked a question that suggested you thought the incumbent was allowing corruption to go unchecked in one of the city government's agencies... and next thing you knew, the President of the United States Himself jumped on the airwaves and called for you to get canned or placed on unpaid leave. How would that feel?

Contrary to what some commentators have claimed, that would be a First Amendment issue. Yes, an employer does have a right to fire you for something you say, because the First Amendment protects you only from the government restricting your speech. But again, we are talking about the President of the United States Himself saying you should lose your job for saying something he doesn't like. Doesn't that seem like government encroachment on your speech rights, even if he says he is not giving an order. Wouldn't you find it egregious if a man with such immense power started throwing his weight around where your livelihood is concerned?

Don't employers have a natural tendency to do whatever it takes to stay on Master Government's good side? Is it really that crazy to wonder if an employer might decide to find a way to rid itself of an uninvited problem employee of whom the most powerful man on Earth opposes, in order to protect itself (and thus its employees and shareholders!) from the wrath of the power that man commands?

Shouldn't we consider what the precedent might mean for tomorrow if a president today sticks his proboscis where it doesn't belong and nobody pushes back?

Conservatives such as myself would scream bloody murder if Barack Obama did something like Trump has done with regard to the NFL players. If we mean what we say we mean, we have to call Trump out too.


The Protest
It's a little hard to comment on the protest because, like I mentioned, the players haven't really explained what they're protesting. However, it's fairly clear that they believe police shootings/brutality against black citizens is rampant and out of proportion to police shootings/brutality against white citizens.

But what does the evidence say about that?

Look at the numbers of what has actually happened, like Larry Elder did recently, and you will see that an unarmed black man in the United States is more likely to get struck by lightning that he is to get killed by a police officer.

One of the most complete studies ever done about police interactions with various segments of the population was conducted by Harvard's Roland G. Fryer, Jr. and published last year. In what Fryer (who is black) called "the most surprising result of my career," it found that after factoring in contextual differences (percentage of population, suspect behavior, etc.) there is no discrepancy in the rates of police shootings of blacks versus police shootings of whites.

Multiple studies including one by Washington State University have found that in simulation tests (think "Shoot Don't Shoot") police are quicker to pull the trigger against whites than they are against blacks.

These studies are not necessarily dispositive, and do not change the fact that every single unjustified slaying by authorities is abhorrent, but they do throw a lot of cold water on the notion that police are singling out minorities and using them for target practice.

If millionaire athletes hope to persuade the general public to accept their side of the argument, they must be able to cite evidence and statistics, and they have to deal reasonably with any evidence or statistics that don't conform to their argument. Where contrary evidence is concerned, they must be able to either debunk it or present a compelling argument why it's not significant.

The reason they must do this is twofold: 1) the general public (by which I mean "the majority of white people") already has a gut belief that there is little if any racial discrepancy when it comes to unjustified shootings and beatings by police; and 2) perhaps more importantly, the stats and evidence I noted above are fairly well-known. Therefore, when the player-protesters fail to present stats and evidence, it reinforces a not uncommon assumption that they don't know what they are talking about -- and that, in turn, invites the general public to conclude that the player-protesters aren't worth listening to.

Which might be a shame, because there are actual statistics that support the existence of a racial discrepancy in physical (albeit non-fatal and non-shooting) encounters with police. For example, the same Roland Fryer study which found no discrepancy in police shootings also found that "blacks and Hispanics were more than 50 percent more likely to experience physical interactions with police, including touching, pushing, handcuffing, drawing a weapon, and using a baton or pepper spray" (direct quote from this article). Factoring in context does cause that eye-popping 50 percent gap to go down, but unlike what happens with shootings, does not cause it to go away; there remains a statistically noteworthy gap and no readily discernible explanation -- other than race -- to account for it.

That is the kind of thing that most people would believe is worth looking into. People on both sides of the political divide, racial divide, economic divide, educational divide, and any other divide you can name. However, with the player-protesters not citing it, it stands no chance of getting any attention.

And with the athletes choosing to make the flag and anthem the centerpieces of their protest, they repel rather than attract millions of potential allies. And those potential allies have legitimate reasons for feeling repelled, even insulted. But I promised I would "try to be as brief as possible," and I have already gone long, so I'll save that for another time.