Combating racism raises the question of how to successfully accomplish societal change. This is a subject college students would have studied extensively back when there were required courses in subjects such as western civilization. Without that knowledge, we’ve seen a higher percentage of failed movements in America in the last few decades.
In short, successful protest movements have a number of characteristics in common, including 1) holding the moral high ground 2) accurately targeting the problem 3) being consistent with principles (as opposed to hypocritical) 4) remaining peaceful 5) persuading (not demonizing) others 6) usually sacrificing by the protesters and 7) creating greater unity in a community.
America has a cherished and vaulted history of protests leading to societal change. From the women’s suffrage leadership of people such as Ida B. Wells to the civil rights leadership of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. America has become a better country. There have also been protest movements that didn’t really result in much change. Violent protests have overthrown governments (think the American, French, and Russian revolutions) but have never caused significant change within a government, so violence has not been part of a successful strategy.
The “textbook” example of success is the civil rights movement of the 1960s. 1) Rev. King ensured that the movement held the moral high ground and regularly used the Bible to guide the actions of the movement. 2) He accurately targeted the problem — clearly African Americans were being discriminated against in a large variety of ways. 3) Although any movement with human beings in it is likely to have some elements of hypocrisy, there were not significant under MLK. 4) Certain people within his movement advocated violence, but MLK was able to keep his coalition peaceful. 5) His argument had broad appeal. If you read the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” you can see how positive, respectful, and persuasive he was to those in opposition. 6) The people of this movement sacrificed mightily. Some were murdered. Many suffered bodily and property violence. Images of police using powerful hoses on human beings galvanized the movement. 7) Unity was created in statements such as judging people by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.
Which brings us to today and a protest movement in support of racial equality by kneeling before the American flag, a practice spearheaded by Colin Kaepernick in 2016. This movement has expanded greatly to include the kneeling of almost all professional athletes in August 2020. 1) Desiring racial equality is clearly a moral high ground, but disrespecting the U.S. Flag Code (that’s the language used therein) is seen by a large number of people as lower moral ground. 2) It also isn’t clear how the problem of racial equality is addressed by targeting the flag. 3) This protest is very peaceful. 4) It turns out, surprisingly, that it’s main problem is that it is hypocritical. The flag is the one emblem representing the United States Constitution. That constitution instantiates the ability to engage in peaceful protest and speak freely. Because of these protections, every American can legally kneel for the flag. What is hypocritical is to kneel for the emblem that stands for the right to exercise that freedom. 5) The act of kneeling does not demonize those who do not stand. 6) Colin Kaepernick has certainly sacrificed for this movement. His last several games as a quarterback were not good, but it is likely that he might have stayed in the NFL at least a little longer had he not kneeled. 7) American reaction has shown this is polarizing, not creating greater unity.
In short, we should all strive for racial equality. Anyone part of a protest movement should include the historically proven elements of success. Kneeling for the flag does not include enough of them, so I recommend standing and finding more productive ways of protesting.
Eric Dent, a former professor at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, now teaches at Florida Gulf Coast University.