How do I know that racism still exists?
As a disabled veteran, I am afforded a disabled veteran license plate. It’s something I am proud of because I have always loved this country and ever since I was a kid I wanted to serve the nation I call home. While serving in the army, I developed a condition that affected my heart and ultimately required implanting an ICD or pacemaker in my chest. That designates me as permanent and totally disabled and (due to recent changes in state law) allows me to have the handicap endorsement. When I park in the spot there’s usually not an issue at all. However, there have been seven incidents where I’ve been surveilled, jeered, or confronted. Neither of these interactions was with law enforcement or store security. Each time the issue was with an older white man. It never fails.
Now to be fair, I do not look like the typical ICD/Pacemaker patient. I am young, fit, I take my medicine, eat right, and exercise regularly. Even my doctors are amazed that someone with my illness looks the way that I do. Nevertheless, there is still the fear that I could drop dead at any moment. However, these older white gentlemen were appalled that I am parking in that spot. They approach me and the conversation typically goes like this:
“Hey, you can’t park there! That’s for handicap!”
“Yeah, I know! That’s why I parked there. Check my plates!”
Walks off without saying a word.
One time it went a bit differently:
“Hey, you can’t park there. It’s for handicap. My mother is handicapped.”“I’m so sorry to hear about your mom. I know how she feels because I am too! Check my plates.”
Walks off grumbling.
I think what angers them is that they thought the conversation would go differently. They would tell me what to do and I had to adhere to it. This is what I think about when I see new NFL rules regarding the national anthem. A bunch of old white men telling sixty percent of its players what it can and cannot do. The irony is that those players take a knee because of encounters like the ones I sometimes have in parking lots. The other ironic thing is that the NFL often says it has to “protect the shield” but that same shield does not always meet its commitment to protect and serve all people, including the many young black males who help to make the league not only exciting but extremely profitable.
The funny thing is that owners and fans who favor this action they say it’s to show respect to the troops and the flag itself. They often say “I had a dad/ an uncle/ a son/ a daughter that served.” Am I the only one who has noticed that it’s hardly ever the ones making all the noise who’ve served themselves?
I get it. The real problem is that you don’t want to be forced to be mindful of the atrocities that have been carried out against people of color. At first, you could just avoid watching the news or put down the paper, which allowed you to put the blinders on. Now, it has leaked over into your precious football game. Now, it’s harder to escape the reality that a system which has dramatically benefitted your way of life as a whole was built on the backs of people of color. Then, from a position of privilege, you say that NFL players should feel lucky because they are making millions of dollars and have no reason to complain. You refuse to recognize that their success is the exception rather than the rule and that they are not speaking or kneeling for themselves but for those who do not have the platform to do so. So you call, write letters, burn jerseys and season tickets while pledging not to watch the NFL if the kneeling continues. In your mind, you rationalize this antipathy as patriotism, but is it? No, it is not.
Patriotism is not buying a truck with the American flag plastered on it or walking around with a gun on your hip playing John Wayne defending the 2nd amendment. I’m not even going to get into the pure treason of flying the flag of the Conferderacy in the United States of America. Patriotism is defending the freedom of all. It is sacrificing your safety, security, and comfort, to the cause of a nation that provides life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all. It means also speaking when that nation fails to live up to its creed or simply respecting the First Amendment rights of others to do so. I know you like football but you (and it) will be okay even if you show a little tolerance.
Patriotism is about helping your neighbor even the ones that don’t look like you and not calling the police because well…they don’t look like you. It’s about keeping everyone safe. It’s about defending the free speech of someone even if you don’t agree with it and it makes you feel uncomfortable. It’s about always holding up your end of the bargain even if this country hasn’t always held up its end to me.
So why am I more of a patriot than you? I am the casualty of slavery and Jim Crow while you are the beneficiary of those systems and your children will be its heirs. Yes, that was a long time ago, but the thing about trying to bury “ancient history” is that the skeletons keep popping up and you can never quite get rid of the stench. It is for this reason that I was enrolled in a less than desirable school system. Redlining forced me into a less than desirable neighborhood. Lastly, it is why despite my service, I am afraid to get pulled over by the police for fear that a misunderstanding could do what a heart attack at 22 couldn’t and keep me from ever seeing my family again.
Despite all that, I am a proud American. I always stand for the flag and I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon. Unlike some Americans who have the fortune of privilege, I also understand why some NFL players feel compelled to speak for others who are denied basic dignity and rights. I respect the ideals that the forefathers had in mind and, while this country is far from perfect, I still believe in what it can be. To paraphrase Andre Johnson, the lead character from ABC’s hit series Blackish, this country betrayed my community so many times and still I believe in the American dream and what this country could be. I did exactly what my community is told when we are given less than desirable circumstances: I pulled myself up by my bootstraps. I did so with the added degree of difficulty of playing on unleveled playing field and starting on my own one yard line.
To those who seek to prove how American they are by denying the liberty of other Americans and to the world that is watching, this is not who we are. Speaking as a man who literally sacrificed his heart for this country, I am way more of a patriot than they could ever hope to be. Don’t believe me? In Tony Stark form, check the resume:
Defender of Free Speech…for all!
Happy Memorial Day!