A recent David Brooks column in the New York Times made a plea to high school football players who may be inclined to emulate San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick by kneeling during the playing of the national anthem. This refusal to stand for the Star Spangled Banner (Is it dissent? Is it an attempt to spark a discussion?) has become the latest flashpoint in our clumsy American dialogue about race and inequality. Brooks is worried that these protests are, in his words, “extremely counterproductive” because they exacerbate the “crisis of solidarity” that plagues the nation. Brooks’ view, in brief, is that solidarity is the tonic that’s needed to build the kind of patriotism required to sustain the long-term viability of our nation.
The column got me thinking about solidarity, and about a fundamental question: In order to build a stronger, more durable nation, must we rely upon convenient fictions and myths, or can we candidly acknowledge the facts of our history, learn from them, and become wiser and stronger as a result?
Brooks thinks we have a crisis of solidarity. That view dismisses almost the entirety of our history. Solidarity has been the one persistently lacking ingredient in the American democratic recipe. We lacked solidarity almost from the time the ink was dry on the Constitution. When Madison and Jefferson took quill to page and wrote the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, they were not in solidarity with the very idea of a federal system. They gave strong voice to the notion of state’s rights, a notion that has vitality even today, an idea that for decades was (and continues to be) the pretext for racial and other forms of discrimination in many states.
There wasn’t much solidarity in the nation when Jefferson Davis decided to accept the presidency of the Confederate States, when southern soldiers fired on Fort Sumter, when thousands of men lay dying on the battlefields of the Wilderness, Gettysburg, Antietam and Bull Run. Twenty-two thousand, seven hundred seventeen Americans from all regions of the nation died or were wounded or missing at Antietam because we lacked national solidarity.
Solidarity was not in evidence when the Supreme Court decided in Plessy v. Ferguson that keeping races separate was not forcing inequality upon them. No solidarity was on display in 19th century Boston when “No Irish Need Apply” was included in advertisements for domestic help. Henry Cabot Lodge didn’t express much solidarity when he tried to stop the great tide of immigration of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, declaring, “We have the right to exclude illiterate persons from our immigration,” people (largely from southern Europe) who represented “races most alien to the body of the American people and from the lowest and most illiterate classes of those races.” Had Lodge been successful in his lack of solidarity, my grandparents wouldn’t have been able to enter this country.
Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats demonstrated no solidarity with their fellow Democrats when they walked out of the 1948 Democratic convention because of its adoption of the minority report on Civil Rights. Alabama Gov. George Wallace didn’t show solidarity with all of his state’s citizens when he stood at the schoolhouse door, trying to keep students out of a classroom.
So let’s be clear, history tells us this one thing: If America is a great nation (and it is), it isn’t because we have a long and noble history of solidarity. To the contrary, solidarity has rarely been a national instinct. Somehow we have survived this absence of solidarity. We have fought, debated, challenged one another, and in that process have endured. We are not always aligned, but we have endured.
The debate about the national anthem is really a discussion about how many of our state and national emblems—state flags, songs, and mascots—lack meaning for many Americans because they do not respond to our diversity or acknowledge our history. If these emblems fail in this, then they also fail to instill the kind of solidarity that Brooks so keenly seeks. There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to national solidarity, but you can’t get there by expecting people to ignore historic facts or inconvenient truths. And it is true, despite what Brooks says, that while the “civic religion” espoused by the founders at the birth of the nation was centered on the notion that “all men are created equal,” that promise was not fulfilled for those who were enslaved in America. Indeed, the Constitution included specific language acknowledging the existence of slavery, acknowledging that each person enslaved would not even be counted as a whole person but as three-fifths of one. We may have atoned in many ways for the grievous and indefensible adherence to slavery for almost the first hundred years of our national existence, but the stain is indelible and we are compelled to acknowledge it.
I reject the idea that we need to force a false sense of unity by telling high school and college students they can’t express themselves respectfully on the field. Choosing to kneel is no sign of disrespect; it is a silent expression of enormous respect for the very qualities that make this nation exceptional: the freedom to speak and associate and express ourselves without fear of sanction. If the day comes that we are not resilient enough to withstand the exercise of free speech, that’s the time to worry about the future of this nation.
This ought to be a teachable moment, when we can have honest conversations about our history, and place that history in a context relevant in 2016. There is much in our history to deplore but there is also much to celebrate and take pride in. There are bright moments to remember; examples of how good and generous and great we can be as Americans. They can be found in 1801, when after one of the most divisive elections in the nation’s history, the new president reached out to his political enemies in his inaugural address, declaring that “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.” They are found in Lincoln’s second inaugural, when he committed himself to a policy of “malice toward none, [and] charity for all.” They are found in Hubert Humphrey’s words, exhorting fellow Democrats in 1948 to “walk in the bright sunshine of human rights,” in Martin Luther King’s vision of children of different races and creeds sitting “together at the table of brotherhood,” and LBJ’s expression of solidarity when he spoke of the importance of voting rights and said “We shall overcome.” Not “You shall overcome,” but “we.”
We don’t need the salve of fiction or myth to bring us together as Americans. What we need is a good dose of honesty about our past and our present, an honest conversation leavened and facilitated by civility. The last thing we need is repression of deeply felt emotions that lead to the kind of silent statements being made on sports fields across the nation. If Americans stand in solidarity for anything, it ought to be respect for the exercise of free speech and expression. In this instance, respect for the exercise of that freedom ought to be joined by a candid respect for our history, and a frank acknowledgment of conditions that today still cause many of our citizens to be treated unequally. If we get that right, solidarity will follow.
James Aloisi is a former Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation and a principal in the Pemberton Square Group.