NFL protests of the National Anthem have infuriated many Americans and pushed public debate in some interesting ways. The symbolism on both sides is telling.

Standing and crossing one’s heart during the National Anthem is thought to symbolize respect. It’s thought to honor our flag, itself a symbol of our country, our freedom, and the sacrifices made for them.

Locking arms during the Anthem implies solidarity: it implies a “We” reminiscent of “We shall overcome.”

Kneeling implies that there is something superior to our country: a god or justice, which transcends the U.S. and its laws, grounding or impugning them.

These symbols — their meaning and significance — are philosophical. They embody, and reveal, deeply held values that we all endorse but weight differently. The NFL protests of the National Anthem, then, have embroiled Americans in a philosophical debate. This is fascinating.

When was the last time we saw professional athletes kneeling in protest and fans their burning jerseys, yet another symbol, reminiscent of flag burning?

When have we last seen professional athletes and their fans commenting, not on a play or a game, but on the value of freedom, how to express it, and justice?

Critics of the protesters mention those who’ve fought for our country. They mention those who’ve died for our country. Rightly so. Those who fight and die for our country deserve recognition. This point, however, cuts both ways.

Black Americans fight and die for our country. They’re in our military and police force. Black slaves, who were denied American status, died building our country. For 246 years, they died establishing our infrastructure, cultivating our soil.

Black Americans have died at the hands of our country, as well. They’ve been killed by our differential implementation of capital punishment, by Klansmen whose murders were abetted by law enforcement and exonerated by white juries. Some would cite certain recent cops killings as part of this pattern.

Should we stand or kneel during the National Anthem? Should we cross our hearts, or lock arms? Whatever our answer, we should reflect. We should reflect, and understand each other.

If the U.S. is going to live up to its name — to be united — we must understand each other. We must understand each other’s symbols, histories, contributions, and experiences as Americans.

Much of the debate over the National Anthem overlooks this. Much of it ignores the disparate histories and experiences of black and white Americans: the contributions and sacrifices of the former.

This history is uncomfortable for many. I understand. Discomfort, however, doesn’t change the past. Ignoring the past, moreover, doesn’t erase it.

Whatever our views on the National Anthem and the NFL protests — however we understand the symbols and values — the controversy surrounding them provide an opportunity for us to better understand each other and to emerge more united. We should seize this opportunity.

Reginald Williams, PhD, is a tenured philosophy professor at Bakersfield College.

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