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Opinion: In a Culture War, American Values Lose

Nation’s top leaders have already picked a side

Vice President Mike Pence’s staged walkout at a Colts-49ers NFL game in Indianapolis was a political stunt that disrespected several players’ support of equality, justice and police accountability, Mary C. Curtis writes. (Tom Williams/Roll Call File Photo)
Vice President Mike Pence’s staged walkout at a Colts-49ers NFL game in Indianapolis was a political stunt that disrespected several players’ support of equality, justice and police accountability, Mary C. Curtis writes. (Tom Williams/Roll Call File Photo)

Over the weekend, a group of white nationalists returned to Charlottesville, Virginia, faces proudly uncovered and tiki torches in hand, with a message of division.

White supremacist leader Richard Spencer said to applause, “You are going to have to get used to white identity” — and warned of more to come.

The story barely lasted one news cycle, perhaps because, this time, no one drove a car into a crowd of anti-hate counterprotesters and killed a woman.

What you have heard plenty about, the story that has made ripples and had serious repercussions, is Vice President Mike Pence’s staged walkout at a Colts-49ers NFL game in Indianapolis — a political stunt that cost the taxpayers plenty — because he disrespected several players’ support of equality, justice and police accountability.

And no matter the spin, that’s what the pregame protests have been about since former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick consulted with military veteran Nate Boyer and decided to kneel silently (instead of sit) during the playing of the national anthem.

We also do a lot of kneeling out of respect and reverence in my Catholic church, but apparently Big Brother has decided standing is the thing. Does that rule apply to the guy sneaking out to the concession stand for nachos, I wonder?

Battle lines

The culture war is in full swing, and our country’s top leaders have picked a side.

Never mind that recent events have reinforced the urgent need for attention on the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they are sworn to protect.

In St. Louis, former officer Jason Stockley was found not guilty of murdering an African-American man, after saying he would do just that on tape.

In Utah, the FBI has been asked to investigate the death of a black man shot by police after he rode his bicycle across lanes of traffic.

In Charlotte, where I live, debates and protest continue after a tape of a police shooting of a Hispanic man has raised questions.

Never mind that despite present-day nostalgia that approves of them in retrospect, protests of every sort were not popular with the public or officials in their time. President John F. Kennedy was at first nervous about plans for the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, thinking it would be chaos — instead it turned out to be my mother in heels, modest dress and proper hat, who traveled by bus with her Baltimore church group.

In 2017, the sight of U.S. citizens, mostly African-American men, using their constitutional right to peacefully protest injustice cannot move the vice president — with orders from President Donald Trump — to passion, empathy or a plea for unity. But give Pence a chance to stop traffic and garner headlines, and he’s there, hand over heart and ready for his close-up.

Black and white issue

But of the white supremacists’ bold moves, Pence and Trump had nothing to say, in the same way Pence backed Trump’s comments that there were “very fine people on both sides” at the earlier deadly march.

Of course the president continued to double down on the tweets condemning NFL players this week, creating a distraction from war threats exchanged with North Korea, feuds with members of his own Cabinet and Republican legislators, and the continued suffering of citizens in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, recovering from hurricane damage. The gutting of clean energy and environmental protections continues under the radar while the country seems to be either on fire or underwater.

Unfortunately, this particular distraction is the point.

The White House and too many members of Congress don’t even pretend to lead all Americans anymore. And just wait and see what happens if Roy Moore, with his committed ideology — anti-LGBT, anti-Muslim, anti-everything except white, Christian and male — sets up shop in the Senate, despite his flouting of court orders and Washington Post reports he drew a salary from his charity.

In this war, like so many others the U.S. has become mired in, contradictions abound.

It’s the culture clash on steroids. When the president called protesting players and their mommas profanities and got roaring cheers from an Alabama crowd, it recalled nothing so much as the state’s former governor George Wallace in his full-throated fury — until Wallace saw the light and reconciled with the minorities he once had damned.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and team owners, with one eye on the White House and the other on the bottom line, have gotten the message and, no surprise, have picked the side of power. Could they be taking the title “owner” a mite too literally? If every player knelt to make the country and world take notice of racial inequality, would Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys carry out his threat, get rid of “his” players and “buy” some new ones?

The Constitution’s First Amendment principles, ones generations of Americans of every color have fought and died for, apparently have limits. Conveniently, religious freedoms, as interpreted by the Jeff Sessions-led Justice Department, would allow employers, the government and business owners to discriminate against many LGBT citizens.

Black folks? The ones the government is paying attention to belong to a made-up group called “black identity extremists,” so tagged as a domestic terror threat to the country’s safety, with a definition so broad that I’m sure I must be on the list — my older siblings were involved in the civil rights movement, so there’s that. It’s shades of the late FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who ruled without question and with spite, threats and blackmail.

It is frightening and enlightening to know exactly what your government thinks of those who would challenge it to live up to ideals of liberty and justice for all.

It’s easy to practice patriotism judged on reverence to a piece of cloth rather than taking a hard look at what the flag and anthem represents. We owe the many who did that difficult, sometimes reviled work.

On Friday, one of those heroes, Fannie Lou Hamer, would have been 100 years old, a milestone that, unless I missed it, passed without a mention by a White House preoccupied with football players.

Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, as a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus and a co-chairwoman of the Congressional Voting Rights Caucus, did remember, rising to recall the Mississippi-born icon, who made President Lyndon B. Johnson quake in her fight for the vote. She endured police beatings and countless indignities, though she never lost her own dignity.

“Sometimes it seem like to tell the truth today is to run the risk of being killed. But if I fall, I’ll fall five feet four inches forward in the fight for freedom,” Jackson Lee quoted Hamer and then asked for a moment of silence.

That would be the cue for NFL commissioner Goodell, the league’s owners, Vice President Pence and President Trump to stand up.

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.  

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