The Privilege of the Proverbial “Finger”

Being a lawyer makes me hyper-attentive to whether anyone’s rights are being denied or limited, and what that person must do to exert the necessary power to address a situation (e.g., through persuasion, litigation, preventive planning, etc.).  In these circumstances, one has to utilize purposeful power to right the situation, rather than merely hoping for some pleasant, affable, go-along / get-along resolution.

With my blog easily at my disposal, and both as a lawyer and individual, I cannot sit back silently in the midst of what I consider to be completely misdirected attacks against Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players voicing their protests.   I refer further below to  a racial epiphany I had a couple years ago relevant to these NFL protests.

I have enjoyed the benefit of white, male privilege my entire life. I grew up in north Fulton county Atlanta. My father was a successful lawyer; he and his three brothers attended college in the 1930s [Vanderbilt, Davidson, and MIT]. All three were Phi Beta Kappa graduates.  My father graduated number one in his Vanderbilt law school class.  He was the only law student in his class who, immediately upon graduation during the depths of the depression, secured a lawyer job (with attorney Bill Sutherland of the then-Atlanta law firm Sutherland, Tuttle & Brennan), and on and on.  Most importantly, during my entire life I have had the liberty essentially to give anyone the proverbial finger, without any thought or fear as to how I am, or may be, perceived.

Here is the epiphany I experienced two years ago.  My wife, kids and I had dinner with a family whose kids go to the same private school as my kids. We are longtime friends. Our friends are black. The father – we’ll call him  “Mark” — and I were having after-dinner drinks. Mark is a successful executive at a large Fortune 500 company.

As Mark and I talked over drinks, I commented — because I was growing my hair longer — that if I were a black guy I would probably have the most militant afro possible.

Mark responded by stating that, as a black man, he cannot sport the afro I referred to (not that he even wanted one). Mark said that having a large afro would create an extended array of additional problems for him.  Possibly more night-time police stops while driving or being characterized as some kind of radical Black Panther, etc. Mark acknowledged that he has to toe the line so as not to create these potential racial misperceptions, and that he has to teach his children to be aware of these same misperceptions.

My reply to Mark was that this burden he and other blacks carry is a consideration I had never in my life had to worry about (or even think about).  For example, I can drive anywhere I wish at night and sport whatever clothing or hairstyle I choose without fear of being misperceived (and even if I am, there will likely be no consequences). I can walk anywhere, or into any store or mall, without people clutching their handbags, or purposely crossing the street to avoid me, etc.  I can disagree with anyone I choose.

Up to that night, it had never occurred to me that Mark and his family face any social differences or prejudices compared to others in our network of school friends and families. I simply assumed we all had arrived at the same status in our lives as to  our children, our own college education, successful jobs, comfortable homes, our children’s private school education, social status, etc. The point is I had never even considered or thought about any disparity among our families.

For the first time I realized that even my good friend Mark — although outwardly as successful as (and likely more so) any of our mutual network of family and friends — has to bear a burden of racial bias completely foreign to me.  With this revelation, I realized Mark cannot avoid this ever-present element of race-tainted perceptions of himself and his family members. Nor can Mark use the proverbial finger (or even exhibit the spirit of the finger) as freely as I can. I perceive Mark’s situation as a powerfully insidious and persistent form of inequality and denial of liberty, in a way possibly not yet perceived, let alone understood or acknowledged, by many white males.

Now back to the NFL players. My assumption is that they – in continuing the protests on behalf of themselves and those who are mislabeled and misperceived because of race – understand (and feel) this inequality. And, I believe it is a misdirected fallacy among many critics of these NFL players who express the notion that the NFL players should be thankful and grateful for their money, fame, and success and, accordingly, toe the status-quo line without protest.

My view is that these NFL players, by using the power that the money, fame, and success gives them, are able to more directly and openly draw attention to this racial disparity in a way that now has triggered the closer attention this issue deserves. These players are no longer merely toeing the line, nor should they.

One further comment from my view as a lawyer. Our greatest liberty in the U.S. is the right to protest, dissent and disagree openly. Merely stating someone is disrespecting the flag by kneeling during the national anthem is a knee-jerk platitude that diverts attention away from considering why the NFL players are protesting; and, how we all might be more receptive to try and better understand the rationale and underpinning of these NFL player protests.  My view is that our flag — and the freedoms and rights it so importantly symbolizes – is an icon consistent with why these players can (and may) choose to kneel in protest.

My hope with this blog post is that my white male readers can at least consider the tremendous privilege we have; and, in view of that privilege, be willing to imagine themselves for a moment in the place of these NFL players who, in my opinion, are unselfishly courageous in helping shed more light on these racial issues.

As Edmund Burke aptly said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

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