For Theodore Johnson, the question of protest has complicated answers. Particularly the mode of protest chosen by Colin Kaepernick, the former 49ers quarterback who began taking a knee during the national anthem before football games as a protest against police violence toward minorities.
On the one hand, Johnson told a crowd gathered at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ on Friday morning, the United States does have a problem with racial inequality.
“You can look at data,” he said, “by any measure, we’re still not a place where everyone has equal access to the inalienable rights of life and the pursuit of happiness.”
But on the other, Johnson loves his country, its symbol in the flag, and the uniform he wore while serving it: Currently a Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, Johnson is a retired Navy Commander.
“As a military veteran and at the time an active duty guy, it is something I would never do,” Johnson said. “I will never kneel during the anthem because I made a commitment to the country, I made a vow when I put on that uniform, and there are customs and norms that I respect because of my service that require me to honor the flag.”
He recalled the conversations he had when Kaepernick first began kneeling, right before Johnson was about to retire.
“I am asked by black friends, how can you serve? And I am asked by white friends, isn’t this so disrespectful,” Johnson said. “And I tell them both, you’re both right.”
Invitation to conversation
Johnson’s wrestling with respect and protest, with contradictory twin experiences, was the keynote address at the 27th annual Carroll Citizens for Racial Equality Conference. The title? “Respect, Racism and Patriotism: Talking about taking a knee.”
“We’ve touched on various topics over the years,” said Erin Snell, the St. Paul’s minister of social justice and one of the Carroll Citizens for Racial Equality chairs for the conference. “We had a year where we talked about our LGBTQ community, so we went with another community that’s marginalized. We focused on poverty in Carroll County one year. Last year we talked about history of race in Carroll County.”
The idea behind the conference, Snell said, is to learn how to have meaningful conversations around topics that can be uncomfortable to talk about.
“We’re going to practice having difficult conversations and we talked a lot this morning about how it makes people uncomfortable to talk about these issues, racism, patriotism,” she said, “and that combined together referring to Colin Kaepernick protest.”
But for the the people who had come to the conference, having those sometimes uncomfortable conversations was why they came out.
“In Carroll County, this is one of the few places we can discuss issues having to do with racial equality, this conference,” said Kate Sanner, of Frizzellburg. “It’s good to be somewhere where you hear ideas that are moving us toward solving problems.”
For Roxoanna Harlow, of Westminster, her interest in the conference was both personal and professional.
“I’m a sociologist for one and my specialty in is in issues of race and inequality, so I am particularly interested in the issue,” she said. “But I think it’s important to have these conversations so that people understand the nuances of it, that we don’t just kind of go into our corners and not talk about it.”
And talking, along with listening, are key to the nuance and paradox inherent in evaluating Kaepernick’s actions, according to Jean Lewis, president of the Carroll County NAACP, who attended the conference.
“I have a son who served and retired from the Navy, so as a person of color and having a child who was in the military, I could see it from both ends,” she said. “My main thing is we need to listen to one another, and not be formulating your answers for the next chance at rebuttal.”
To stand and kneel
Johnson has no magic formula for the process, just some approaches.
“We tend to form opinions based upon very small slivers of information that we hear from folks who already agree with us on everything else. So by the time we go public with our views, we’ve already formed those views based on limited information and social influence,” he said in an interview.
“What I hope to do is break those echo chambers and present the facts of an issue, both sides of them, and allow people to understand not only what happened, but how they got to their view of what happened.”
And then sometimes in the American experience, according to Johnson, you just have to embrace the juxtapositions.
“If there was a picture of me standing and saluting the flag next to Kaepernick kneeling, people would say, this is a paradox. It doesn’t make sense,” he said. ‘And I would say, welcome to America, this is who we are.”
Johnson’s full name is Theodore Roosevelt Johnson III, named after his grandfather, who was in turn named by his sharecropper parents after President Teddy Roosevelt, in honor of the president’s 1901 dinner invitation to Booker T. Washington. It was an invitation that enraged many white people of the time, but Roosevelt’s name lived on in Johnson’s family for three generations, ultimately going with him to the White House in 2011 to meet President Barack Obama.
Johnson said both those things are of a whole, the hope of his great-grand parents culminating in their great-grandson meeting the first black president, and all the hateful backlash and disappointments in the intervening years and that linger even today.