After Donald Trump’s tirade of a speech calling for NFL owners to fire players like “son of a bitch” Colin Kaepernick who kneel for the national anthem to protest police brutality and social injustice, most NFL owners did the bare minimum and released statements about Trump’s comments.
Some addressed Trump’s comments directly, while some—hey Bears—only vaguely alluded to the comments. Most came from the same template: “America is great because you can peacefully protest, and we have to be less divisive.”
The point about divisiveness was nearly universally praised, because it is a very easy point to make and a very difficult point to refute without context: Let’s all be friends! Great!
Unfortunately, this isn’t a problem that can be solved by us all deciding to find a middle ground. It’s not a policy compromise, or two academics debating the best way to solve a specific problem. This is about a group of oppressed people finding a way to get noticed so they can shine light on that oppression. If it were as simple as people listening what they had to say—as simple as asking for a change—then divisiveness wouldn’t be needed. But a non-divisive society can only work for equality when there are remedies to every injustice.
That’s not the case in the United States, which means this divisiveness is good. Without divisiveness, the people in power wouldn’t be forced to confront the problems in our society. Without divisiveness, we could keep watching the NFL as if racial injustice doesn’t exist. Divisiveness means people aren’t able to continue ignoring the fact that the government works for them, but not for others—they’re forced to recognize it, and they don’t like it.
We’ve seen this before. As Martin Luther King wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, the greatest threat to equality is “the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” The Ku Klux Klan might have pushed racial resentment, but it was the white moderate—the majority—who did not thing to stop it.
This is analogous to our current situation. The problem isn’t that Trump is divisive. It’s that millions of people would like to ignore the fact that police and government institutions routinely brutalize and demean minorities. You can even see that in teams’ statements. Take the New England Patriots:
Upon hearing Trump’s comments about Kaepernick and his league’s players, Kraft could have stood up for the cause of those players—the fact that, beyond any doubt, there is still massive racial injustice in this country. Instead, he decided to take the easy way out and score cheap points by talking about divisiveness, in a statement that will make everyone feel a little better about themselves but won’t affect real change.
This isn’t taking a side against Trump; it’s bemoaning an annoyance with Trump that you had to acknowledge that the sides exist.
“Divisiveness” strikes a chord in the same way as “bipartisanship.” It’s an ideal we seem to collectively strive for, even though it necessarily means ignoring injustice. As Hamilton Nolan wrote for Splinter:
Everything in politics cannot be solved by compromise. Abortion is legal, or it’s not. That awful Supreme Court justice is confirmed, or he’s not. Pollution is properly regulated, or it’s not. Our tax system is sufficiently progressive, or it’s not. We go to war, or we don’t. Every one of these choices is ultimately a statement of morality — a conviction about what is right and wrong. Valuing “bipartisanship” on the really important issues is an admission that you have no real beliefs.
This gets to the heart of divisiveness. It’s the rallying cry for people who don’t want to take a side. But in this case, as we know from history and basic morality, one side is very wrong.
There is no way to demolish that side without dividing the country, and without bringing hidden injustice into clear view, because those in power, who allow the oppression, will not choose to change without pressure. Donald Trump cannot along, and does not alone, oppress minorities. Trump alone does not stand for injustice. Trump only stands on the side of injustice, and if you decide that you don’t want to acknowledge that’s the wrong side, then you’re tacitly on his side, too. And that’s how he will win.
The only way we can defeat injustice—whether it’s divisively brought to our attention by the right or the wrong side—is to end the false equivocation between unity and justice, and to fight for what’s right, not just what’s easy to hear.