I think about Gerald Deloney.
With graphic images of police brutality generating outrage and protests across the nation, many people have brought up Colin Kaepernick’s silent, peaceful protest of kneeling during the national anthem four years ago. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said.
It wasn’t a criticism of the flag or the anthem or the military, as some suggested in an attempt to obfuscate the facts. It was a protest of systemic racism, and it appears particularly prescient now, with America facing a much-needed reckoning over that racism. As I wrote at the time: “Patriotism is more about what you do to make this country better than whether or not you stand for ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ “
And that makes me think of Gerald Deloney.
Deloney was a member of the 1972 Jefferson High School basketball team in Portland, the first all-black team to win Oregon’s state championship. I interviewed him a while back for a book I am writing (at a glacial pace) about that Jefferson team and its championship game against an all-white team from Baker High School in Eastern Oregon.
“All this stuff is unfolding in front of our eyes,” Deloney said. “That’s why the Colin Kaepernick stuff … it’s a rehash of what we were doing. We had a hard time standing for the national anthem back then; there were times we didn’t. It was hard to do that when you’ve got a country that’s openly rejecting you at every turn.
“And the attitude was, ‘Get over it.’ You know, ‘Pull yourself up by the bootstraps.’ Of course, you suspend logic when you start saying those things or expecting it to happen. When you are born in privilege, you go home then you don’t have to see those people that are living in not privilege.”
It is an interesting story (shameless plug for a book that isn’t even finished), and it is relevant to the discussions that must be held today.
The Jefferson players grew up in Portland’s Albina district, which for years was redlined as the only part of Portland in which African Americans could purchase a home. In the early 1960s, about 400 homes in the southern part of Albina were removed to make way for Memorial Coliseum. In the mid-1960s, Interstate 5 was carved through the heart of the district, displacing homes and businesses. And in the early 1970s, two dozen blocks in the heart of Albina were cleared for an expected expansion of what is now Legacy Emanuel Medical Center; black-owned homes and black-owned businesses were removed, including the business and cultural hub of Portland’s black community. The expansion was never built, leaving vacant lots to this day in some places that once contained thriving businesses.
A frequent trope of those who try to deny America’s racial strife is to claim that such injustices don’t happen today. But if the government says you have to leave your home and compensates you with no more than you paid 25 years previously, how long does that disadvantage linger over your family? If society for years does not allow you to hold jobs that offer pensions and secure retirement plans, how does that contribute to generational poverty? How do you pull yourself and your family up by the bootstraps under those circumstances?
All of that is secondary to the immediate issue of police brutality, of an officer in Minneapolis kneeling on the neck of an African American for more than eight minutes. But it is a necessary piece of discussions and reforms that must take place in this country.
Colin Kaepernick tried to raise those discussions. His message was hijacked by those who didn’t want to listen, disingenuously turning it into an issue of flag and military and patriotism while continuing this nation’s maddening habit of changing the subject.
That was four years ago. But the really distressing thing is that we have been avoiding these conversations for generations and generations.