Why School Board Members Should Stand During the Pledge of Allegiance
The message sent by kneeling during the Pledge of Allegiance is obscure and highly subject to misinterpretation
October 2, 2016
Oscar, I adore you. I think you're a great guy. I've voted for you to serve on the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District Board every time you have run for that office because I think you are honest and sincere about wanting what's best for the students. But when you knelt during the Pledge of Allegiance at the opening of the school board meeting on September 22, I think you were out of line. Mr. Craig Foster, I don't know you very well, but I think you were off base in kneeling, too.
Obviously, both school board members had every right to engage in this nonviolent gesture. That is a right protected by the First Amendment. But just because their right to do so is protected doesn't mean it was a good idea. Here's why.
1. The message sent by kneeling during the Pledge of Allegiance is obscure and highly subject to misinterpretation.
On its face, taking any position other than standing during the Pledge of Allegiance looks exactly like you don't agree with standing for liberty and justice for all. The bare act appears to be a repudiation of the words in the pledge.
In fact, both Oscar de la Torre and Craig Foster realized they needed to give statements to the press later in the evening in order to explain what their kneeling posture meant because it was not very clear. Unsurprisingly, they each had slightly different interpretations of the message they were trying to send.
According to a statement given to the Santa Monica Daily Press, Oscar's reasoning was that he cannot stand during the Pledge of Allegiance as long as people of color in this country are deprived of their rights. "As an elected member of the school board I am sworn to uphold the Constitution, and I decided to stand in solidarity with all the Americans who have fought to ensure that our constitutional rights are protected. Liberty and justice for all cannot materialize as long as people of color are being deprived of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness unjustly. Those with power in our society must practice reflective accountability to end the institutionalized racism that is leading to achievement gaps, police murder and mass incarceration."
Craig Foster, on the other hand, released a statement that cited a slightly different message. He wanted to call attention to the deaths of young black men at the hands of the police. "I am joining a spreading national all for attention to the deaths of young black men at the hands of police and, more broadly, a call to examine the meaning of 'with liberty and justice for all' and how we can better meet that goal today."
Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback who would not stand during the national anthem before a football game and who started this craze, also had to explain his actions during a post-game interview. The message was not immediately recognizable.
2. As elected officials, you do not have standing to protest against the government.
It is disingenuous, if not contemptuous, to protest the values of the country and institutions which allowed you to hold office in the first place. The values and institutions of this country allowed a free electorate to put you in office. The positions you hold give you a great deal of power, power which the people of this city trust you to use to uphold liberty and justice for all.
If Oscar believes, as his statement relates, that there is "institutionalized racism" and "achievement gaps" in our school district, then he better damn well be doing something about it, using the office and power he was elected to employ. Oscar has been on the board since 2002. That's 14 years. If there is still institutionalized racism and achievement gaps in this district, then he ought to start looking at himself instead of at others. Some of that "reflective accountability" maybe. Protests such as kneeling during the Pledge of Allegiance look empty and self-serving. This does not serve well a man I know has worked hard and long for the good of the students and minority youth.
People depend on you to be the ones upholding liberty and justice for all. The opening of a board meeting is the time to show the people who trust you that you uphold these values unreservedly.
3. Your audience does not need this message
The audience for SMMUSD school board members are the residents of Santa Monica and Malibu. Perhaps I'm assuming too much about these two wildly progressive cities, but there aren't too many folk in either one of them who believe in police brutality against black men or institutionalized (or any other kind of ) racism. And I think we've all heard about the many instances in the news of police shootings of people of color. Awareness is already with us.
4. This message is empty and useless
Kneeling for the Pledge of Allegiance will not help one schoolchild in this district. There is a persistent achievement gap between whites and Asians and the other minorities. A highly-paid consultant delivered a well-thought list of matters that need to be addressed in the district. Pedro Noguera's main suggestion for the district is to maintain consistent leadership and follow-through on the many promising initiatives to bring excellent achievement to all, most of which have not been carried out. Attempting to create this consistent leadership would be a better outlet for Craig and Oscar's missionary energy.
5. A bad example for schoolchildren
While some of the teenagers at the high school may be able to parse the sophisticated, and possibly tortured, reasoning behind two school board members kneeling for the Pledge of Allegiance, most other students can not. To them, they see adults disrespecting the flag, the country, and the ideals of liberty and justice for all.
My son, a high school sophomore, tells me that he is among very few students who stand during the Pledge of Allegiance. This isn't new, and it's not about protesting a racist government. It's about contempt, disdain, and indifference toward the freest system of government that has ever existed in history. Do you want to contribute to that by giving these students any kind of legitimacy for their disrespect?
6. The opening of a board meeting is an inappropriate moment to stage a protest.
One of the purposes of opening the meeting with the Pledge of Allegiance is to remind office holders of their duty to the electorate. Another purpose is for these office holders to assure the electorate of their commitment to their duty. This is a moment for commitment and loyalty, not protest.
You don't protest the Catholic church's stance on contraceptives at your girlfriend's wedding. Your job isn't to raise awareness of women's rights in the Catholic church at that moment. At that moment, your job is to be a good friend, which means helping her have a dignified wedding.
Your job at a board meeting is to serve the students of this district and uphold the laws and values of this country and our local government.
There is a time and a place for everything. Perhaps it's time for the viewers of football games to protest and boycott the NFL because of the persistent sexism, abuse of women, and domestic violence practiced by some of the players. It is extremely unlikely that is going to happen, however, because watching football games is highly entertaining for many people and, more importantly, they are able to separate the issues going on in the players' domestic lives from those occurring in their athletic lives. Furthermore, not all of the players abuse women. Most people are willing to accept that not everyone involved in the NFL is going to be perfect.
In the same way, not everybody in this country is going to be perfect. There will be bad cops and bad teachers. You can protest until your knees wear out, but you will never make the world a perfect place nor everyone in it wonderful and kind.
That's why I don't think there's any excuse for sitting down when it's time to stand up, especially when it's time to stand up for the values of freedom and justice that make this country great.