Racial disparity in police use of force is a serious problem. At the close of August, 694 people had been shot and killed by the police, according to The Washington Post.

The Post calculated 15 more deaths than the previous year. Of those deaths, 121, or 17.4 percent, were African-American. The U.S. Census Bureau estimated African-Americans comprised 13.4 percent of the U.S. population in 2017.

According to the Center for Policing Equity, a July 2016 study revealed a greater incidence of police use of force against African-Americans, including when controlling for racial distributions in arrests.

More specifically, the study found that the overall mean use-of-force rate for African-Americans was 273 per 100,000, which is 2.5 times the overall rate, and 3.6 times the rate for whites (76 per 100,000).

For those who were arrested, the mean use of force rate for African-Americans was 46 per 1,000, while for whites it was 36 per 1,000. Although no study has been done connecting the two, the data kept by The Washington Post is consistent with the findings by the Center for Policing Equity.

While some police departments are taking steps to address these issues (see “Confronting Implicit Bias in the New York Police Department,” The New York Times, July 15, 2018), the problem has not gone away. It is encouraging, however, to see more recognition of the problem and more willingness to confront the causes.

During football season, we consider it important to recognize what NFL players who have knelt during the national anthem are doing. They are protesting police violence, oppression and brutality. They are not, despite exhortations to the contrary, protesting the national anthem or the flag. From the beginning, the players have been clear: they are protesting “systemic oppression of people of color, police brutality, and the criminal justice system,” and “we chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture.”

Police violence is a serious issue, and these players should be recognized for trying to raise awareness of the problem.

Government officials who criticize NFL players for protesting “the flag,” while ignoring the police violence they are actually protesting, and calling for the players’ firing, have a chilling effect that goes against the prescriptions of the Constitution. Civic engagement and an interested citizenry are essential to a functioning democracy, and peaceful protest is one of the means to voice citizen concern. It is disappointing to see the NFL to acquiesce to the government’s demands.

The reality is anyone who takes any action during the national anthem is making a statement, whether by choosing to stand or kneel. What makes America the country it is is everyone has the right to decide what statement they wish to make, and the government cannot stop that.

As the U.S. Supreme Court stated when considering the constitutionality of a law making the Pledge of Allegiance mandatory, “if there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

Coerced displays of patriotism are not constitutional. We encourage everyone to consider the America it would be if this were otherwise.