Patriotism is for Black People: Colin Kaepernick, Donald Trump and the Selectivity of White Rage

So just in case you were wondering, when a white man bellows that America is no longer great, and in fact is akin to a “third world” country, and that many other countries are better than we are at all kinds of things — and this is why we should elect him, so he can “make America great again,” because right now, we’re sorta suckin’ wind — that is the height of patriotism. The kind of talk we need! The kind of nationalistic endorsement around which all Americans should be willing to rally.

And when this same man says black people aren’t safe from other black people, and they can’t even walk down the street without getting shot by other black people, and that’s why they specifically should vote for him, so he can make their communities safe, that too is to be understood as a laudable commentary, even an ecumenical “outreach” to African Americans. Because black folks naturally love it when white men tell them how utterly degenerate is their daily existence, having spent exactly zero time in actual black communities so as to know what the hell they’re talking about.

However — and here’s where things get tricky — if a black man like 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refuses to stand for the national anthem because he feels the country hasn’t done right by black folks, and especially with regard to the unpunished killing of far too many by law enforcement, that is to be understood as treasonous, as grounds for his dismissal from his team, and as a justification to insist that he take his exit from the nation he apparently “hates.” Because after all, who would condemn conditions in America except for one who by definition hated it? (And as you ponder that query feel free to ignore the first two paragraphs above, as the maintenance of cognitive dissonance is incredibly valuable at times like this).

In short, white men (at least those on the right) can issue all manner of calumny against the United States. They can condemn its economics and its immigration policies; they can paint a picture of culturally defective black people as some underclass contagion within it; they can condemn it for not being sufficiently Christian, sufficiently militaristic, or sufficiently harsh on refugees. They can suggest that other countries are better at everything from infrastructure investment to trade negotiations, and still be viewed as fundamentally committed to the well-being of the country—indeed as presidential material, by millions.

But black folks cannot so much as open their mouths in criticism without the wrath of white America descending upon their shoulders. When they criticize — and especially if the criticism is about racism and inequality — they must be painted as hateful and petty. They must be told to leave because “there are millions who would gladly take their place,” and they must be made pariahs, symbolic of the lack of gratitude black people have for the country that has “given them” so much.

Of course, one might note (if one were especially enamored of historical accuracy or basic lucidity) that the same country has given white people quite a bit more over the centuries than it has blacks: hundreds of millions of acres of virtually free land under the Homestead Act, hundreds of billions of dollars in housing equity under the FHA and VA loan programs at a time when blacks were barred from them, and job and educational opportunities for generations that it only recently has provided to African Americans, even in theory. As such, one might argue that if anyone’s complaints about America should raise concerns about ingratitude it is ours, not those of black folks.

And if one really wanted to wrap things up with a nice tidy bow, one might note (and I surely will now) that for a rich man like Donald Trump to complain about America — a nation that allowed even the mediocre likes of him to succeed by inheriting a couple hundred million dollars worth of assets from his daddy — is especially precious and ironic. Oh, and of course, when Trump complains, despite his supposed “billions” of dollars, the same people who scream that Kaepernick should shut up because he makes $11 million a year, go silent. Because when black people make more than white people, white people get pissy, but when other white people make more than white people, white people admire them. And so it goes.

Naturally, that so many rail against Kaepernick for criticizing the U.S. is hardly shocking. These are the same people who screamed about President Obama for campaigning on a desire to “change” America for the better, because America “doesn’t need to be changed,” dammit. Although “Hope and Change” was a far less pessimistic or critical slogan than “Make America Great Again,” those who embrace the latter were in full dudgeon over the former. Likewise, when Rev. Jeremiah Wright simply told the truth about the history of U.S. foreign policy — and he did, every single word — and suggested that perhaps God would not bless America, but rather, damn us for our actions, the fact that the Obamas had gone to church at Wright’s house of worship was, in the minds of millions, sufficient grounds for his defeat. Because again, black people are not allowed to condemn the country for its shortcomings.

When Thurgood Marshall, the nation’s first black Supreme Court Justice, threw cold water on the nation’s bicentennial celebration for the Constitution back in 1987 — and this, because, as he explained, he didn’t have 200 years to celebrate, given the deep-seated flaws embedded in the document at its inception, including the protection of chattel slavery — he was pilloried in the press. Marshall explained that the Constitution had been “defective” from the start, and only 200 years of struggle (led often and mostly by black folks, in fact) had begun to make real the promises of the founders. That Marshall’s historiography was exactly correct — inarguable even — mattered not to those who found his position intolerable and un-American.

It has always been thus: Patriotism is for black people, meaning that it is they (or perhaps other immigrants of color) who are expected to show gratitude, to ignore the nation’s flaws, to sign off on America’s greatness without reservation, because anything less is presumptive evidence of disloyalty. And it makes sense, really. After all, when your nation was built by the deliberate oppression of black and brown peoples, the exploitation of their labor, and the theft of indigenous land — and anyone who would deny this is insufficiently educated to be taken seriously — it is especially vital to police their devotion and fealty to the edifice that marginalized them; to punish them for any deviation. Because to allow them the space to criticize, to condemn, and to castigate, is to allow them the space to organize, and to fight, and to transform.

It is to ensure that they may be the ones to make America great. Not again. But for the first time.

And we can’t allow that.

Because to do so would force us to reckon with how much of our previous self-congratulatory back-patting had been unearned. It would force us to gaze upon the steady history of broken promises without sentimentality. And it would force us to make a decision as to where we stand: with our heads turned towards a fictive past or aimed in the direction of a better future.

Sadly, some would prefer to simply wave a flag and pretend that in the act of doing so they had demonstrated love for their country and the people therein. But in truth, all such persons have ever managed to demonstrate is their own vapid understanding of the principles upon which said country was ostensibly founded.

The National Anthem, like the Pledge of Allegiance, is a symbol of America. But speaking out for justice is the substance of America, and therefore infinitely more valuable.

Comments are closed.