It’s not too much to sit out a national anthem when members of your ethnic group can be shot dead in the street.
Many who have been critical of high school football players representing NFL quarterback Colin Kaeperneck’s protest would rather have blacks and other marginalized groups observe the United States flag as second-class citizens than for us to demand the unalienable rights we’re allegedly afforded.
Famous football players, writers and armchair critics argue that Kaeperneck-style protests to state-sanctioned murder at the expense of our national rituals are counterproductive. To be “patriotic” by way of observance of national rituals is the most principled and effective way to bring attention to police brutality and build community. The flag and its associated rituals of observance allow everyone to protest, and that allowance is the community glue that binds us all. Herein lies the belief in the mother country – patriotism – that keeps us together.
Those who criticize high school players’ modest gestures of protest fail to recognize that second-class citizenry degrades real patriotism. When life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness can be taken away because you’re not considered an authentic member of America, the ritual of pledges are purely symbolic. A reasonable amount of justice is required for authentic patriotism. Protesters are simply demanding America to do its part.
Most often, detractors wield patriotism to delay or deny the just allocation of unalienable rights and other political goods that black people are owed.
Now, flag waving decriers are facing their worst nightmare: Disaffected young people are demanding receipts for revering the flag.
Black people can’t eat, learn from, be housed by or be protected by American symbolism. Just economic, educational and housing policies do that — all of which black people are simply stepping out of the shadows of the American flag to attain. This political poetry isn’t a luxury.
The cynic in me says the thousands of high school football players who chose to kneel during the national anthem across the country, which gives many heartburn, still observed the most transcendent American ritual by playing the game. Nonetheless, pledging allegiance and/or standing to the national anthem in the absence of basic political goods is what really wears the United States flag threadbare. Don’t blame high school football players for desecrating our secular religion; blame institutions that fail to deliver basic rights.
In addition to insidiously charging football players with what amounts to misguided heresy, there is a constant devaluation of black and brown resistance as catalyst of change. American reform movements were not categorically shaped by a presumed adoption of the transcendent secular values of hope and radical respectability that shaped significant American reform movements. Martin Luther King Jr. is often evoked as the standard bearer of black radicalism: ‘Look at Martin. He wouldn’t do such a thing.’
From Sojourer Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” to Fredrick Douglass’s “What to the Slave Is the 4th of July?” to Colin Kaepernick, blacks have used American symbols and ideals as foils to highlight overwhelming hypocrisy rather than exhort their unyielding belief in a mother country.
Maybe critics never heard of Marcus Garvey, nor understood his impact on black radical thought. W.E.B. Dubois died in Accra, Ghana, where he became a citizen. Malcolm X famously said, “No, I’m not an American. I’m one of 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the … victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy. So I’m not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag-waver – no, not I! I’m speaking as a victim of this American system. I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare!”
Did these great thinkers not shape the black struggle for civil rights: It was those who risked their lives saying they can’t prostrate themselves to an ideal until they are recognized as full citizens that made change in this country.
Disneyesque calls for solidarity in belief have led to a system of education that underfunds schools populated by black and brown folk. Thousands of undocumented students do every thing required of membership in the mother country including pledging of the allegiance but can’t seem to get financial aid, nor the expectation of stable residency. And of course, black students can be shot for wearing a hoodie and eating Skittles.
The sustainability and credibility of a diverse democracy doesn’t require common practice of rituals, but it does require fair treatment under the law. The policing of black and brown bodies, inadequate schools, substandard housing does more to corrode cohesiveness that the observance of a theorized secular religion.
Those who want to make the anthem sacred all but say that in order to appeal to whites for support, black and brown folk should be grateful and respectful rather than make claims for basic justice. Black and brown people are suffering under the flag. Moving from underneath it exposes the punishment American ideals inflict among those who aren’t deemed members of the mother country.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.