Author’s note: In the time I responded to weekend criticism of high school players taking a knee, a disabled black man was shot dead by police in Charlotte, N.C., while sitting in his car. This is the latest extrajudicial killing that shows that existing while black will get you shot by police.
Many who have been critical of high school football players representing NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest would rather have blacks and other marginalized groups observe the U.S. flag as second-class citizens than for us to demand the inalienable rights we’re allegedly afforded.
What has become abundantly clear in the last 48 hours—for those who unfortunately still needed clarity in the face of relentless police violence—is that these students are standing against extrajudicial killings like that of Terence Crutcher. They know that being seen as “bad [black] dudes” on the court or the field brings accolades, but being seen as a “bad [black] dude” on the streets of America will get you killed by those sworn to protect you.
It’s not too much to sit out a national anthem when members of your ethnic group can be shot dead in the street.
Famous football players, writers and armchair critics argue that Kaepernick-style protests of 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 citizen of America, the ritual of pledges are purely symbolic. A reasonable amount of justice is required for authentic patriotism. Protesters are simply demanding that America do its part.
Most often, detractors wield patriotism to delay or deny the just allocation of inalienable 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 that the thousands of high school football players who chose to kneel during the national anthem across the country, giving many heartburn, still observed the most transcendent American ritual by playing the game. Nonetheless, pledging allegiance and/or standing for the national anthem in the absence of basic political goods is what really wears the U.S. 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 a 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 Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” to Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Slave Is the Fourth 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 or understood his impact on black radical thought. W.E.B. Du Bois 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 couldn’t prostrate themselves to an ideal until they were recognized as full citizens that made change in this country.
Disney-esque 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 everything required of citizenship in the mother country, including the pledging of allegiance, but can’t seem to get financial aid or 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 and substandard housing do more to corrode cohesiveness than 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 that American ideals inflict on those who aren’t deemed full citizens of this country.
This story was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, in partnership with The Root.