The American flag, drenched in the blood of American Indians and enslaved Africans, has been romanticized as a symbol of guardianship for all citizens of this nation. One of the main centerpieces of patriotism encapsulated in the flag’s meaning is military service.
Be it the Revolutionary or Civil War, World War I or II, or any other battle in which America has fought, the argument is that the men and women who fought for this country took on a sacred sacrifice to protect American liberty and freedom from foreign enemies that would dare to endanger it. That the American flag can flap freely around the nation is an indication that its people, too, are free.
Though, as Colin Kaepernick first explained to us by kneeling during the national anthem last year, and what other NFL athletes are revealing by following suit this season, as black people, we are not free. And we never really have been.
America’s inception was never designed to accommodate the liberty and freedoms of its nonwhite people. When soldiers fought against Britain during the Revolutionary War, it was a victory for white people. The American flag was raised in victory in 1783 as its black citizens, who were still not legally full human beings at the time, continued to suffer in slavery some 80 years after the fact.
We can look at the failure of Reconstruction after the Civil War and realize that black people’s liberty evoked white people’s violence. As the flag was flown proudly during Jim Crow, white politicians worked tirelessly to suppress our votes and sanctioned our murders if we dared to cast a ballot.
In 2017, as white people stand for the national anthem, most of them sit in careless silence as police kill black and brown people and hide behind the baseless excuse of “I feared for my life.”
The problem with narratives of American patriotism is that they ignore the fact that America was and is a colonial state. Colonial powers are violent and racist by their very nature. America’s military is not a protector of peace. It is an enforcer of colonialism. Indeed, black Americans have died in America’s wars but do not fully experience the freedom that comes with that sacrifice as white people do.
Patriotism has never been a racially equitable experience because it was never designed to be.
This weekend, people voiced what they envision in the American flag. Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr asked rhetorically, “You know what else is offensive to our flag? Racism.” I applaud the spirit of his wording, but it is not historically accurate. America is racist. Its history, its culture and, if this recent election is any indicator, many of its citizens are tied to racism and the benefits it provides them.
President Donald Trump is a white supremacist and is keenly aware of the symbolism the flag represents. That is why he tweeted this morning to #StandForOurAnthem. Both the anthem and the flag are symbols of white hegemony. Freedom? Sure. For white people.
There has never been a point in U.S. history when nonwhite bodies were not under the threat of state violence. That is why black people are kneeling before the flag. It was never intended to reflect the protection of our humanity. If it were, police officers would not get away with shooting and killing black people with reckless abandon, all while wearing an American-flag patch on their uniforms.
Trump would not have won the White House if millions of patriots were not emotionally attuned to his rhetoric of “Make America great again,” which is nothing more than a death cry for people who feel their whiteness is being devalued as the country becomes more diverse.
We are seeing patriotism in action, folks. Trump is in office banning as many Muslims from entering the nation as possible, conservative state lawmakers are creating voter-suppression laws designed to keep black and Latino people from voting, and law enforcement is as murderous against nonwhite people as ever. Black blood is being spilled across the country, and white people are more than happy to support the cops doing the killing.
This is American patriotism in 2017. There is no redemption in any of it. We have to start anew. But white people are unwilling to unpack patriotism’s racist past and present because that requires them to drop their privilege and unpack themselves, and they simply choose not to do so. That is the power of white supremacy: to be able to ignore the suffering of others and not face any of the consequences.
Nothing exemplifies this better than when a white woman by the name of Sharon called C-SPAN recently to say that she can no longer watch NFL football because the players’ kneeling is “too painful” for her.
“It’s just shameful and it hurts me to see people taking a knee when we are supposed to be joyful about living in this country,” she said. “After I saw what happened [with players kneeling during the anthem], I tried to watch it and I just couldn’t because I just kept crying.”
Sharon, who said that she is a veteran, is clearly living in her own white world. But her words precisely articulate the mourning many white people are experiencing over black resistance. She didn’t address any of the issues the players are highlighting (police brutality, Trump’s racism, etc). In her own world, they are supposed to be “joyful.” Her patriotism exists in a vacuum that centers her whiteness at the expense of ignoring the violence it inflicts against our black and brown bodies. Black people and Sharon do have something in common, however: We’re all in pain right now.
The difference is that black people are suffering as we resist the flag-waving, national-anthem-singing patriotism that has always protected anti-black violence, while Sharon is crying because we can’t shut up and stand for a flag and an anthem that protect her in ways that will never protect us. Sharon will continue to cry for her patriotism. Black people will cry in mourning over the violence that her patriotism protects.