Systemic racism exists in structures and institutions, legislative policy and social practice. It also survives in some of the nation’s most treasured artifacts, prized as symbols of American patriotism.
America’s value of rugged individualism has long taken a backseat to that of herd-mentality patriotism. Just ask Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback beleaguered by criticism after remaining seated during “The Star-Spangled Banner” before a preseason game on Aug. 26. He then doubled down by kneeling during the anthem on Sept. 1 in San Diego. Kaepernick’s silent protests were to raise awareness about racial injustice and oppression in America, specifically police brutality. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told NFL Media in an interview after the Aug. 26 game.
Standing and facing the American flag during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is a tradition indoctrinated into US children at an early age, from the classroom to the ball field. For flagrantly “unpatriotic” Americans who choose otherwise, shunning, punishment, and abuse follow.
What the current controversy has highlighted, however, is the casual (and honestly callous) way that white America assumed black people will perform acts of profound cognitive dissonance in the name of patriotism. It is assumed, for example, that African Americans will gladly celebrate the Fourth of July, even though America’s independence was not their own. In the year of the first census in 1790, there were still 694,000 slaves. In fact, most historic monuments—down to statues of slave-owning George Washington—are connected to America’s racist history.
Kaepernick’s peaceful protest drew attention to contemporary forms of racism, but just as importantly, it has started a national conversation about the racist origins of some of our most enduring symbols, including the national anthem—which, to note, did not officially become the national anthem until 1931. As Ben Gran wrote in a stunning piece for Paste magazine, not only was the song’s author, Francis Scott Key, a slave-owning racist, but “[t]he little-known 3rd verse is all about celebrating the deaths of escaped slaves who,” Gran revealed, “understandably, ran away from their plantations to fight for the British Army in the War of 1812 against the slaveholding United States!”
The verse, by the way, is as follows:
No refugee could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Other examples include the White House—the emblem of “American leadership,” as Michelle Obama reminded us during her passionate speech at the Democratic National Convention convention— which was built by slaves. The same is true of the US Capitol building, a fact observed by Nancy Pelosi during her remarks at the dedication of the Capitol Visitors Center in 2008.
The Statue of Liberty is arguably just as problematic as a symbol of American patriotism. The National Parks Service notes that it was intended as a celebratory monument marking the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, yet this harbinger of freedom also serves as a painful reminder to African Americans that their own shackles of oppression have never been fully broken. W.E.B DuBois commented in his autobiography that when he saw the statue for the first time in 1894, he noticed the way its back seemed turned toward America. This represented for him how America had turned its back on black people.
The subtleties of DuBois’ critique aside, these days patriotism as an expression of national pride too often drifts towards blatant racism and xenophobia, from waving around confederate flags to waving guns. The Second Amendment, Thom Hartmann argues in a piece at Rawstory, “was ratified to preserve slavery.”
Ironically, Kaepernick is by definition a patriot. “The official definition of patriot—‘a person who regards himself or herself as a defender, especially of individual rights, against presumed interference by the federal government,’” Lindsay Gibbs explains in a piece for ThinkProgress. He was expressing his constitutional right to freedom of speech, but the “land of the free” still does not mean free black and brown bodies. If it did, Colin Kaepernick taking a damn seat wouldn’t have resulted in a nationwide backlash.
America was built on the socio-economic forces of slavery, which produced irrevocable forms of systemic racism that we still witness today (most egregiously in the form of the prison industrial complex). This history has been monumentalized and is kept alive in symbols that supposedly represent all that America stands for: freedom, liberty, independence, and the pursuit of happiness. But these are complex, highly problematic signifiers for the black community, who see the blood before the promise.
The same people criticizing Kaepernick celebrated and defended the illegal takeover of a government building by a bunch of armed, militant white men earlier this year. Let’s acknowledge this criticism of Kaepernick for what it is: racism masquerading as patriotism. The criticism also highlights the daily hypocrisy that black Americans face just trying to stay alive. Some of the most cherished symbols of American patriotism are predicated upon moments of resistance, protest, and revolution. One would then think that Americans would applaud and respect Kaepernick’s quiet statement instead of calling him a traitor. But in the land of the free, we still seem to value the symbols that represent America over the ideals that America supposedly represents.