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What to Black People is the National Anthem?

On Veterans day, the idea of the veteran was touted by POTUS and his supporters as an emotional counterweight to the protesting athletes. Dr. Lisa Brock reminds us that African Americans have historically had a conflictual relationship with US militarism.

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On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass, the prolific abolitionist, delivered his now famous 2000-word speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” His purpose was to illustrate the illogicality of US patriotism—that the values of freedom, liberty and the rights of citizenship for some Americans occurred alongside, and in dialectical relation to the obscene system of enslavement, exploitation, and torture of others. When Colin Kaepernick sat on the bench during the national anthem during the football preseason in August 2016, then took a knee during the anthem a few weeks later to protest police violence, he was making the same point; that there is a speciousness to a song meant to uplift some while being sinisterly imbued with a currency of inequality and state violence against others.

This is what Kaepernick said“I’m going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed. To me, this is something that has to change. When … I feel that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent, and this country is representing people the way that it’s supposed to, I’ll stand.…This stand wasn’t for me. This is because I’m seeing things happen to people that don’t have a voice, people that don’t have a platform to talk and have their voices heard, and effect change. So, I’m in the position where I can do that and I’m going to do that for people that can’t….”

While many Blacks have made peace with this symbol of US patriotism, very few think it is something to be cherished. In fact, to ask Blacks, Native Americans, Chicanos, indigenous Hawaiians and other captured, conquered and oppressed people to be unquestionably patriotic is like asking them to love and honor their rapists, the persons who murdered their mothers, the fathers who beat them every night. This demand is simply unconscionable. If one does not understand why this is the case, then one either supports what has happened to people of color in this country or is ignorant of both history and the current moment.  Many African Americans who do stand during the national anthem, do so either because they believe in the promise of the US, after all this is our home, or do so as a part of our ongoing negotiation with power. Heartfelt feelings with tears in the eye? Rarely.

In recent polls, a majority of white Americans remain critical of Kaepernick’s dissent while African American support is growing. This calculus is similar to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s approval ratings among whites and blacks in the 1960s and points to the fact that Black resistance is always greeted with largely white hostility on the one hand, and deepening black conviction, on the other. Moreover, at the time that this article was written, nearly half-way through this 2017 National Football League season, Kaepernick continues to be denied employment even though he holds a record better than at least twelve starting quarterbacks playing today. NFL owners say it is not because of his taking a knee. Kaepernick recently filed a grievance against the National Football League (NFL) for collusion, which has a strong chance of succeeding.

The NFL, though, is a for-profit business. One has to wonder what has gone into the owners thinking beyond polls and patriotism. Are they punishing Kaepernick because of the largely white male ticket holders who believe that Blacks should accept their fate at the hands of the police? Is it the political climate fostered by our 45th President, who provides comfort to Nazis and White Supremacists? Or is it a kind of disdain of players by the owners and fans alike who only value black bodies as money makers and spectacle, not complete human beings with opinions and rights?

Professional sports in the US has long had a race problem. From early white-only policies to the advice of Brooklyn Dodger general manager, Branch Richey, who told Jackie Robinson to accept being spat on and called the n-word in order to integrate baseball; Black athletes have been expected to adhere to the conventions of a racist society in order to work and make a living. Somewhat surprisingly to many Americans, Jackie Robinson wrote in his autobiography that “he couldn’t sing the anthem or salute the flag because I know that I am a black man in a white world.” While clearly, bad racist behavior does not occur all the time, Black players in every professional sports league continue to experience it, complain about it and are sometimes inflamed by the nastiness of fellow leaguers and of fans.  

Given this history, one should not be surprised at the black-balling of Mr. Kaepernick. His actions and the NFL’s reaction actually have a well-trodden history. Muhammed Ali, in 1966 was stripped of his heavyweight title, arrested, tried and found guilty after refusing to be drafted into the military, citing his religious beliefs and in protest of US involvement in Vietnam. He is credited with saying, “No Vietnamese ever called me ‘nigger.’” By the time that his criminal conviction was overturned, he had lost nearly four crucial years of his boxing career, yet came back to be “the greatest” nonetheless.

Similarly, Tommie Smith and John Carlos were suspended from US track and field after raising their fists in support of Civil Rights and Black Power movements at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. They did this at the medal ceremony. Similar to Kaepernick, they did it because they had a world stage that most Black people in the US do not have. They wanted to tell the world about the condition of their people; it was planned and not spontaneous. Smith and Carlos took gold and bronze, respectively, at those games, but were never allowed to compete again. Thus, when Houston Texans owner Bob McNair recently said of protesting players at an owners meeting that “we can’t have inmates running the prison,” he reflected a well-established set of race, class and power relations in US sports. That Kareem Abdul-Jabbar continues to write in support of Kaepernick’s movement and Bill Russell, the iconic Boston Celtics elder, took a knee, demonstrates that there is also a long-standing consciousness of and resistance to these relations.

Yet, there are new aspects to this current kafuffle. One is that while the national anthem has long been played at national sports games – see ESPN Magazine – its tight link to military processions, color guards and surprise military homecomings at the games, is for the most part new. In 2015 Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake found that the Department of Defense had paid $6.8 million to fifty professional teams across football, baseball, basketball, soccer, NASCAR, and more between 2012 and 2015 to carry on these displays. This senate oversight committee condemned the use of tax payer dollars for what they called “paid patriotism.” Moreover, according to a September 25th, 2017 CNN article, “the connection between ‘paid patriotism’ and players being mandated to be present for the anthem is [at best] tenuous.” In fact, in earlier periods, players often were not on the field when the anthem was played using the last precious moments to prepare for the game. Because of the Senate Report, the NFL pledged to return the $723,734.00 that it received from the Department of Defense.

The self-insertion of the POTUS into this issue is also new. According to James Fallows, writing for The Atlantic, neither Presidents Johnson nor Nixon commented on Muhammad Ali or the Olympic remonstrations mentioned above. But speaking at an all-white rally in Alabama in late September, President Trump bellowed that protesting athletes were “Sons of Bitches” and yelled that they be fired. He also took to Twitter to attack some of the most talented athletes in basketball including LeBron James and Stephen Curry because of the Golden State Warriors’ refusal to go to the White House after winning the 2017 national NBA championship.

Trump’s Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders began the month using, in the words of Joy Reid, “the peoples podium” to demand that Jamele Hill, a black woman sports commentator be fired. Why? Because Hill had the audacity to claim that Trump’s words, policies and those with whom he surrounds himself illustrate that he is a white supremacist. Sanders’ position reflects one of most astounding red herrings of our time. That it has become more offensive to be called a racist than to actually be one. Importantly, Arthur Blake, the Atlanta Falcon’s owner has stated that what is coming from the White House is akin to throwing kerosene on fire. After all, of the 1700 NLF players in the league, nearly 1200 (70%) are blackwhile 97% of the owners are white.

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On this Veterans day, the idea of the veteran is being touted by POTUS and his supporters as an emotional counterweight to the protesting athletes. How dare they protest the national anthem and the flag when our men and women have fought for this country, they utter, as if the two are mutually exclusive. Dallas sportscaster Dale Hansen responded to Trump’s divisive use of the military to disparage protesting athletes: “I served in the military during the Vietnam War, and my foot hurt too [referring to Trump’s excuse for not serving in the military]— but I served anyway… The young black athletes are not disrespecting America or the military by taking a knee during the anthem — they are respecting the best thing about America.”

To this particular argument, Kaepernick has also responded. “I have great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country,” he said. “I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country. And they fight for freedom, they fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice, for everyone. That’s not happening. People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up, as far as giving freedom and justice, liberty to everybody….I’ve seen videos, I’ve seen circumstances where men and women that have been in the military have come back and been treated unjustly by the country they fought for, and have been murdered by the country they fought for, on our land. That’s not right.”

Kaepernick’s reference to African Americans in the military is spot on. Most Blacks enlist not to protect the rights they have, but for the rights they hope to gain. They have fought in every US conflict with this hope.  And in every single one, there has been discrimination in terms of pay, accommodation, access to jobs and training, leadership opportunities, and veteran’s benefits. In fact, according to historian Gerald Horne, many whites fought for the revolution in order to preserve the system of enslavement. This was especially the case for South Carolina which had a Black majority at the time.

Interestingly, Blacks had to struggle to be allowed to join the Civil War, which of course was our most important fight for freedom, while the nearly 350,000 black soldiers returning from WWI were targeted with some of the worst mass race riots in US history. When the US entered WWII, African Americans enlisted at an all-time high, with over 1 million serving. Why? The military needed as many soldiers as it could get, African Americans needed work, and the NAACP had launched the Double V campaign which gave African Americans a DuBoisian way in. They were fighting for a double victory against white domination abroad and white domination at home. Hitler’s message of Arian superiority was not lost on them nor those of color in the US and European colonies.

In no small measure, African Americans’ relationship to US military campaigns has always been conflictual, as reflected in Ali’s famous statement. This was especially acute when Blacks were fighting in US wars of aggression against other oppressed groups, such as Indigenous Americans, Mexicans, the Vietnamese, and those of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines.

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I asked three Black Veterans for their take on the US military and patriotism. James Campbell is a veteran of the Pacific theater during WWII. He said he was more afraid of Mississippi than the war and that he did not fight for patriotism but for the liberation of African American people.

My father, James Brock served during the Korean War and was stationed at a US base in Casablanca, Morocco. He had enlisted in the Airforce after returning home from college, only to find factory work under a white racist foreman who had not gone to college. He also tried unsuccessfully to stay in Morocco or Paris with his young family rather than return to Jim Crow US.

Willie Williamson, who enlisted in the army when he was 18 years old said he did so to get out of his small town, Grenada, Mississippi. He was serving in Vietnam when he learned of Dr. King, Jr’s murder and said he will never forget a white soldier yelling “F—him!” He was then recruited to teach Drill Sergeant School back in the US. He said he found that he was good at it as he gained the respect of both black and white infantrymen in his company. This threatened his white first sergeant, who, in turn,treated him horribly. When Williamson reported such activity to a rare senior black officer, he was told: “well you are going to find that everywhere young man.” He did not re-enlist.

This tradition of disregard of Blacks in the military continues. When President Donald Trump telephoned the pregnant widow of gold star soldier La David Johnson who was among four that were ambushed in a little-known US conflict in Niger, West Africa, just a few weeks ago, he told her, your husband “knew what he was getting into” when he joined the military. While we don’t know if Trump was being particularly insulting to this woman because of her race, since he can be crass and tactless in general, we do know thatInsulting African-American Gold Star Widows Has a History. After World War I when the widows of all US soldiers killed in Europe were told the US would support their journey to visit the grave sights of the husbands, African American widows were segregated and discriminated against throughout the entire journey. We also know that Black veterans did not reap the full benefits of the 1944 GI Bill after World War II, since banks would not give them home loans like their white counterparts. So, when white house chief of staff, John Kelley says that the confederate military general who fought to maintain the system of slavery was an honorable man, it rocks at the heart of those black men and women who have fought for freedom under the banner of the US.  “What an insult,” Willie Williamson said, “to all of us black veterans.” This too is unconscionable.

Further, Trump and his team called the widow Myesha Johnson, a liar after the text of his call was made public. The insults were not directed at Mrs. Johnson alone but were intended for another black woman as well, US Representative Frederica S. Wilson, who heard Trump’s comments to the widow and exposed them. Kelly called this sitting Congresswoman “an empty vessel,” following  KFI AM 640 Los Angeles Radio Host Bill Handel calling her “a cheap sleazy Democrat whore” on his radio show on October 20, 2017. Numerous US Representatives and others are calling for both to be removed.

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While #45 attempts to pit veterans against protesting athletes who have followed Kaepernick’s footsteps, it behooves us to remember Frederick Douglass’ words: “The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me.” Douglass’ scathing indictment of American hypocrisy over a century and a half ago still rings true for Black veterans and all African Americans today.