Conservatives can only succeed by dividing Americans along racial lines. It’s been their go-to strategy for decades, long before Trump. It was one of Rush Limbaugh’s specialties in particular. One of the right’s most insidious tactics on this front was to consistently brand anyone who pointed out that racism still operates in our society as the real racist, as well as somehow anti-American or unpatriotic.
That kind of charge is nothing more than red meat for the conservative base. It shifts the responsibility for the alienation understandably felt by some members of marginalized groups onto the oppressed themselves, and away from the racist policies and structures that oppress them. In other words: This tactic blames the victims. Sports is one of the most explosive arenas for watching this blame-shifting game play out.
What athletes—in particular, Black athletes—do during the national anthem has been a touchy subject since long before the most recent Olympics. Many of us know about Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who famously wore black gloves and raised their fists in a Black Power salute on the podium while our national anthem played at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Smith detailed the specific points he and Carlos set out to make with their protest:
“The right glove that I wore on my right hand signified the power in black America. The left glove my teammate John Carlos wore on his left hand made an arc, my right hand to his left hand, also signifying black unity. The scarf that was worn around my neck signified blackness. John Carlos and me wore socks, black socks, without shoes, to also signify our poverty.”
At the time, Smith and Carlos faced universal, harsh condemnation all across the mainstream media. In the Chicago American, one young columnist referred to Smith as a “militant Black” and branded the two athletes “a pair of black-skinned stormtroopers.” That’s right; he called them Nazis. The writer’s name is Brent Musberger.
Dave Zirin, writing in 2012 for The Nation, pointed out that Musberger has become an “iconic broadcaster who now sits comfortably as the elder statesman of the sports world.” Although he’s never apologized despite writing this blatantly hateful trash, sports media as a collective body took a major step in recognizing how wrong the criticism was when, in 2008, ESPN honored Smith and Carlos with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, declaring “they were right.”
Although not as well known as Smith and Carlos, a number of Black women athletes competing on the U.S. team at the international level have also made public statements or gestures of protest throughout our history. Two from the same era were Rose Robinson, who at the 1959 Pan American Games refused to stand during the national anthem (and engaged in other protests in subsequent years), and Wyomia Tyus, who at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968 wore black shorts as a form of dissent.
Recent years have seen similar protests. Hammer thrower Gwen Berry turned her back on the flag while standing on the medal podium at the U.S. Olympic trials. Berry and fencer Race Imboden protested on the medal stand at the 2019 Pan American Games as well. Unsurprisingly, Republican politicians all piled on Berry. Sen. Ted Cruz bleated, “Why does the left hate America?” Rep. Dan Crenshaw called for anyone who protests during the anthem to be kicked off the Olympic team. Conservatives piled up the hypocrisy as well, as Jill Filipovic pointed out in a CNN column.
For her part, Berry pushed back hard at Cruz, in particular, for putting words in her mouth: “I never said that I hated the country, never said that. All I said was I respect my people enough to not stand or acknowledge something that disrespects them. I love my people, point blank, period.”
As sure as night follows day, a Fox News reporter threw a wedge issue gotcha question at White House press secretary Jen Psaki, asking for comment on Berry’s protest. Psaki said she and President Biden hadn’t spoken about it, but added that he is “incredibly proud to be an American” and cited his belief that “part of that pride in our country means recognizing there are moments where we, as a country, haven’t lived up to our highest ideals. And it means respecting the rights of people granted to them in the Constitution to peacefully protest.”
Activists and progressive politicians—especially national elected leaders—have different roles to play in bringing about a more just society. Those differences are reflected in the way members of each group speak about and react to the flag and other symbols of our nation. There’s nothing wrong with how either Berry or Biden acted here.
Most recently, during the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Raven Saunders, an openly gay shot putter, threw up her hands in an “X” while on the podium after receiving her silver medal. She explained that her gesture was a reference to “the intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet.”
Finally, in the domestic sports arena, there’s the protest that has made a singular impact. I’m talking about former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who starting in 2016, knelt during “The Star-Spangled Banner” to call attention to racial injustice and police brutality. Please note that Kaepernick, after meeting with an ex-NFLer who was also a veteran of the Green Berets, shifted his form of protest from sitting to kneeling to show the proper respect while remaining true to his principles. None of that mattered to The Man Who Lost An Election And Tried To Steal It, who slandered Kaepernick as well as those who knelt with him.
Eric Reid, the first player to join Kaepernick in kneeling, explained his thinking on the matter in 2017, and rightly pointed out the dishonesty of Trump and his minions, which is, of course, the same bullshit Smith and Carlos faced a half-century earlier:
Our goal was to raise awareness and shed light on the issues that were happening in our country. I think we accomplished that goal. What I was upset about was the narrative, the false narrative, that [was] being told about us, people saying that we’re un-American, that we’re against [the] police entirely and the military. That just wasn’t true.
Then fast forward to Charlottesville and the country sees what an un-American protest really looks like. That’s when I had my change of heart. Because what Colin, Eli and I did was a peaceful protest fueled by faith in God to help make our country a better place. I feel I needed to regain control of that narrative and not let people say that what we’re doing is un-American, because it’s not. It’s completely American. We’re doing it because we want equality for everybody. We want our country to be a better place.
Separate from the divisive and wholly disingenuous rhetoric from the right, I can understand that some people were honestly put off by the kinds of protests during the national anthem we’ve been discussing here. For some, the flag is a symbol of the whole people of America, one that represents the bonds of nationhood, so protesting the flag can be seen as rejecting those bonds. One would hope that people who did feel put off at first would be willing to listen, learn, and be educated about the reasons behind those protests and perhaps make their peace with them at that point.
We can also have honest disagreements about the strategic value of protesting the flag and/or the anthem. I have to admit that I felt ambivalent at first about such dissent on those grounds, although I would argue that Trump ended up looking so extreme in his reaction to Kaepernick and others—even recently, he openly rooted against the wildly popular U.S. women’s soccer team at the Olympics—that his negative reactions are ultimately hurting him politically. None of those conversations change the fact that the athletes’ feelings are valid and represent a sincere and profound reaction to real injustice.
What’s not valid is to downplay or outright deny the existence of racial (as well as other forms of) injustice. That sort of gaslighting is what Trump Republicans do on a daily basis, as seen, for example, in the push to ban the teaching of critical race theory in K-12 public schools. Forget for a second that this is actually a complex set of ideas taught almost exclusively in graduate programs and law schools—i.e., not your local middle school. What the anti-CRT Trumpists are really trying to prevent students from learning about the actual history of racism in America, one that includes horrific crimes and awe-inspiring resistance and coalition building that have made real, if incomplete, strides in overcoming them.
Here’s what I don’t understand. How can Trump Republicans expect people presented with a history/story of America that downplays or even ignores the inequities they experience in their own lives to recognize themselves in that story—and to embrace that kind of American history as their own? A story of our country that successfully cultivates an identification with America does so only by convincing people that their concerns and rights are taken seriously.
I’ve written about the positive aspects of the inclusive, balanced, yet ultimately hopeful way President Obama has talked about American history, and I’ve encouraged other progressives to follow suit. In one of his most inspiring moments (and that’s saying something), here’s how he did so at the 50th anniversary of the march across Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama:
And yet, what could be more American than what happened in this place?
What could more profoundly vindicate the idea of America than plain and humble people—the unsung, the downtrodden, the dreamers not of high station, not born to wealth or privilege, not of one religious tradition but many—coming together to shape their country’s course?
What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this; what greater form of patriotism is there; than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?
That’s why Selma is not some outlier in the American experience. That’s why it’s not a museum or static monument to behold from a distance. It is instead the manifestation of a creed written into our founding documents.
A whitewashed history of the kind the anti-critical race theory conservatives want to see taught in schools turns off just as many people as one that ignores the progress—as well as the struggle and sacrifices brave Americans made to achieve it. A true history must tell a story that includes all these elements.
When Black Americans draw attention to the reality of inequality and racism in our past as well as our present, when they peacefully protest against them—despite Republican actions aimed at criminalizing that—either through writings, speeches, or even actions taken while the national anthem is playing, they are not acting in an anti-American fashion. Instead of getting angry at those who exercise their constitutional right to protest in any of those ways, how about getting angry at those who exacerbate the injustices that create the need for such dissent in the first place?
Athletes protesting during the national anthem are not rejecting their identities as Americans. After all, in the case of Olympic competitors, these are people competing with the words USA on their chests. Nor is their dissent a denial of their membership in a community of their fellow Americans. Instead, it is a cry for help wrapped in a peaceful call for change, one that looks to convince America to live up to the core values expressed at the birth of our country and make that community finally and fully inclusive. What could be more patriotic than that?
On a very much related note, let’s talk about what’s not patriotic: attempting a fucking coup. The guy who dared to call Colin Kaepernick unpatriotic did that. Additionally, the twice-impeached Florida retiree fomented a violent insurrection to overthrow our democracy—also not patriotic. Finally, please note the contrast between the treatment peaceful BLM protestors and the Jan. 6 insurrectionists received at the hands of the police.
And the people Trump inspired to storm the Capitol? Judge Amy Berman Jackson, while presiding over a sentencing hearing for convicted Jan. 6 rioter Karl Dresch, offered the following: “You called yourself and everyone else patriots, but that’s not patriotism. Patriotism is loyalty to country, loyalty to the Constitution, not loyalty to a head of state. That is the tyranny we rejected on July 4.” Hear, hear.
When it comes to the flag, patriotism, and how some African Americans feel, take note of the formulation laid out by Nikole Hannah-Jones, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and creator of The 1619 Project. She wrote about her evolving attitude as it relates to her own father in a way that can help anyone understand these issues who has a sincere desire to do so.
When I was young, that flag outside our home never made sense to me. How could this Black man, having seen firsthand the way his country abused Black Americans, how it refused to treat us as full citizens, proudly fly its banner? I didn’t understand his patriotism. It deeply embarrassed me.
I had been taught, in school, through cultural osmosis, that the flag wasn’t really ours. […]
That my dad felt so much honor in being an American felt like a marker of his degradation, his acceptance of our subordination.
Later on, however, Hannah-Jones developed an understanding that mirrored her father’s.
Yet despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, Black Americans believed fervently in the American creed. Through centuries of Black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals. And not only for ourselves—Black rights struggles paved the way for every other rights struggle, including women’s and gay rights, immigrant and disability rights … Black Americans, as much as those men cast in alabaster in the nation’s capital, are this nation’s true ‘founding fathers.’ … No people has a greater claim to that flag than us … It was by virtue of our bondage that we became the most American of all.
Like Hannah-Jones, I believe in a patriotism that centers on the struggle to make America as great as its fundamental principles. Whereas Trumpism looks backward, to a supposed high point in our past, progressives emphasize the continuing process of further perfecting our union.
Every American has the right to decide what the flag means to them, and how they want to react to it. In recent years, we’ve seen Trumpers seek to co-opt the flag for partisan purposes to the point where, for many, the two are connected. However, some progressives have also been reclaiming the flag, refusing to accept that it belongs to the other party. Certainly Democratic leaders from Obama to Hillary Clinton to Biden would not give an inch on the question of whether the flag belongs more to Trump supporters than to Democrats.
For me, the flag is a symbol of our people, one that is as diverse as humanity. At our best, we see ourselves as a single community of citizens—even as we likewise celebrate the traditional and group identities many Americans value—who are unified around the idea of democratic pluralism.
When we truly and completely live up to our historic ideals of equality—when we repudiate to the last the supremacist ideals of 1619 in favor of the fully realized egalitarian vision of 1776—we’ll no longer have to worry about anyone feeling alienated from the flag, or from identifying with America as their country. The fact that some Americans may, to whatever degree, have such feelings now isn’t their fault. Rather, the fault lies with those preventing the changes we must make so that every American feels included as a full and equal member of our national community.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh’s Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)