On August 14, 2016 during a pre-season game, San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick remained seated while his teammates stood for the National Anthem. At first it was unclear why he stayed on the bench. But a few weeks later, Kaepernick made his reasons known to journalists, linking the anthem to the history of slavery and Black oppression in the United States. Since then, in a range of sports from the high school level to the pros, many athletes have followed his example.
The protest that began with Kaepernick and spread around the country opens up a useful opportunity to reflect on the symbols that define our country. For some, Kaepernick’s action is disrespectful, even tantamount to betrayal — indeed, he has received multiple death threats for his action. For others, it is a courageous stance against racial oppression. For all of us, it is an opportunity to think carefully about the meaning of these symbols in our national life as NFL teams mobilize for spring workouts after the college draft last week and Kaepernick — benched for much of the season following his protest, and exercising his contract option to leave the 49ers — has not been offered a job with another team.
Most would agree that mindless adherence to symbols like the flag and the anthem do not make you a “patriot,” just an idol-worshipper. Whether Liberal or Conservative, left or right, Americans tend to share a belief rooted in Protestantism that deeds are more important than symbols. And in any case, the history of this country is far richer and more complicated than any one symbol can contain. Those who cling to symbols risk missing what is truly marvelous, and terrible, about our history.
Where the disagreements arise is over the substance behind the symbols. And here I would argue that we white people can have a tremendous blind spot, one that emerges from the matrix of white supremacy. Like a cataract that we willed into existence, it clouds our vision and prevents us from seeing the historical substance underneath the flag, the anthem, and other symbols of nationhood. It is only in moments like Kaepernick’s protest that we dimly see the outlines of a story, and a history, that we have refused to believe.
So what of that story? What of the substance behind the symbols? At root Kaepernick’s action is a protest against white supremacy. But white supremacy was never inevitable or foreordained: it was carefully constructed over hundreds of years. And because it was constructed, it can be demolished. That, of course, is what makes white people nervous and angry about such protests.
From its inception, this was a multicultural, multiethnic land: indeed, America in the 1600s was far more diverse than it was in the days of the Early Republic. Multiple Native groups encountered and mingled with English, Irish, German, Dutch, Spanish, and French colonizers. Protestants, Catholics, and Jews worshipped in their varied temples. Enslaved people, Free Blacks, soldiers, sailors, and indentured servants from a wide range of places met in the taverns, squares, fields, and rural roads of every colony. While by no means harmonious or egalitarian, America sputtered into existence as a polyglot people threading through a diverse, multiform landscape.
But in a short period of time, the colonial settler elite embraced white male supremacy as the key to governance and rule. This was accomplished through laws defining suffrage, exclusions in property ownership (often targeting Jews), the expansion of chattel slavery, the reduction in the indenturing of English Protestants, and the foreclosure of inheritance and marriage traditions to subordinate women. When it came time to draft a Constitution, the supremacy of white males had become uncontroversial among the framers. The only controversy had to do with whether white males without property could join in the suffrage, and how to count enslaved people for the purposes of taxation and representation.
Thus, the United States was born under the sign of white supremacy — indeed, one could argue that we invented it — and white nationhood has been a guiding theme of our politics ever since. The American flag, and the National Anthem, is part of that history. To be sure, the meaning of “white,” and the profile of those who are and are not included in that sobriquet, has changed over time in a continual process of expansion and reformation. Nothing guaranteed that Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants, for example, would be admitted to the white race; they had to work for it, shedding ethnic traits, seeking all-white communities, denigrating racial others, accepting all of the precepts of a white supremacist order. Given the privileges at stake, the process must have seemed worth it. But for Blacks, Mexicans, Chinese, and anyone with a drop of non-white blood, admittance to the privileges of whiteness has long been foreclosed.
Regardless of its specific content — that is, who is or is not considered “white” — white supremacy has ruled U.S. political and social life with great tenacity. Slavery, Native genocide, Chinese exclusion, Japanese internment, anti-immigration, Jim Crow, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia: these have all marked the violent retrenchment of white supremacy in our social and political life. Cherokee removal was as much about fears of miscegenation as it was about land, since poor whites and Blacks were more apt to cohabitate and intermarry with Native people. The brutal war waged against unions in the 19th and early 20th centuries was as much a fear of an intermingled multiracial working class as it was a struggle for control of industry. The Home Owners Loan Corporation classified racially mixed working class neighborhoods as the highest investment risk, while the Federal Housing Administration restricted loans to white suburban communities. All of these historical developments are not *apart* from our national culture; rather, they have shaped it in profound ways.
But here’s the twist at the heart of our story: that same white colonial elite, influenced by Locke, Hobbs, and the Cherokee nation, created a Constitution that gave themselves the gift of certain liberties — free speech, due process, religious freedom, right of assembly, and so on. To be sure, these liberties were not intended for anyone without white skin and male sex organs. But they proved to be popular, resilient, and even expansive principles. Over time, the commitment of white male elites to their own liberties inadvertently placed tools of redress in the hands of those oppressed people, who used them to fight for a more equal and inclusive society.
This twist — dismantling the master’s house with the master’s tools — has always sat uncomfortably in our national narrative, but it defines us as much as anything. Indeed, the rest of the world does not admire the U.S. for its flag, its anthem, or its militarism. We are admired for our 230 year-old Constitution and its promise as a living document. This promise has been tested over and over again by a wide range of individuals and groups who have sought to redress injustice and to widen the circle of ‘we’ in “We the People.” These hard-fought, hard-won efforts have always begun with questioning ideas and practices otherwise taken for granted, from humans as property to male-only suffrage to racial discrimination.
Today, white nationalism continues to obscure its origins through its symbols. I am not just talking about the Tea Party, the alt-right, or Trump and his supporters, I am talking about every facet of American life. Some people look at the 50 stars and 13 stripes of the American flag and swell with pride. For Native Americans, every star and bar represents millions slaughtered, displaced, and corralled onto reservations. When white people presume that their story is THE story, we do violence to people who have to live with the disfigurements of white supremacy — whether they are football players, families struggling to get by, or teenagers gunned down by police on the street.
White supremacy is a worldview — for white people it is almost impossible to detect, like the fish that cannot see the water in which it swims. Every once in awhile, though, someone like Colin Kaepernick comes along and uses the megaphone afforded by fame to jar our consciousness. They remind us that the symbols at the core of our national life were born in white nationalism, and that there are many different stories of what it means to be American. More importantly, perhaps, they remind us that white nationalism is not the inevitable state of things, but something vulnerable, unstable, and ultimately subject to dismantling. Such moments must unsettle anyone who benefits from white supremacy, but are absolutely necessary for the creation of a just and inclusive society.
So yes, the National Anthem was born in a moment of white panic over armed black uprising in the War of 1812. Yes, the American flag was born amid the fight to preserve liberties for white elites. In the case of the flag, we have added stars but forgotten what those additions have meant in terms of the expansion of slavery, the forced removal of Native people, the great bloodletting of Civil War, and the emergence of empire. In the case of the anthem, careful editing and the addition of a musical score have erased its origins from memory, making it seem as though it came to us as some uncomplicated gift from above. Such is the way of so many aspects of our history.
But the archive dies hard, and returns to haunt us time and time again. The circumstances in which Francis Scot Key penned his poem “Defence of Fort McHenry” are well established, and the lines from the poem’s third stanza, where he celebrates retributive violence against rebellious slaves, are there for all to see:
No refuge could save the hireling and slave /
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave
When the British invaded the young nation in 1812, a key strategy involved liberating Blacks from slavery and inviting them to fight for the crown. The British had abolished the slave trade within their empire in 1807, and promised enslaved people their freedom; some 6000 took up the call, eventually resettling in Canada, Jamaica, and the United Kingdom. Referring to this practice, Key penned the infamous lines above in 1814 as a celebration of violence against Black people who deemed freedom under the British as preferable to slavery under the United States.
Key wrote his poem while witnessing the battle for Baltimore harbor. Within days, his brother-in-law engaged a printer to set the poem to the music of John Stafford Smith’s “Anacreontic Song” (oddly, a British composition). It became an instant hit, and circulated for the next century as one among many patriotic tunes available to Americans. With several versions in circulation, President Woodrow Wilson initiated an effort to standardize the song in 1917, as part of the propaganda machine surrounding America’s entry into World War I. However, the adoption of the “Star Spangled Banner” song as the National Anthem did not occur until an Act of Congress in 1931, amid a wave of nativist, reactionary, anti-immigrant feeling that followed the collapse of the American economy.
Today, few people know about or sing the infamous lines of the National Anthem. But the fact that we skip over those lines today does not detract from its origins. For many people, the anthem is simply the patriotic response to the existential threat of British invasion (and to an extent, it certainly is that). But for many others, the anthem also represents an ongoing legacy of oppression born out of American commitments to slavery and white supremacy. If we are interested in creating a truly multiracial democracy, it will be necessary to rethink the anthem, and indeed all symbols of our national life.
This will be challenging in the post-9/11 world. In the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, patriotic fervor gripped the country. Nationalist symbols and sentiments exploded across the American landscape, from film and television to bumper stickers, yard signs, malls, and mudflaps. Nowhere in popular culture was this more intense than in sports. Whether in small town softball games or major televised events like the Superbowl, the display of athletics became even more deeply entwined with the display of patriotism — strong bodies, strong nation. Black athletes are welcome to participate, of course, as long as they behave, as long as their Blackness remains gladiatorial, firmly fixed to the register of White national entertainment. The moment a Black athlete speaks out against racial oppression, the national narrative trembles under the weight of its contradictions.
The antidote to the troubling presence of politicized Black bodies in televisual space is patriotism — spectacular displays of American national pride through the flag, the anthem, the pledge of allegiance, professions of Christian faith, and not a few fireworks. Of course, beneath such patriotic display lurk ugly expressions of white nationalism, xenophobia, and anti-Muslim sentiment. The election of Donald Trump is only the latest in a long history of white reactionary redress, as the body politic hyperventilates over the fear of foreigners and dark-skinned “others.” In the realm of sports, it has become difficult to express anything that troubles White Christian American identity (the bizarre contradiction of a Christian patriotism notwithstanding). Thus, Tim Tebow was hailed as a hero for speaking his mind about his beliefs, while Kaepernick has been derided as a traitor for his. Tebow’s mind toes the line. Kaepernick’s does not. As so often happens in our history, patriotism becomes a blunt instrument to wield against people with different values, languages, or ideals.
Colin Kaepernick paid the price for his willingness to speak out about racism. His protest provoked such anger among the predominantly white football fan base that the NFL reported a drop in attendance and viewership. When it became clear that the 49ers would bench him for much of the 2017 season, Kaepernick exercised the “player option” in his contract and became a free agent. However, most teams will likely pass him over as a liability, and his prospects of a career in the NFL look increasingly uncertain. While some might argue that this has more to do with his passing stats, players with even less successful records have already been signed to teams. And while other players who also refused to stand for the Anthem have been signed, the player that led the movement remains unemployed.
Meanwhile, Kaepernick’s protest has stirred the predictably angry, racist backlash we have come to expect in “post-racial” America — the same backlash that we saw, for example, when Native Americans protested the use of “Redskins” as a name for a sports team. White reactionary bloggers, pundits, and journalists have choked themselves with apoplectic rage over the temerity of a Black man protesting the racism embedded in and obscured by the National Anthem. (Apparently it is acceptable for rich, white men like Trump to criticize the United States, but not for anyone else). Some even suggest that Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the anthem disrespects veterans, completely missing the faulty logic inherent in the claim. But an outpouring of support by veterans using #VeteransForKaepernick more than adequately corrected this view. As veterans put it, whether they agree or disagree with his position, they support his right to protest.
More than anything, though, Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for or to sing the National Anthem illuminates a dark corner of U.S. history worth revisiting, particularly now as avowed white nationalists occupy the White House. This is the gift of protest, whether well-considered or haphazard, planned or spontaneous: it invites us to examine what we know or think we know about the world, and encourages us to walk with more humility before the awesome weight of our beautiful and terrible history.