Sitting To Stand
Protest, Patriotism, and the Endurance of White Supremacy
In his recent New York Times op-ed, “The Uses of Patriotism,” David Brooks chides high-school football players who would protest racism by not standing for the national anthem. Invoking American Studies pioneer Perry Miller, Brooks argues that patriotic self-criticism and radical hope, not abstention, are the foundation of American values. Through these partnered ideas, he claims, the United States fuses into a nation. Thus, it is the duty of all Americans to participate in patriotic rituals because they bind us into a nation. Brooks is not alone in his critique.
Since San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided to stay seated during the national anthem, this country has witnessed an extended attempt to diminish his act. Former quarterback Boomer Esiason said that Kaepernick was “about as disrespectful as any athlete has ever been,” whereas Hall of Fame baseball manager Tony La Russa called Kaepernick’s sincerity into question. Fox News correspondent Bill O’Reilly went even further, arguing that “No nation is perfect,” but the presence of racial injustice described by Kaepernick and others is grossly overstated. Most recently, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg surprised some and confirmed for others that even the most stalwart proponents of justice can be and often are insufficiently critical on matters of race when she told Katie Couric that Kaepernick’s decision not to stand was “dumb and disrespectful.” (Ginsburg has since apologized.) Like Brooks, these four understand patriotism to be bigger than any individual or race.
They are right that recent protests transcend any single event or person. They are wrong, however, that patriotic rituals form a binding phenomenon that exceeds questions of racism. To the contrary, the continued presence of racism within the United States severs our national connection and, in doing so, renders acts of uncritical patriotism a mockery of the American polity. What good, we might ask, are rituals when they require one to forego national reckoning for feel-good acquiescence? When approached from this vantage, sitting or taking a knee becomes less a gesture of disrespect than a demand for the kind of critical analysis Brooks and others understand to be the crucial element of American hope. It is an invitation for Americans to interrogate white supremacy in all its shifting and often complicated manifestations.
For many, the invocation of white supremacy conjures violent events and abhorrent laws from the past. However, these historical facts are better thought of as consequences of white supremacy, not the enduring and wily thing itself. At base, white supremacy is nothing more than the institutional privileging of white desire over and above the rights, protections, and needs of citizens of color. It is not a specific set of laws or rules that exist historically, but rather, a network of legal, social, and moral responses that privilege white interests. White supremacy exceeds specific laws, which are always historical responses to particular desires.
Much like the radical hope Brooks cites, white supremacy has existed throughout this nation’s history. The Constitution includes a clause that postponed all efforts to prohibit the importation of enslaved Africans for 20 years. Largely a compromise meant to appease delegates in Georgia and South Carolina, the clause placed the interests of white slave owners above the protection and interests of enslaved Africans. Nearly 80 years later, state legislatures in the South installed Jim Crow laws, sanctioning white desire for segregation. In the North, practices such as redlining had a similar effect. In each case, white desire superseded the rights and protections of black people.
White supremacy is not limited to oppressive sanctions and events. It also exists within acts we consider liberating. One of the more famous examples is the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision of Brown v. Board of Education, which desegregated public schools and effectively overturned the Court’s 1896 “separate but equal” doctrine. Though this decision is often presented as a moment of uncomplicated progress, scholars from a variety of fields have argued that it was not motivated by the Court’s desire to redress racial suffering. Rather, the Court ended legal segregation to improve the country’s international image at the start of the Cold War. To borrow from legal scholar Derrick Bell, Brown v. Board of Education was a moment of “interest convergence,” a moment in which the pursuit of racial justice received a favorable decision because it coincided with the interests of whites.
Today, we no longer live under legal segregation. This fact has led many to argue that we have found our way to a post-racial nation. And, yet, racial disparity abounds.
In this millennium, people of color are disproportionately imprisoned. People of color are less likely than whites to receive needed health services. Wealth disparity also exceeds the normal markers of success: “The Ever-Growing Gap: Failing To Address the Status Quo Will Drive the Racial Wealth Divide for Centuries to Come,” published in 2016 by the Corporation for Economic Development and the Institute for Policy Studies finds that the average black family would need 228 years to build the wealth of the average white family.
One of the more popular — but fallacious — explanations for these disparities is the myth of black pathology. As with medical pathology, from which the concept derives, black pathology describes a condition in which a deviation from healthy behavior causes problems. In the case of black pathology, aspects of black culture, for example, the behaviors and values of black people, are believed to be the cause of racial disparity. According to some proponents, oppressive conditions shaped black culture, but black culture has remained stalled even though time has healed legal and social oppression. Other proponents claim the recognition of historically oppressive conditions has no bearing on the contemporary moment. Regardless of history, poor black communities are deemed the source or reason for ill conditions.
Putting aside the ways this myth reduces black people to a monolith, we should note that white participation within black cultural production or the adoption of values and behaviors associated with the black community is seldom enough to precipitate consequence. Whether we look at the phenomenon of Elvis or the contemporary embrace of rap music, white audiences continue to enjoy black culture with few, if any, of the consequences proponents of black pathology associate with it. More telling, illicit behavior, no matter how vile, has proven to be an insufficient guarantor of long-term consequence for white people.
The same cannot be said for people of color. Drug usage, for instance, cuts across race and class, and, yet, poor communities of color are disproportionately policed and convicted for these offenses. These convictions often lead to imprisonment, which, in turn, leads to social and economic disenfranchisement upon release. What initially is seen to be the consequence of culture — or, to quote Paul Ryan, the “tailspin of culture” — is nothing less than a systemic imbalance in how communities are policed, protected, and judged.
Put more simply, to be a person of color in the United States increases the chance of a small mistake rising to catastrophe. Even worse, this threat does not require black men and women to make a mistake; consequences are suffered even when no crime has been committed. And despite its inconsistent applications across racial lines, the myth of cultural pathology has become the excuse upon which disparity is explicated and the American project exonerated.
The installation of pathology is not unique to this moment. In fact, the ease with which we accept pathology as truth is predicated upon the frequency of its installation across the past 200 years. If racist terms such as jezebel, buck, zip coon, and sambo have been removed from the American lexicon, the particular grammars or ways both the state and white communities come to know people of color have not. Nor are their installations unique to those who seek to diminish African-Americans. To the contrary, pathological assignment can be found within the work of historians and social scientists endeavoring to prove stereotypes of African-Americans to be a both fallacious and corrosive force throughout this nation’s history.
In his 1959 Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life, Stanley Elkins argued that the psychological impact of slavery on black men reduced them to childlike sambos and, in doing so, evacuated a great deal of misinformation spread by slavery apologists and Dunning School historians. Yet, for all its intended good, the argument retains — indeed, maintains — the insidious idea that slavery created the conditions through which black pathology emerged.
Enslaved men were not the endlessly resilient survivors of slavery’s violent and vile conditions. They were, instead, a series of conjoined adjectives: “docile but irresponsible, loyal but lazy, humble but chronically given to lying and stealing.” Following Elkins’s description, it is not hard to imagine someone arguing that racial disparity both during and after 1865 was the consequence of uneven social development among races. Indeed, this was the case.
As early as the 1960s, social scientists such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Kenneth Clark and journalists such as Rowland Evans and Robert Novak published reports on cultural pathologies that were believed to explain poverty across generations. By the 1970s, historians had disproven Elkins’s thesis, but diagnoses of pathology remained in both social science and the popular press. Much like Elkins’s argument, these reports effectively shifted the location of deprivation but failed to excise pathological assignments. More simply, the black community was no longer thought to be biologically inferior; rather, it was believed to be socially and culturally stalled.
By the 1980s and well into the 1990s, concepts of the “underclass” became the primary hinge through which pathology was bolted to the black community. This was true even while many of these studies ostensibly turned to class. As David Theo Goldberg argues in Racist Culture: Philosophy and the Politics of Meaning, “the idea of project housing has… come to stand throughout ‘the West’ as the central mark of racially constituted urban pathology,” out of which emerged a variety of newly invented stereotypes such as the welfare queen and the super predator. By contrast, poor white communities during this period were often framed as the victims of industry and a diminished economy. Whether we look at the rust belt, which describes a geographical area various industries once utilized and have now abandoned, or the xenophobic and unfounded notion that immigrants take jobs from US-born laborers, poor white communities seldom come up against the idea that white culture is to blame for unemployment and poverty.
Whatever the historical or sociological reasoning, a single assertion continued to surface within report after report and across time: African-Americans were the makers of their own deprivation — even as study after study proved the continued existence of institutional racism. Today, calls for African-Americans to focus on “black on black crime,” draw from this tradition, not statistics. Such calls ignore more recent work including the 2015 report from the Center for Contemporary Families responding to previous assertions of black pathology: In “Moynihan’s Half Century: Have We Gone to Hell in a Hand Basket,” the authors found that a single-parent family structure, the perennial boogeyman of reactionaries, does not lead to an increase in juvenile crime or inequality.
To diminish objections to police violence, these calls also conflate separate issues — an understanding echoed on the website of Black Lives Matter:
The continued focus on black-on-black crime is a diversionary tactic, whose goal is to suggest that black people don’t have the right to be outraged about police violence in vulnerable black communities, because those communities have a crime problem. The Black Lives Matter movement acknowledges the crime problem, but it refuses to locate that crime problem as a problem of black pathology.
Recent calls for patriotism are equally diversionary, and like calls that ask protestors to focus on crime, they miss a simple fact of history: the seizure of rights by people of color has never come from quiet acquiescence. Writing in 1845, Frederick Douglass captured the need for seizure in his eponymous narrative when he told his audience, “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.” Eighty years later, Elise Johnson McDougald took up the work begun by formerly enslaved women like Harriet Jacobs. In her essay “The Double Task: The Struggle of Negro Women for Sex and Race Emancipation,” she refused the vile stereotypes that had long been thought to be the biological destiny of black women and urged readers to recognize the rich history of black women who had and continued to create lives in the midst of both racial and gender oppression. What these examples demonstrate is that black citizenship and its liberties have been made by, rather than given to, African-Americans.
Today, intersectionality is the term for interrogations of this overlap between race and gender. Legal scholar and critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw first introduced this term in her groundbreaking work from the late 1980s that further expanded our ability to understand how race and gender form a network of oppression. Yet, the demands of people of color for racial justice often continue to be dismissed on the basis that equality can be maintained only by a colorblind approach to law and nation.
This nation, however, is not colorblind. It has never been colorblind. To paraphrase Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, social activist and Professor of African-American Studies at Princeton University, the absence of racial insult does not evidence the absence of racial discrimination. To treat these absences as synonymous is to reveal colorblind models as little more than tactics through which the state and its citizens disavow the presence of continued racism. To singularly confront overt acts of racism, as colorblind models suggest, is to dismantle individuals’ ability to confront covert racism.
This approach also enabled Ohioan and former Trump campaign chair Kathy Miller to say,
I don’t think there was any racism before Obama got elected…You’ve had every opportunity. It was given to you…You’ve had the same schools everybody else went to.
Miller’s assertion illuminates how colorblind approaches obscure the operations of contemporary inequality. It also ignores how proximity and affluence have not been able to inoculate communities of color from both racial limits and animus.
Even after Brown v. Board of Education, people of color have not had “every opportunity.” In the 60-plus years since the Supreme Court desegregated schools, educational inequality persists. In his 2001 “American Schooling And Educational Inequality: A Forecast for the 21st Century” published in the Sociology of Education, Adam Gamoran foresaw a continuing decline in black and white educational inequality throughout the twenty-first century, but has since acknowledged that communities of color remain at a structural disadvantage. “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected,” by Columbia Law School also found that girls of color suffer harsher punishment and are six times more likely to be suspended than their white peers and black boys are three times more likely to be suspended than white boys.
The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce published its study of 4,400 postsecondary institutions “Separate & Unequal: How Higher Education Reinforces the Intergenerational Reproduction of White Racial Privilege.” Even though minority students have better access to higher education than ever before, their research shows that African American and Latin American students are being channeled into open-access two- and four-year colleges at the undergraduate level while white students are encouraged to apply to more selective colleges. And obstacles do not end once a person of color enters college. “What Happens Before? A Field Experiment Exploring How Pay and Representation Differentially Shape Bias on the Pathway Into Organizations” from the Journal of Applied Psychology shows that faculty are more likely to ignore inquiries about research opportunities when posed by women and persons of color than when posed by white males. Equally dire findings can be found within employment.
In Knocking the Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics, Lester K. Spence analyzes the job opportunities of the pre-Obama 1990s. Whereas the vast majority of white employment seekers were placed in positions that included job security, stable hours, safe working conditions, and benefits, approximately 75% of the jobs in which African-Americans and Latin Americans were placed during this same period did not. In fact, Spence found that “3 out of every 5 jobs that were added among black and Latino populations were bad jobs,” offering “very low wages, unstable hours, little to no job security, little to no dignity, no due process, unsafe working conditions, and little to no benefits.”
Thus, directly contra Kathy Miller’s claims, people of color in the pre-Obama 1990s did not fail to take advantage of job opportunities. Rather, the employment opportunities available to job seekers were, in part, determined by race. Furthermore, such determinations led to jobs that amplified disenfranchisement within African-American and Latinx communities.
Colorblindism, however, is not the exclusive domain of reactionary dismissal; it has also bankrupted goodwill efforts such as empathy. Even though it can be and often is a powerful means through which we come to better see and understand those who live at a distance from us, empathy is dangerous when used as the means through which difference is erased. As Saidiya V. Hartman argues in Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America, empathy always threatens to become the method through which the powerful hijack the experiences of oppressed communities. By employing a “shared language of pain,” those who are enfranchised link themselves to the kind of violence endured by institutionally marginalized communities. The danger of this is twofold: the enfranchised are allowed not only to speak for the disenfranchised, but also to center their experiences, and thereby replace, marginalized experiences with their own.
When in her 2016 Democratic National Convention speech Hillary Clinton called for Americans to “put ourselves in the shoes of” both “young black and Latino men and women who face the effects of systemic racism” and police officers, she offered listeners a shared language of pain through which to equate the violence wrought by racism with the killing of police. In doing so, she drew people of color and the police as parallel communities. They are not. Violence that manifests because of systemic racism and the threat of violence police officers face are distinct phenomena. Both are tragic, but to link them rhetorically and temporally, as Clinton did, demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of what people mean when they invoke ideas such as systemic racism and white supremacy.
Whether we look at its utility for smuggling in older iterations of racism or the ways it encourages individuals to be uncritical of structural racism, colorblindism is central to the maintenance of white supremacy. At best, it mistakes good intentions for good ends — even as dire consequences disproportionately befall communities of color. At worst, it is the method through which the acknowledgement of racial difference becomes antithetical to the American project — even as such acknowledgements are necessary for rooting out today’s most insidious inequalities.
These are just a few of the issues that surround Colin Kaepernick’s decision not to stand. They are the issues we ignore when we recommend that high-school athletes not do the same. To sit or to take a knee is to move against tactics that seek to blind us to racial disenfranchisement and violence. Such acts are neither simple abstentions nor simply disrespectful.
Rather, these acts of radical insertion seek to halt narratives that erase black lives politically, socially, and physically. And in doing so, they help many of us to recognize that, even though the vagueness of this country’s foundational creed opens up an ideological space through which people of color have inserted themselves, our nation’s founding documents — the colonial, state, and national laws that both establish and sustain our lives — have been much clearer about whose rights and desires should be protected. Indeed, Kaepernick’s opponents would do well to consult American Slavery, American Freedom, wherein Perry Miller’s student Edmund S. Morgan famously argued that American slavery was the predicate upon which [white] American freedom was won.