By Tariq Khan
It has long been tradition in the United States for sporting events to begin with patriotic ritual. At the very least, the national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner” plays over loudspeakers while all able-bodied participants and spectators rise, some with hands over hearts, in a collective display of fealty to the state.
The US Department of Defense has invested a lot of public relations expertise and taxpayer money into creating a cultural link between sports, which are highly popular, and aggressive militarism, which is far less popular, and for which enthusiasm must be manufactured. From 2012 to 2015, the DOD spent near 200 million dollars on marketing and patriotic propaganda displays and events in the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, MLS, and NASCAR.
Patriotic rituals such as standing for the anthem or reciting the pledge of allegiance serve to uphold dominant social hierarchies, the interlocking systems in which U.S. culture and politics are rooted: capitalism, white supremacy, imperialism, and patriarchy. Recognizing this, Emma Goldman called patriotism “a menace to liberty.”
The national anthem is an explicitly white supremacist song, its words written by a white supremacist lyricist, and to stand for it is to celebrate white supremacy. Participation in such a ritual should only be a mark of shame. Instead, it is expected so much so that non-participation warrants violence.
Under the outwardly benign, communitarian façade of patriotism lies a deep-seated racist authoritarianism which reveals itself in moments when the state’s ideological hegemony weakens. Such a moment is playing out presently following San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem. He said: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder. I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed. If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.”
Kaepernick’s quiet act of protest – he literally sat quietly during the anthem – unmasked the lynch mob psychology which upholds patriotism.
Twentieth-century Black radical sociologist Oliver Cromwell Cox called lynching the “whip hand of the ruling class” which functions to uphold systems of oppression in moments when members of subordinated groups begin to assert themselves. It functions not only to put undeferential people back in line, but also to reinforce conformity among the privileged and discourage solidarity with anti-establishment movements. It is just as much about ensuring white people continue conforming to a certain role in the system as it is about keeping Black people in a position of subordination.
Angry white men publicly burned Kaepernick jerseys, perhaps acting out a desire to publicly burn Kaepernick himself at the stake, just as their ideological predecessors used to do a century ago to Black people they deemed overly undeferential. Some of these aspiring lynchers treated this as a ritual, playing the national anthem and standing with hands over hearts as the jerseys burned. Social media was awash in blatantly racist attacks against the quarterback.
The police union in San Francisco called for Kaepernick to apologize to them for disrespecting the police and threatened to boycott working at San Francisco 49ers games. Quietly sitting during the national anthem was a protest against the reality in which police are killing Black people in the United States almost daily. It was a protest against the utter lack of accountability for an abusive and murderous police state. It was a protest against the unwillingness of the state to take any steps to address this epidemic. Police unions exist to serve the interests of police officers. If calls for the police to stop killing Black people are seen by police unions as a threat that must be silenced, then what does that tell us about the interests of police officers?
Predictably, these hot-headed responses to Kaepernick were followed by supposedly “reasonable” liberal commentary about how Kaepernick has a point but his methods are in bad taste, over the line, and worse, disrespectful to the troops! Oh, the troops, won’t somebody please think of the troops! White New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees – sounding like a caricature of the white moderate Dr. King criticized in his powerful “Letter From Birmingham Jail” – tweeted “I agree with his protest, I DON’T agree w his METHOD.”
On this issue: I agree with his protest, I DON'T agree w his METHOD. Read the article. I said it three times https://t.co/nrZ2b0GMDg
— Drew Brees (@drewbrees) August 30, 2016
Accused rapist and white Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger regurgitated some canned jabber about respecting the flag because soldiers in the military give us the freedom to play football. That Roethlisberger, who is facing two separate accusations of sexual assault from two women, felt confident and entitled to chime in on the matter at all exemplifies the arrogant impunity of white supremacist patriarchy.
Indeed, the Kaepernick controversy highlights the interconnectedness of patriarchy with white supremacy, capitalism, and imperialism. The far right-wing website “The Daily Caller” posted a widely-shared article titled, “Kaepernick’s Communist-Sympathizing Muslim Girlfriend Believed to be Behind Protest.” It is a narrative that plays on all of the tired conservative US-American tropes: xenophobic discourse of foreign otherness, outside women agitators corrupting good American boys, standard Islamophobia, and scary communist leaders.
In the 1880s Chicago Police Captain Michael Schaack blamed the labor movement’s anti-capitalist organizing on the bad influence of what he called violent anarchist “squaws” (colonialist Indian-hating language), the “red sisterhood,” who were the most violent at the “war dances”. This was an era when newspaper headlines said things like, “The Guardians of the World Nearly Always Find a Woman Implicated When a Ruler is Stricken Down,” which was actually a sub-headline from what was considered at the time a respectable newspaper. The main headline was “Women Anarchists Have Become the Terror of the World’s Police.”
This kind of capitalist demonization of non-conforming women is not very different than present-day conservative warnings about “Kaepernick’s Communist-Sympathizing Muslim Girlfriend.”
I soured on the national anthem when I served in the United States military, where patriotism is mandatory. On one base where I was stationed, the national anthem played on loud speakers. I don’t remember if it was once a day or once a week, but it was annoying. If outside when the anthem came on, one was required to stop wherever they are, face the nearest United States flag, and stand at attention. Several soldiers would run indoors just before the anthem came on so they would not have to take part in this demeaning charade.
One day I forgot about the time and got caught outside just as the anthem came on. I took off running to get inside the nearest building but was chased by an aggressively patriotic Army sergeant who proceeded to yell at me disrespectfully. Respect for flags and anthems was more important than respect for actual human beings. For patriots, whether a person displays patriotism willingly or unwillingly does not matter, only that one conforms and obeys.
Patriots would rather a person stand for an anthem they do not believe in and live a lie than sit and live as an honest person. The honest person’s mere existence disrupts the many comforting myths patriots tell themselves to avoid having to deal with unpleasant truths. Patriotism serves to keep people in denial, to obscure or even glorify the crimes a murderous state that sacrifices the children of the working class to further aggrandize the rich for whom patriotism is merely another weapon of social control.
Indian leftist Arundhati Roy, whom the Indian state targeted with a sedition law – a law which is a living relic of British colonialism – aptly described nation-state flags as “bits of colored cloth that governments use first to shrink-wrap people’s brains and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead.”
Given the violent implications of patriotism, I’m more worried about the “nice” people who proudly stand for a racist anthem written by a racist song writer than I am about the one person who remains seated. Instead of asking Kaepernick to justify himself, ask the thousands of mindless patriots to justify their respect for a song that celebrates killing Black people. What is your justification? How dare Kaepernick?! No. How dare you stand for that vile song? How dare you. Why is Kaepernick sitting? No. Wrong question. Why are you standing?
I assure you I am not apathetically unpatriotic. On the contrary, I am quite actively anti-patriotic. I want to see more scrutiny of people who stand for the national anthem. I want to see news stories focusing on them. I want to see headlines shaming them: “_________Stands to Honor Racist Song.” “NFL Plays Racist Song Before Football Game, Entire Crowd Stands For It.” “Entire Crowd at NFL Game Stands to Celebrate the U.S. Military Killing Black People who Escaped Slavery.”
The national anthem is an explicitly anti-Black and anti-Native song that celebrates the United States killing Black people who escaped enslavement, written by a vile white supremacist, and white people all over the country are outraged that a Black man did not show deference for their sacred racist song. This nation is white supremacist to its core. I hope y’all patriotic people choke on your anthem.
Tariq Khan is a father, a PhD student in history, and a radical organizer and agitator. He currently teaches a U.S. Gender History course at UIUC. He organizes with the Industrial Workers of the World, the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, and Black Rose Anarchist Federation. He also serves on the Solidarity Committee of his labor union the Graduate Employment Organization.