Racism Review | Scholarship and Activism towards racial justice
RacismReview intends to provide a credible and reliable source of information for journalists, students and members of the general public who are seeking solid evidence-based research and analysis of "race," racism, ethnicity, and immigration issues, especially as they undergird and shape U.S. society within a global setting.
Academy Award-winning actress, comedian, and talk show host Mo’Nique has called for a boycott of Netflix for what she referred to as “gender bias and color bias.” According to her Instagram post, Netflix offered Mo’Nique $500,000 to do a comedy special, while other acts like Amy Schumer commanded $13 million and Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle each received $20 million for their shows.
I don’t have any idea what cash prize Mo’Nique should be able to command for a comedy special—-and frankly, these numbers can be dizzying for those of us who can only hope to earn those sums after years of 40-plus hour work weeks. In the “real world,” we expect experience and qualifications to be closely matched with earning power.
In Hollywood, celebrities who can draw the largest audiences, reap the largest payouts. That seems fair. For comedians, ticket sales for their comedy shows and box office receipts are apparently relevant to this assessment. Mo’Nique continues to perform at improv clubs and other arenas. Her BET talk show was canceled years ago, and she has not had the splashy film career one might have imagined after her Oscar-winning performance in “Precious” in 2009. Of course, the fact that Mo’Nique has not managed to translate her Academy Award into a bigger film career may be illustrative of her major point that there is gender and racial bias.
On the other hand, Schumer starred in the 2015 hit “Trainwreck,” which earned $140 million. Schumer drew lots of heat in her Broadway debut in “Meteor Showers,” had a widely popular Emmy-winning TV show “Inside Amy Schumer,” which aired from 2013 to 2016, and according to Mo’Nique’s video Schumer sold out Madison Square Garden twice. This cursory comparison puts Schumer well ahead of Mo’Nique today—-in an industry that emphasizes what is currently hot.
Critics believe that her call for a Netflix boycott is just sour grapes. To some extent, they may be right, but more importantly her comments highlight an area of American life that is mostly ignored, except for among those who experience its reality.
Consider US employment today. The truth is that other than Asian men, the median hourly earnings of white men are higher than all other racial and ethnic groups, and women. And among women, black and Hispanic women earn $13 and $12 per hour respectively, while their Asian and white counterparts earn $18 and $17 per hour, respectively. White and Asian women earn an average of 82 cents and 87 cents respectively, for every dollar a white man earns. However, while these numbers show an enduring gender wage gap, black and brown women would enjoy substantial pay increases if they joined white and Asian women, given that they earn 65 cents (black women) and 58 cents (Hispanic women) for each dollar earned by a white man.
And lest you think that these gaps can be explained away by education, they persist even for those with college degrees. We see similar disparities in the median hourly earnings for those with at least a bachelor’s degree who are 25 and older: Asian women earn $27, white women $25, black women $23, and Hispanic women $22.
Sure, differences in education and experience are all factors in pay discrepancies—-and, as the payouts of these celebrities highlight, the type of industry is another important one. Many other issues impact wages, some heavily gendered. Regarding salary negotiation, women are less likely to question offered salaries, and tend to be less aggressive negotiators. Yet, in study after study, varying amounts of the wage gap are understood by social scientists to be the result of discrimination.
Mo’Nique probably doesn’t endear herself to people with her “honest” talk about having an open marriage, public feuds with other celebrities, and her profanity-laced rant about being “white-balled” by moguls Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry, and Lee Daniels. And by many objective standards, she may not be able to command from Netflix the pay of any of the comedians she referenced in her boycott bid.
Even if Mo’Nique is not the best example herself, however, it’s time that several voices chime in as messengers surrounding the enduring race and gender pay gap.
Janis Prince, Ph.D., is Chair of the Department of Social Sciences and an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Saint Leo University in the Tampa Bay area of Florida.
“Where are you from?,” queried President Donald Trump last fall, to which a career intelligence analyst ultimately replied that her parents were from Korea. Trump then wondered aloud to another adviser why this “pretty Korean lady” wasn’t a negotiator with North Korea. Trump therefore assumed that her parent’s quasi-ancestral roots should be synonymous with her career choice, that she knew a lot about North Korea, and that perhaps she spoke some Korean. What his query didn’t grasp is that she’s a Korean American who might know none of the sort, in the same way that Trump is a German-Scottish American who doesn’t seem particularly versed in either place. The intelligence analyst is American, as am I, and as are the almost 2 million Korean ethnics who claim this country – not North or South Korea – as home (incidentally, #prettykoreanlady story broke the day before National Korean American Day to commemorate the arrival of the first Koreans in this country a 115 years ago). Perhaps Trump should have commented instead on how atavistic the most powerful world leader sounds when in 2017 he refuses to believe that Korean Americans actually come from New York and actually pursue careers like US state intelligence analyst and hostage policy expert. In fact, “our people” also go into American industries of business, reality TV, and politics, but Trump doesn’t grasp this because he sees anyone who looks like the intelligence analyst as Asian foreigners who aren’t “real” Americans. That’s why Trump wasn’t satisfied with her initial answers of “New York” and “Manhattan” when he asked that age-old foreigner-making question, “Where are you from?” How terrific or tremendous would he feel if, based on his logic, we presumed that he’s really from Bobenheim am Berg, Germany?
Trump’s query also doesn’t grasp that a “pretty Korean lady” can actually be capable of making up her own mind of what type of career she’ll pursue and thereby does not deserve to be ogled and talked about in the 3rd person, all in her presence. To spin the prophetic words of Janet Jackson: “No, her first name ain’t lady, it’s ‘American.’ Ms. Expert’ if you’re nasty.” And Trump has proven that he’s nasty in the worst way. He derides accomplished women as such when he’s not busy slut-shaming or invoking “pussy.” Worse, he does so while claiming to make the country great again. Far from great, however, many – including some Norwegians – believe that he’s turning America into a “shithole.” What could be worse than the most powerful person on earth being a racist and sexist who thinks he and Norwegians are superior to shithole countries teeming with all “those” shithole people?
To start with his racism, let’s be clear. To be racist, one need not lynch Black Americans from trees, as some are wont to use as criteria today. Anachronisms aside, one need only believe that White people are superior, are most entitled, and are the norm vis-a-vis non-White peoples. So when Trump renders foreign a Korean American by lumping her with Korea and refuses to accept her definition of herself (New Yorker), he racially excludes her from his club, that is, as not entitled to claim the United States as her country. This type of racism most often levied against Asian Americans, also known as nativist racism, seems much less iniquitous than stereotyping all Haitian people as having “AIDS” or all Nigerians as living in “huts.” Its consequences, however, are far from iniquitous.
Take for example the most infamous case: Japanese Americans being mass incarcerated by their own government despite the US citizenship of most of the Japanese ethnics and the lack of anti-US activity of all. But few Americans also know that one of the first groups banned by US federal immigration law was Chinese women. According to historian Sucheng Chan, Congress passed the 1875 Page Law to forbid the entry of Chinese (or “Mongolian”) sex workers, contract laborers, and felons. Yet, because White Americans assumed that all Chinese women were (opium-addicted) prostitutes, no woman who phenotypically resembled the Chinese was safe from racialized and sexualized harassment. Fast forward nearly a 140 years to 2012 when we witness Ellen Pao lose her lawsuit against venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins for widespread sexual harassment and related retaliation. Because countless other Asian American women like myself had also experienced a sexually-charged work environment her case birthed “the Pao effect” and emboldened Asian American women to speak up and fight back. Indeed, such harassment has known no bounds, as research by Shirley Hune found that Asian American women in higher educational settings are among the most vulnerable targets of a hostile work environment. Yet, sociologist Tiffany J. Huang underscores that the role of racial stereotyping has scarcely been mentioned in the #MeToo movement, and few Americans know that compared to White women college-educated Asian American women earn less income and are more likely to be unemployed. They are also often the least likely to advance into executive or leadership positions.
In the same vein of the 1875 Page Law and the sexual harassment of Ellen Pao, Trump is turning this country into a shithole because he’s a sexual predator who fuses both racism and misogyny. In the case of the intelligence expert, he drew on intersecting race-gender stereotypes of the hypersexual, exotic, passive Asian woman, effectively normalizing her dehumanization. And, as history has shown, dehumanization almost always leads to violence such as sexual assault, or to the violence of white supremacists and nationalists whom he lauds as “some very fine people.” Trump clearly evidences the racialized and gendered dimensions of sociologist Joe Feagin’s “white racial frame” (and sub-frames) wherein mostly white men arrogantly presume that they know best and are most virtuous.
It’s true, of course, that some Korean Americans consider themselves a part of both countries. But answering the dreaded “Where are you from?” question with one’s US hometown is a common device to Americanize oneself in a racially-charged encounter. It’s also true that some women might be flattered to be called “pretty;” but as the historic Women’s March and the #MeToo movement have made clear, not if it prevents men from seeing women as capable in their jobs and especially not if it comes from men multiply accused of sexual assault.
Ultimately, Mr. Trump could only make a “Why doesn’t pretty Korean lady negotiate with North Korea?” type of wisecrack if he saw her as more stereotype than human. But I write this to let him and everyone know that Korean American women, a group from whom we almost never hear, are human and are American. Oh! And many of us are angry: Ms. Angry if you’re nasty.
Each year in mid-January, many Americans celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday in service, in protest, or in worship. Marking King’s birthday represents a hard-won political, cultural and moral victory in the U.S.
Yet, it is one that many of those still in power voted against establishing the King holiday, including senators Chuck Grassley, Orrin Hatch, John McCain, Richard Shelby, and Johnny Isakson. The New York Times has, just today, published a definitive record of the overt, documented racism of the current occupant of the high est elected office. And, it’s no coincidence that the some of the same GOP leaders who opposed establishing the holiday for MLK are among those who defend the president.
It is unavoidably clear that white Americans are not doing their share of educating themselves about racism, a point that Dr. King made more than fifty years ago.
If you’re one of those who wants to educate themselves more, but doesn’t know where to begin, check out Raoul Peck’s award-winning documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” which features some never-before published writing by James Baldwin who had quite a lot to say about race and racism in the U.S. The film airs tonight on PBS (check your local listings), and will be streaming (for free) at PBS after tonight.
Joe Feagin contends that while it is important to acknowledge that white racial framing helps legitimize systemic racism, it is also essential to understand counter-framing. He suggests that racial counter-frames are typically, though not exclusively, developed by Indigenous peoples and people of color as a way of making sense of persistent racial disparities.
A good illustration of counter-framing presented itself when some familiar names, who happened to be Star Wars fans and/or supporters of the casting choices for the 2015 film, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, pushed back against #BoycottStarWarsVII. African American director (Selma and 13th) Ava DuVernay created the hashtag #CelebrateStarWarsVII, which served as a powerful counter-frame to #BoycottStarWarsVII. People of color, like DuVernay and the film’s star John Boyega, do not share whites’ material investment in whiteness. They have a necessary investment in counter-frames. So, too, does Aaron Barksdale, an African American Star Wars fan turned Huffington Post writer. Regarding #BoycottStarWarsVII, he wrote:
[R]ace relations in space are not light-speed ahead of our own challenges in the real world. I hope that more diversity is able to shine in the follow-up films — fingers crossed there will at least be one black female human character. One thing is clear, the force is definitely woke.
As #BoycottStarWarsVII started trending, counter-framers took charge of the hashtag. Accordingly, the bulk of the tweets began to counter the systemic racism and white racial framing behind the hashtag’s origin. Counter-resisters, for example, wrote:
“I would love to see the Venn diagram of #BoycottStarWarsVII supporters and Trump supporters, but I’m pretty sure it’s just one circle.”
“I’m going to #BoycottStarWarsVII because I missed the entire point of science fiction and all the morals it tries to teach?”
“Lunatic #BoycottStarWarsVII racists, weren’t you serving drinks in Mos Eisley cantina? (‘We don’t serve their kind here.’)”
“Aliens that speak English, bad physics & WOOKIES, but you people can’t deal with a black guy?”
#CelebrateStarWarsVII accentuated and extolled the diversity of the film’s cast and Star Wars fans. Boyega chimed in too, stating,
I’m in the movie, what are you going to do about it? … You either enjoy it or you don’t. I’m not saying get used to the future … [it] is already happening. People of colour and women are increasingly being shown on screen. For things to be whitewashed just doesn’t make sense.
According to Feagin, counter-frames such as anti-racist counter-frames and home-culture frames have long provided people of color with “important tool kits enabling individuals and groups to effectively counter recurring white hostility and discrimination” (p. 166). Successfully countering the recurring white hostility and discrimination he faced, Boyega recognized the systemic nature of the whitelash, as opposed to seeing it as simply individual prejudice. He explained,
It’s Hollywood’s fault for letting this get so far, that when a black person or a female, or someone from a different cultural group, is cast in a movie, we have to have debates as to whether they’re placed there just to meet a [quota]. … ‘He’s just placed there for political correctness.’ I don’t hear you guys saying that when Brad Pitt is there. When Tom Cruise is there. Hell, when Shia LaBeouf is there, you guys ain’t saying that. That is just blatant racism.
The counter-frame of which Feagin has so skillfully written is plainly seen in DuVernay’s and Boyega’s responses to #BoycottStarWarsVII and other systemic racism and white racial framing surrounding The Force Awakens.
The latest Star Wars film titled, The Last Jedi, is scheduled for release on December 15, 2017. As Richard Lawson wrote in Vanity Fair prior to the theatrical debut of 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens:
Star Wars has never been a bastion of diversity. Lando and Leia were the only non-white and non-male main characters (among the humans, anyway) in the original franchise; George Lucas’s dreadful prequels at least made some attempts at racial diversity, with Samuel L. Jackson and Jimmy Smits playing large roles, though it mostly forgot about women. (And some critics took issue with ethnically charged alien characters, but that’s a different story.) So [The Force Awakens] was [J. J.] Abrams’s chance to issue something of a corrective, to open up this universe to more people.
In white fans’ reactions to the casting of a black man in a lead role in The Force Awakens, key elements of systemic racism were distinctly present, including white power and entitlement rooted in the U.S. racial hierarchy, the dominant white racial frame that rationalizes and defends unfairly gained white privilege and power, and the pro-white and anti-others sub-frames. Tweets posted by white fans to twitter hashtag #BoycottStarWarsVII (see below) typify the white racial frame and its sub-frames. For example, the director, producer, and writer of The Force Awakens, Abrams (a white Jewish American male) was targeted for allegedly endorsing “white genocide” given his racially diverse cast, including Nigerian descended British actor John Boyega in the secondary lead role.
A white racist framing was plainly evident in the whitelash against this casting of Boyega. #BlackStormtrooper is a hashtag related to virtual whitelash besieging John Boyega’s appearance as a Stormtrooper in the teaser trailer for the 2015 Star Wars. In November 2014, the trailer was released on the Movieclips Trailers YouTube channel. It opened with a shot of a Stormtrooper, played by Boyega, abruptly appearing on what appeared to be a desert planet. Twitter (most of whom appeared to be white male) users instantaneously started to comment on Boyega’s “race” with the hashtag #BlackStormtrooper, questioning the legitimacy of a black Stormtrooper. Shortly after, Boyega posted a message on Instagram thanking supporters of the new film. To those posting to #BlackStormtrooper, he simply said: “Get used to it.”
“#BoycottStarWarsVII because I am sick of muds being casted in white parts,” wrote #StopAppropriatingWhiteCulture. For this particular Twitter user—who identified “as a neoreactionary … with the Pro-Trump white supremacist ‘alternative right,’” and who earlier had tweeted that he hoped Trump would turn out to be a fascist —- Star Wars “belongs” entirely to whites. In response, a pop culture critic sort of agreed, writing:
[W]hen George Lucas made Episode IV: A New Hope in 1977, 99 percent of his cast was either Caucasian, or extraterrestrial aliens covered in prosthetics. “George, is everybody in outer space white?” John Landis says he asked Lucas after watching the first Star Wars. An emphasis on diversity increased as the sequels went on—Billy Dee Williams showed up in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, earning instant legend status.
The whitelash against Boyega’s casting also included important elements that Joe Feagin outlines in his white racial frame, including: racial stereotypes and prejudices; racial narratives and interpretations; racial images and preferred language accents; racialized emotions; and inclinations to discriminatory action. The broad framing also included an especially positive placement of whites as superior and virtuous (Feagin’s pro-white subframe) and an especially negative placement of racialized people as inferior and unvirtuous (Feagin’s anti-others subframes). Tweets included the following:
“Anti-racist is a code word for anti-White. #BoycottStarWarsVII #WhiteGenocide.”
“#BoycottStarWarsVII because it will be ghetto garbage.”
“#BoycottStarWarsVII – I know the trailer is short, but it’s pretty unrealistic that we don’t see the black guy committing murder or rape.”
““Diverse” casting is both a symptom of #WhiteGenocide, and a conditioning tool to help facilitate it. #BoycottStarWarsVII.”
To reiterate, the #BoycottStarWarsVII hashtag was purportedly created to incite a boycott of the 2015 film The Force Awakens. While Internet news media sources extensively reported that the hashtag was genuine, other commentators have surmised it was a ruse contrived to produce controversy. In October 2015 twitter user @DarklyEnlighten posted a tweet encouraging readers to boycott The Force Awakens because of the alleged absence of white lead characters and because of the casting of Boyega in the secondary lead role. @DarklyEnlighten tweeted for followers to create the hashtag #BoycottStarWarsVII.
To some observers, #BoycottStarWarsVII was far more troublesome than a few white trolls; it was an exemplification of the poor state of U.S. race relations in the 21st century. African American activist and social commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson, author of numerous books on the black experience in the U.S., called the #blackstormtrooper remarks “alarming.” He viewed the virulent racist discourse on #BoycottStarWarsVII as yet another fervent example of how badly U.S. racial relations have deteriorated, starting with Trayvon Martin—the unarmed black teenager who was shot and killed in 2012. The #blackstromtrooper comments “are indicative of just how polarized the discussion has become,” remarked Hutchinson.
Kimberley Ducey is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Winnipeg
With the rise of white nationalist political candidates and elected leaders throughout the world, the idea of global white identity and the question of how it arises and becomes salient to large populations is particularly pertinent. However there remains a dearth of information on this general topic. Rather, much of the historical scholarship that focuses on white nationalism in the United States does not consider the potential international impact of white supremacy in the U.S. Fortunately, the work of sociologist Jessie Daniels fills in this gap by noting the central role of translocal whiteness, or a “global white identity”, in the reproduction of white racism on the internet today.
Yet, the work of Daniels is also limited in its discussion of translocal whiteness in the sense that it only discusses contemporary manifestations of this phenomenon on the internet. Herein, I discuss one key historical moment when translocal whiteness had a vast impact on the globe—the influence of systemic white racism in the U.S. on Nazi Germany. In doing so, I focus specifically on the colonialist worldviews of both societies and their white racially framed laws that were key to setting up and reproducing each system of white racism. In conclusion, I argue that we can more fully understand this social phenomenon by looking at the various ways it has manifested across historical contexts—including prior to the invention of the internet.
…the United States policy of westward expansion, in the course of which the white man ruthlessly thrust aside the ‘inferior’ indigenous population, served as a model for Hitler’s entire concept of Lebensraum [living space].
Here we can begin to see that these white racially framed conceptions of space and race, first developed by elite white American men, served as a model for the Nazi regime’s decimation of the Slavic people on the eastern front. In fact, as early as 1928, Adolf Hitler was giving public speeches in which he spoke admirably about the way (white) Americans had
gunned down the millions of Redskins to a few hundred thousand, and now keep the modest remnant under observation in a cage.
Furthermore, Hitler regularly made private comments that were similar. For example, he predicted that “Here in the east, a similar process will repeat itself for a second time as in the conquest of America.” These quotes from Hitler himself, which were also regularly repeated by the Nazi elite—particularly on the eastern front—show the vast influence this white racially framed ideology of manifest destiny had on the Nazi elite and the immense degree with which they were consumed with these white racially framed narratives that began in the U.S. and easily took hold in Nazi Germany. In addition, in these quotes Hitler regularly referred to white Americans as “Nordics”—highlighting his (and many other elite Nazis’) view of Americans translocal whites, even when varying terminologies, such as Nordic or Volk, were used.
The white racially framed immigration and other racialized laws of the U.S. in the 1930’s also inspired Nazi Germany due to their ability to create a de facto second class status for Indigenous Americans, Chinese, Puerto Ricans, blacks, and several other groups. In fact, in 1936, as the Nuremberg Laws were being implemented in Germany, Nazi party officials were publicizing the US method of creating a racialized second class to average Germans, through official Nazi party publications, in an effort to normalize the German subjugation of a newly created de facto Jewish second class. In addition, these widely circulated magazine articles supported German racism against Jews and blacks by framing American racism as “natural”. For example, Nazi party officials published an article stating,
The United States too [just like Germany] has racist politics and policies. What is lynch justice, if not the natural resistance of the Volk to an alien race that is attempting to gain the upper hand? Most states of the Union have special laws directed against the Negroes, which limit their voting rights, freedom of movement, and career possibilities.
Here we can see how the racist laws of the United States were interpreted by elite Nazi officials who controlled party narratives and how these officials used a translocal white identity to convince the ordinary German population that the systemic oppression and murder of Jews was “natural” because it was something whites were engaged in on a global level. Furthermore, they invoke a translocal white identity by referring to white Americans who lynch African Americans as “Volks” who are engaged in a “natural resistance” to an “alien race”. The use of the term “natural resistance” promotes the pro-white center of the dominant white frame—-suggesting that both white Germans and white Americans (Volks) are virtuous actors. Furthermore, the suggestion that they are resisting a “alien” races serves to promote anti-“other” sub-framing for blacks and Jews. The Central message in all of this is that white Germans and Americans (Volks) share a translocal whiteness and thus are engaged in the same “natural” endeavor for systemic racialized oppression.
By looking at the way translocal whiteness operated in Nazi Germany through the U.S. model, we can gain a more holistic picture of the translocal whiteness phenomenon. As this post shows, the internet is just a new tool for the transference of translocal whiteness in the modern age. In the past, white racially framed legal codes, theories (e.g., eugenics), worldviews, and literatures served as models for the promotion of translocal systems of white racism in at least this one case.
However, I also note that there are important differences in the use of the internet to promote a translocal white identity. For example, the internet allows for translocal whiteness to be instantaneously spread to millions of everyday whites across the globe. With the advent of the internet, white supremacists can record their racist rant, upload it to the internet, go to sleep, and have hundreds of thousands of whites across the globe listen to it by the next morning.
In addition, due to this change in access, translocal whiteness on the internet can also take a bottom up approach to influencing whites across the globe whereas in the past translocal whiteness had to take a top down approach due to the fact that only elites had access to legal codes and other means of spreading translocal white identity. For example, German Nazis used the Nuremberg Laws, official party publications, etc., to promote translocal whiteness to the German population in a very controlled, top-down, approach to spread their dominant, Nazified, version of the old white racial frame. With the internet, this approach can be taken from the bottom up where everyday whites buy into the white racial frame and then vote for the creation or reproduction of white-racist systems throughout the world. By understanding the differences in these historical approaches to the transmission of translocal whiteness, we can learn more about how this process works, and thus work against it and the systemic racism it serves to justify, recreate, and reproduce.
Thaddeus Atzmon, M.A., is a graduate student in sociology at Texas A&M University.
“Terrorist” is an increasingly racialized label. In theory, a term can help to define a class of violence in order to combat it (for example, gun violence or domestic violence). In practice, the term “terrorism” is used to perpetuate structural violence against Muslims, not to mitigate any kind of violence.
Not only does the definition of terrorism vary widely across the globe, different agencies within the United States government have varying definitions. Media outlets are essentially free to use the term at their will. Terrorism is less structured than such a label implies. While it may be true that radicalized individuals or groups conspire to incite violence, violence has existed for all of human history, and labeling violent acts terrorism simply because they were committed by Muslims creates a false links between such acts, and perpetuates the fallacy of Islam as a violent religion and Islam as the link.
Those most affected by terrorism within the United States are the Muslims who are stereotyped and labeled terrorists simply because of their racialized religious identity. It is time to reevaluate the use of the terms terrorism and terrorist altogether and explain violent acts in new ways that will not instigate or perpetuate additional violence against those most harmed by a subjective and racist, and impractical label.
How “Terrorism” Protects Whites and Harms Muslims
In 1983, the US State Department defined terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.” This definition is broad, leaves a substantial amount of room for the government’s own discretion, and even differs from the definition used by the FBI. Notably, it also excludes state actions. Because of this ambiguity, terrorism is not a stagnant concept – it is employed by government actors as a strategic label to uphold orientalism in order to strengthen support for the U.S. government’s constant state of war, specifically the War on Terror.
President Bush signed the Patriot Act in October of 2001 in response the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. The act was designed to expand the power of the government to investigate acts they deemed terrorism. This law codified the government’s ability to, without due process, obtain private records, seize assets, and search property or person of anyone suspected to be engaged in “terrorist” activity. In the twelve months following the 9/11 attacks, according to a council on American-Islamic Relations report,
more that 60,000 individuals [were] affected by government actions of discrimination, interrogation, raids, arrests,detentions and institutional closures.
The subjective definition of the terrorism label precipitates that not only does the government have the power and discretion to determine whose behaviors constitute terrorist activity, they also and to arbitrarily revoke fundamental rights from whomever they consider to be posing that threat –- and they do. More recently, the Trump administration cast its thinly veiled Muslim Bans as a mechanism for perpetrating structural violence against Muslims -– restricting movement, separating families, and risking innocent lives, despite the true reality of that supposed “terrorism” threat being extremely small. The odds of being killed in an international terrorism attack in the United States are roughly the same as the odds of being struck by lightning. The number of people killed globally by international terrorism each year is comparable to the number of Americans who drown in their own bathtubs in the same span of time. Comparatively, epidemics of systemic and preventable violence, such as the traffic safety crisis in NYC, go unaddressed. One person dies every 38 hours in traffic in New York City, and yet the City will not make common sense changes to prevent the very real threat faced by its pedestrians.
The overreaction to extremely rare acts of violence that are labeled “terrorism,” both in the United States and globally, has contributed to far more deaths than the acts considered terrorism themselves have. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died as a result of the US Government’s counterterrorism strategies after 9/11 –- more than the number of fatalities caused by all global “terrorist attacks” in the last century. Refugees from Syria, Lybia, Yemen, and Somalia remain in danger because of this subjectively applied label and Trump’s essentially racist ban. Muslim communities around the country face surveillance, unjust imprisonment, and violence in part due to this label. White America has been primed to overlook legally sanctioned structural violence because the dominant framework has prescribed the belief that all Muslims are terrorists, and thus discrimination against Muslims is necessary and logical for the safety of the dominant group.
In reality, the government exercises its discretion by defining Muslims as the perpetrators of terrorism, accompanied by the portrayal of the victim of terrorism as only western white individuals. This was made especially clear through the media and government’s treatment of Dylan Roof, the white man who massacred nine African American men and women at a historically Black church in South Carolina in June of 2015. Despite the fact that Roof’s attack was meticulously planned and motivated by over white racism, he was indicted for federal hate crimes and firearms charges as opposed to domestic terrorism charges.
Roof’s actions were not attributed to his race or his religion and his friends were not subjected to interrogation and charged with conspiracy. His community of self-defined white supremacists was not threatened, intimidated, or entrapped by the FBI. White people were not banned from entering the United States based on his actions. His crime was not seen as politically motivated because the US government does not recognize racism as political, even when it is used as justification for overtly racist, violent actions and murder. His crime was not linked to other mass shootings as a systemic issue let alone mass shootings committed by white men, or other acts of violence and murder committed by white men against Black people.
There have been cases where white violent actors have been brought up on domestic terrorism charges, and yet white Americans have not been systemically surveiled and have not faced violence due to the actions of these white “terrorists.” Some advocates pushed for Dylan Roof to be called a “domestic terrorist.” Each time a mass shooter is identified as a white individual, there is a small chorus of voices advocating for the violent action to be labeled “terrorism.” Should we still be pushing to label any violent action terrorism when 1) it is clear at this point that the label has been constructed with the qualification of the perpetrator being a Muslim, and 2) Muslims living in the US, regardless of citizenship status, face structural violence because of the racist application of the term?
Putting the Label Behind Us
As academics and social justice advocates, abandoning the terms “terrorist” and “terrorism” altogether may help to reclaim the power the label has given the U.S. Government to harm to Muslims in the United States and abroad. The racist history of the label’s application has rendered the term “terrorism” useless to those who seek to identify the true causes of violence, and to work to mitigate them.
The field of Critical Terrorism Studies provides some insights as to how we can better understand the label moving forward. Critical Terrorism Studies (CTS) is concerned with the security of the individual as paramount to the security of the state, and explicates that the best way of obtaining security for the individual may be through critical analysis of what terrorism really is. Terrorism
is not a self-evident, exceptional category of political violence. Rather, it is a social construction – a linguistic term or label that is applied to certain acts [and not to others] through a range of political, legal, and academic processes.
Cara Cancelmo currently works as the Development Director at the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center. She plans to study sociology in graduate school.
Growing up I was surrounded by Indigenous mascots from little league baseball to the pros. My confusion as a young white kid became an awakening to the reality of settler colonialism. When I moved to Cleveland, it became impossible for me to overlook the overt racism of the baseball team’s Indigenous mascot. The transition to a new name and logo cannot come soon enough.
When I was little I wondered why Cleveland’s baseball team was unique compared to others in the league. They weren’t the Cardinals, Giants, or Angels, but the “Indians.” I didn’t understand the significance then, I only noticed the pattern that one team was unlike the rest. Growing up outside Boston, I went downtown to Fenway Park each year to see a Red Sox game and would study the visiting team beforehand. For a handful of years, the Red Sox matched up with the Cleveland Indians in the playoffs. Kenny Lofton and Jim Thome were my favorite players for Cleveland, but when they came up to bat I was always confused by the logo on their uniforms featuring the red-faced man with a feather and an odd smile.
As a young white kid in a pretty insular community, my perception of Indigenous people was limited to mascots, museums and textbooks. From watching “Cowboys and Indians” films in elementary school to the Redskins and Indians teams on television, I internalized exotic images and mythical ideas of “ancient peoples” who had once roamed the US. Like any child I had a lot of questions, but my classes spent little time addressing them.
Then in college a close friend exposed me to a side of history omitted from my education and comfy childhood. He was from the Passamaquoddy Nation in northern Maine, and invited a couple of our friends to his home on the Passamaquoddy Reservation for an annual celebration with his family. Our friendship consisted of mostly humor that occasionally led to a more serious conversation, like the stark differences between our upbringings.
My friend spoke frequently about how resilient his community is in the face of struggle; his reservation, like many others, is in a state of economic and environmental devastation. From surviving genocide to ongoing federal disinvestment, he taught me history is no thing of the past for him. He also told me of the most pressing issues there, from high rates of youth suicide, to domestic violence and alcoholism. During a conversation one day about our jobs working with youth, he brought up the phenomenon of Indigenous mascotry. He didn’t go into depth, but told me that for the kids in his community, Indigenous mascots nationwide are one of the most harmful factors to their development. I didn’t press him to say more, but wanted to keep learning.
The following year back at college in Northeast Ohio, I took a Native Studies class, which featured a segment devoted to the history of Indigenous mascots across the country. We read scholarly articles of landmark lawsuits and social movements that focused on the many attempts to prevent these types of mascots from gaining ground in the US. Who knew that in 2001 the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights called for an end to the use of Native American mascots? My professor, the sole Indigenous professor at the school, told me about the annual demonstration against the Cleveland Indians on opening day at Progressive Field that had been going on since the 60s. He expressed that the annual event was a snapshot symbolic of late Native history in the US: white people yelling at Indigenous people for defending their basic human rights and dignity.
Soon after I graduated I moved to Cleveland. Some of the people here love the baseball team. Others refuse to acknowledge them until the name is changed. Most of us who live in Cleveland are aware of the local divide. At most home games you can find both sides represented: from Indigenous-led protests outside the stadium, to thousands of fans heading inside wearing Chief Wahoo regalia, chanting “Go Tribe!” Many lifelong fans express a deep connection to the image of Chief Wahoo and the team name. Diehard Clevelanders talk about what it means to have supported the team since childhood. For many others, primarily Indigenous people, the Cleveland Indians organization has been a lifelong source of pain. As the trend goes, the people most harmed by a situation often have the least power to correct it– and had nothing to do with creating the situation to begin with.
What will it take for those harmed to be heard, and at the center of change going forward?
The Indigenous-led grassroots activism across Northeast Ohio that began in the 1970s has now influenced top executives of Major League Baseball to discard the name and logo of the Cleveland baseball team. Last month the Cleveland Indians were in the news once again due to the continued dispute between team owner, Paul Dolan, and Major League Baseball officials concerning the removal of the “Chief Wahoo” mascot, in addition to the team name.
To learn more about the ongoing debate, I reached out to the Executive Director of the American Indian Movement of Ohio, Philip Yenyo, who has organized for decades with Indigenous groups across the Midwest in efforts to abolish the team name and logo.
“We have never had a seat at the table in these discussions with the team owner. I have told Mr. [Paul] Dolan many times that this is no way to honor our people,” said Yenyo. “What the general public doesn’t realize is that we’ve been dehumanized down to a cartoon. A cartoon that perpetuates every negative stereotype of our people. I know children from our community who have been bullied because of it, who had to leave Cleveland schools.”
(Philip Yenyo, Executive Director of the American Indian Movement, Ohio, pictured left; unidentified Cleveland fan, right. Image source)
Yenyo continued, “Our people are not extinct. Many Americans have been taught to think that we’re no longer here. Chief Wahoo and Native mascots across the country further the idea that we’re sub-human or an ancient people, and this hurts us. At demonstrations, fans with red-painted faces and fake feathers taped to their hats yell at us, ‘Go back to where you came from and get over it– stop living in the past!’”
What an irony– white folks telling Indigenous folks to go back to where they came from. I asked Mr. Yenyo what it would take for the name to change. He replied, “People have to be able to relate to the situation, or if nothing else put yourself in our shoes and hear our experience. If you remember your own ethnic history and the things that were done to your people, there are probably some similarities to our people, but for us it’s still going on. Many Irish people tell me they don’t like the Notre Dame Fighting Irish mascot, and I tell them, ‘When you have a demonstration over the Fighting Irish, I will stand by your side as a brother.’”
Of course, much of the disagreement over Cleveland’s team name boils down to identity and personal experience, between those impacted and those who are not. Like with most social issues, the less proximate we are to a problem, the less likely we are to relate to it, and in turn pay attention to it. I think it is impossible for most of us white Americans to imagine a reverse situation in which we had a genocide committed against us, were confined to reservations, then had our culture reduced to an exoticized symbol and exploited by a multi-billion-dollar business from which we don’t see a penny of. It is daunting to face our nation’s dark past, but too often history and context are absent from the Chief Wahoo discussion. An absence consistent across the board in misguided criticism of movements like Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, or NFL teams taking a knee.
The dominant narratives created by lifelong fans are that it’s ‘just a mascot’, that those protesting the name are too sensitive, or that Indigenous people don’t understand the name is actually honoring them. But when we listen to Indigenous voices across the country or outside Progressive Field, we learn otherwise—that the mascot is deeply harmful to them and their families. We also learn that everyone has a stake in this: non-Indigenous communities are also fed a myth by the perpetuation of these stereotypes, which plant seeds of racial bias in youth from a young age. A report by the American Psychological Association in 2001 states, “the continued use of American Indian mascots, symbols, images, and personalities undermines the educational experiences of members of all communities– especially those who have had little or no contact with Indigenous people.” To be clear, everyone will benefit once the name is changed. However, until we collectively realize this, we are presented with a choice: to maintain or relinquish our comfort in the face of people looking us in the eyes, asking us to listen and change. As the cliché goes, what side of history do we want to be on?
As Confederate statues continue to crumble in the wake of white terrorism in Charlottesville, it is evident how many symbols remain from the underbelly of US history that often go unchecked– many symbols that never should have been, like Chief Wahoo. Around 1,000 Native American-themed mascots still exist in schools around the US, with about 60 per year that decide to change their name. Furthermore, many professional teams have made smooth transitions to new names without losing their fan base. It is a pretty common occurrence. Many surveys have circulated inquiring about a new name, so it is time to pick one and keep it moving. In the meantime, it is difficult to find a greater irony in 2017 than driving down 90-East and seeing a stadium labeled “progressive” in all caps, with the name “Indians” just below, referring to an entire race of people.
Toward the end of my time with Mr. Yenyo, he told me he is a huge Browns fan, and would love to attend a baseball game as soon as the change comes. He recounted a brief story that summed up our conversation, when an elderly Polish man came up to him outside the stadium during a demonstration and asked what the fuss was. “He listened to me for a long time, and I saw a light bulb switch on in his head,” said Yenyo. “He began to tear up, then told me his story, and eventually took off his baseball cap. The Polish man said, ‘My grandfather bought me this hat a long time ago, but if I knew it hurt another person like that I never would’ve put it on.’”
~ Peter Saudek is a fair housing investigator in Cleveland, who writes and organizes around racial justice and mass incarceration.
Friday night’s rally in Huntsville, Alabama sparked the beginning of what proved to be a hectic weekend for President Donald Trump. Only, the chaos was not related to the upcoming Senate health care vote or post-hurricane relief in Puerto Rico as some might expect but rather the president felt the need to address athlete activism, specifically targeting the National Football League (NFL). In a weak attempt to redefine black athletes’ protests of systemic racism, oppression, and police brutality as a disrespect to the US flag and the US military, Trump criticized NFL players who have openly protested by kneeling or sitting in peaceful protest during the national anthem. Moreover, Trump arrogantly and disrespectfully referred to these athletes as “sons of a bitches”, and suggested owners should exercise their power and have them fired. He would later take to Twitter and argue that the NFL should make their players stand during the national anthem. In the days that followed, NFL players, coaches, owners, and other personnel met to discuss how to strategically respond before taking the field for the highly-anticipated game day on Sunday.
As for the NFL, September 24th, 2017 will forever go down in history as “choose-your-side Sunday.” Coming on the heels of the Alabama rally, the comments made about NFL athletes protesting served as a catalyst for a protest unprecedented in the NFL (or any other league for that matter). Whether kneeling, sitting, locking arms, raising fists in solidarity, or remaining in the locker room altogether during the national anthem, as a collective unit the NFL made a statement that transcended national boundaries, as hundreds of athletes, coaches, owners, executives, and other staff across the league responded in unity to criticisms made by Trump. However, in all of the chaos springing from the weekend of September 22nd, 2017, it is important that we refocus our attention on what it means to #TakeAKnee.
Colin Kaepernick and Taking the Knee
When Colin Kaepernick first refused to stand during the national anthem in 2016, he was pretty much alone. Though many black athletes and athletes of color had been using their platforms to bring racial injustice to the forefront for years, Kaepernick’s silent and peaceful protest during the national anthem brought the politics of racism and police brutality into the homes of many Americans – particularly, white Americans:
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick explained shortly after kneeling during the playing of the national anthem before NFL games. “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.”
Working with Dr. Harry Edwards while still a member of the San Francisco 49ers, Kaepernick engaged in peaceful protest that sparked what Dr. Edwards has referred to as the fourth wave of black athlete activism. Originally, this silent protest only involved a handful of other NFL players such as Kaepernick’s former teammates, Eric Reid and Eli Harold, or Michael Bennett of the Seattle Seahawks. Kneeling as a form of silent protest, however, would continue to spread across sports.
Throughout various sports and across different levels of sport participation, black athletes (both male and female) began to take a knee to bring awareness to the unjustified treatment of Americans of color, particularly black Americans that were murdered while the police officers responsible often received paid administrative leave. Players in the WNBA have consistently been at the forefront of protests for racial justice in recent years. Bruce Maxwell has become the first Major League Baseball (MLB) player to kneel during the national anthem. Raianna Brown, a dancer/cheerleader at the Georgia Tech, recently knelt during the national anthem. High school athletes across sports have knelt during the national anthem. Even youth teams across sport have taken to the protest of taking a knee.
Creating what many are referring to as “the Kaepernick effect,” the gesture of kneeling in sports has become a movement in itself. And for those who have boldly taken the knee, the message has remained clear. Even as entire NFL franchises have come forward in support of player protests during the national anthem, the message has not changed. Take this statement from the players of the Seattle Seahawks before their game on Sunday for example:
The current protests by players in the NFL have been about and continue to be about “the injustice that has plagued people of color in this country.” In fact, contrary to many claims of these protests disrespecting the US flag or the military, the Seahawks players’ statement emphasizes honoring the country and the sacrifices that have been made in the name of equality and justice for all.
Following his firsthand experience with excessive force used by the Las Vegas Police Department on the night of the Mayweather/McGregor boxing match, Seahawks defensive lineman Michael Bennett clearly stated that this kind of conduct by police is precisely why he kneels during the national anthem before every game. Note how Bennett says nothing in his statement about the US flag, the US military, or any other nationalistic form of politics in his statement. The protest has always been about how communities of color are policed and the devaluing of black and brown lives in the criminal (in)justice system. When Trump lashed out at NFL players who were protesting, he wasn’t defending the flag, military veterans, or patriotism – he was racially targeting US citizens who have bravely spoken up and out against a racist system.
In recent years, athletes across sport leagues have consistently protested the systemic devaluing of black and brown lives by the judicial system. But following Trump’s comments about protesting (black) athletes needing to be fired and required to stand for the national anthem, NFL players responded. In a league-wide statement of unity amongst each other, NFL players sent a message. Across the league, players (and some coaches, staff, and administrators) either kneeled during the national anthem, locked arms with one another, raised their fist in solidarity, or refused to come out onto the field altogether during the anthem. And players such as Miami Dolphins safety Michael Thomas made it clear what message they were trying to send. In an interview on CNN, Thomas stated the following:
“[The protest] is about race,” he said adding that the players are fighting for “inequalities in our communities… It’s not about just us. It wasn’t about Kaepernick himself. It wasn’t about, you know, the athletes who chose to take a knee themselves,” Thomas said. “We’re speaking for everybody that’s come from the communities we’ve lived in and my family and friends still live in.”
This is in stark contrast to Trump claiming on Sunday that he
never said anything about race. This has nothing to do with race or anything else. This has to do with respect for our country and respect for our flag.
But race and racism is what taking a knee is all about. The policing of communities of color, the mistreatment of black and brown people by police, and the criminal lack of justice for these communities is what taking a knee is all about. Attempts to repackage the politics of white racism under the umbrella of “patriotism” serves to mask these issues while maintaining systemic racism.
The mainstream media have played a significant role in perpetuating this a-critical discourse that dilutes the very core of the message courageous individuals like Colin Kaepernick and others are trying to send. This has potentially created confusion amongst viewers that can be detrimental to the purpose of kneeling. In turn, current players like Eric Reid who was the first to kneel alongside Kaepernick are speaking out to reclaim their narratives and clarify the essence of their protest. In a recent New York Times opinion piece Reid shares his personal insight reflecting on the time dedicated to making the very informed and educated decision to stand up for his and others’ rights and to kneel during the national anthem in what he felt was the utmost respectable way.
What’s Patriotism Got to Do with It?
In 2016, Colin Kaepernick stated the following: “There’s a lot of racism disguised as patriotism in this country… but it needs to be addressed.” Over the course of the protests undertaken by predominantly black athletes and with the help from mainstream media outlets, many whites have sought to paint or label the protests as some sort of unpatriotic display that disrespects the US and its military. For whites, this isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. White Americans have long used “patriotism” as a proxy for white nationalism dating back to the Founding Fathers’ invocation of the “common cause” of white patriotism. Contemporarily, white nationalist groups such as the Christian Patriots Defense League have risen to prominence under this same banner of the patriot cause.
But for Americans of color, and particularly black Americans, the patriotic ideals of liberty and justice for all have historically been taken seriously. For instance, as W. E. B. Du Bois discussed in The Gift of Black Folk, the ideological challenge to the white-defined ideals of freedom and justice through the political struggles for equality by black Americans has helped significantly to push the US towards being a more democratic nation for all. This is true throughout US history as well as in today’s context. The Seattle Seahawks players’ statement referred to above embodies this challenge to the notions of equality and justice for all while simultaneously honoring those that have fought for these freedoms.
The language of white racism today is often masked by claims to patriotism. But when US President Trump referred to neo-Nazis marching in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia as “very fine people” and black NFL athletes as unpatriotic “sons of a bitches,” NFL players were explicitly put in a position where they had to decide between standing for justice and supporting white supremacy. A US president – or anyone for that matter – that espouses this kind of rhetoric has no claim to patriotism; they are a white supremacist. The real patriots in this scenario are those that have (and continue to) courageously use their social platforms to bring critical issues to the forefront in the quest to make liberty, justice, and democracy a reality for all. Real patriots stand alongside one another and against systemic forms of oppression such as police brutality. Real patriots #TakeTheKnee.
~ This post is co-authored by Anthony J. Weems, Kristi F. Oshiro, and John N. Singer.
Anthony J. Weems is a doctoral student in Sport Management at Texas A&M University working under Dr. John N. Singer. His research focuses on issues of race, power, and politics in and through the sport organizational setting.
Kristi F. Oshiro is a Sport Management Ph.D. student at Texas A&M University working with Advisor Dr. John N. Singer. Her research interests include diversity and inclusion in sport with a focus on the intersection of race and gender, culture, and the lived experiences of ethnic minority groups and marginalized populations from a critical perspective.
Dr. John N. Singer (Ph.D., The Ohio State University) is an Associate Professor of Sport Management at Texas A&M University. His research interests primarily focus on a) intersections between race, sport, and education, with a keen focus on complex and contextual realities Black males face as primary stakeholders in organized school sport; and b) diversity and social justice matters in sporting institutions and organizations, with an emphasis on the experiences and plight of historically underrepresented and marginalized groups.
With the proliferation of mass media, people increasingly look toward political leaders to make public statements when a tragedy occurs. Tensions often flare, and we look to such leaders to bring our communities together in times of crisis. We know a single statement can’t heal centuries of division, and that leaders are humans and so will always be imperfect. But a leader sets a high standard to which all can aspire—our “better angels,” as several great U.S. presidents have referenced (citing Charles Dickens). By now, unfortunately, hopefully only the most naïve and sheltered among us are still waiting for or expecting the current president Donald Trump to ever do such a thing. Although clearly trusted advisers have attempted to steer him in that direction at times, it was not long before, left to his own devices, his unscripted comments at the next public venue effectively cancelled out any inspiring statement he had previously attempted. This all happening while police officers killing unarmed black civilians are exonerated in courts, while hurricanes are decimating U.S. states and territories, and while white supremacists are marching openly and killing citizens to make political statements.
Is it any wonder that private citizens all over the country—-comedians, actors, athletes, anyone with a public forum with a chance of being heard widely—-are stepping in to fill that vacuum our white president has irresponsibly left open? There is a long tradition in this country of those who would be silenced (and their allies) proverbially “grabbing the mic” to raise the public’s awareness about injustices happening in their midst. They do this because often raising public outcry is the first step toward creating change. If U.S. news camera footage of dogs and water hoses aimed at their own citizens had not been viewed around the world—-just after the U.S. had intervened on the global stage to stop a white supremacist named Hitler, and thereby revealed to be human-rights-hypocrites in front of allies and foes alike—-the US state would likely never have made such bold moves to finally create the civil rights legal reforms of the 1960s. As the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) beautifully recreates with statues of Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising a Black Power fist at the 1968 Olympics black athletes and other public figures outside of politics have at crucial moments in our nation’s history been able to raise awareness and move our national conversations forward on racism issues in productive ways.
Critics dismiss certain athletes who speak out or take a stand as “attention-seeking” spectacles “distracting” from the game—athletes like Colin Kaepernick (NFL player who has been taking a knee during national anthem, along with many other allies, on his team and around the country, to protest continued injustice against African Americans) and Stephen Curry (NBA player who recently spoke about not wanting to visit the White House, prompting Trump to Tweet a “disinvite” in return). What has struck me since I worked on the White Men on Race book with Joe Feagin (based on over 100 interviews with elite white men) is that whites will often speak with decisive authority on people of color they know very little about. It took my 10-year-old son’s school project on Curry, reading biographies, for me to find out, for example, that when Curry beats on his chest after he scores on the basketball court, he’s actually pounding on his heart and then pointing up to the sky to represent his own personal relationship to Jesus. It is actually a humble, reverent gesture, rather than the arrogant strut it has been perceived as by some. As Joe Feagin and Kimberley Ducey point out, whites have routinely perceived identical behavior from whites and non-whites in strikingly different perspectives—-the “white as virtue” frame. As Ta-Nehisi Coates brilliantly reminds us, there would be no “race,” no “whites” to speak of without “blacks” to contrast them against, because race is a relational construct—-constructed solely to justify the colonization and exploitation of the latter. It did not take long for the public to take to social media to point out how President Trump seems to have this same kind of striking perception contrast between white supremacists (“very fine people”) and athletes kneeling during the national anthem (“sons of bitches”).
Many whites perceive the act of taking a knee during the national anthem as disrespectful. Yet when I see this photo, for example, of the Oakland A’s player Bruce Maxwell (the first in MLB) taking a knee during the national anthem I see anything but disrespect. I see Maxwell with his hat off, holding his hand over his heart, glancing longingly up to the flag. And what I hear through his body language is, “Great country that I call home, when will there truly be liberty and justice FOR ALL? When?!” I see embodied in his posture the words of Cornel West: “America. . .needs citizens who love it enough to re-imagine it and re-make it.” These words are etched into the walls of the Smithsonian’s NMAAHC—-and this location would certainly fit the criteria the Golden State Warriors are seeking during their upcoming DC visit:
In lieu of a visit to the White House, we have decided that we’ll constructively use our trip to the nation’s capital in February to celebrate equality, diversity and inclusion — the values that we embrace as an organization.
To voice their opposition to athletes kneeling during the National Anthem, many whites also cite their family members who have fought and even died in wars. Some even cite their Christian faith. They seem to forget that scores of African Americans are also veterans, are descendants of veterans, are currently serving in war zones or deployed, and have even lost their lives serving our country in the armed forces. And they certainly forget the centrality of Christianity in African Americans’ lives. The most beautiful patriotic statements I have seen lately come from veterans who disagree with kneeling during the anthem, but proudly state that this is precisely why they served and fought in our military—to defend all their fellow Americans (not just veterans) in their right to this very kind of freedom of speech and expression! I have seen several beautiful photos of football teams standing together during the National Anthem, right next to their teammates who are kneeling, with hands on their shoulders-—making a strong statement that they respect each other’s choices, whether to kneel or to stand, and that is what makes our country great, our diversity of thought, viewpoints, and experiences.
There are many ways to serve our country. There are many ways to make personal sacrifices and/or contributions in service of making our country better. Sometimes our racial segregation from each other keeps us from seeing the humanity of others, the sacrifices others have made. Although I personally have been celebrating Kaepernick’s public statement that Black Lives Matter, when my own 10-year old son came home with a plan to sit out the pledge of allegiance at his school, it gave me pause. After all, we’re talking about my baby. I see adults making choices, but when I Google what related actions have been taken by children under-18, I see that high school football players have received death threats for kneeling during the National Anthem and elementary school students have been assaulted by their own teachers for sitting out the Pledge of Allegiance. To his credit, it was actually my son’s own idea to call a meeting with the principal, because he expressed a strong desire to take action “without being rude.” He sat there in this big chair that he looked so tiny in, and spoke softly but clearly, “I don’t like the way police officers treat African Americans,” and I thought I could see water in his eyes, but he kept his composure. I am grateful that his principal and guidance counselor are both supporting him, and they will relay to his teacher that he has a right to sit down (according to the student handbook—and according to US law, actually, too). Although the adults around him have a primary concern for his safety, when a teacher suggested he be in a different room away from view (helping with the morning announcements in the technology room—which he loves to do!) he was actually disappointed that his action would potentially not matter. In his words, “but mom, I want to make a difference.” My awe at his bravery and sacrifice of his own personal safety in order to work toward making our country fairer for all stands beside my awe of my stepsister’s (and her husband’s) bravery and personal sacrifice while serving in the Army and being drafted to Iraq and Afghanistan (they are both veterans, as was my father—a Vietnam veteran in the Navy).
My concern is all the “colorblind” comments that divide our country up into “us” and “them”—-the patriotic white heroes who serve our country and stand for the National Anthem and never criticize the President become the “us” while the “ungrateful” people of color who take public actions to draw attention to the continuing injustices in the nation become the “disrespectful” outgroup, “them.” The tone of this (mostly white) public criticism of those who kneel during the National Anthem sounds to me like the critics think people of color should be grateful for, in Malcolm X’s words, the “crumbs from the table.” They should be happy to be playing a sport at all, to be having the right to kneel at all—-meanwhile elite white men (all NFL owners are elite white men, as are all NBA owners but Michael Jordan) are reaping exponential profits off their arduous labor. And selective memory is employed to erase just how hard their forefathers and foremothers fought just to get onto the same playing field at all, just to get the basic constitutional rights to even apply to them at all (to become more than the original Constitution’s “three-fifths of a person”!)
My son’s father is a Desert Storm veteran (Marine Corps), he is African American, and he supports his son’s right to sit out the pledge. He was born in 1966, just a couple days after Christmas in a snowstorm in Virginia, and because the hospital in town even at that late time still did not serve black people, they had to drive an hour in the snow to a bigger city (Richmond, VA) just so he could be born. So there were no family visits in the hospital, no big celebration. Just him and his mom on a quiet cold day. It was not until the year after he was born (1967, in Loving v. Virginia) that interracial marriage was even legally permitted by the US Supreme Court. And this is not a man who is in a rocking chair at a nursing home somewhere—this is a man who will be squeezing himself into a tiny desk chair to attend Back to School night at elementary school this week. When whites talk about the “sacrifices” that they and their families have made in this country, I wonder if they ever contemplate the tremendous sacrifices, and loss of life, loss of children way before their time, that African Americans face every day here– still waiting for “liberty and justice for all.” Parents send their children out into these streets never knowing if they will make it back home. And if they had to play the odds on whether a court would find a police officer guilty when s/he “accidentally” shoots their child because that officer says “I feared for my life,” unfortunately those odds would not be good. Why is it that so many of us whites cannot see another human being’s sacrifice and struggle as just as relevant as our own? That lack of seeing each other’s common humanity is the ultimate disrespect.
As long as there is a lack of moral leadership at the helm of our nation, and as long as there is great racial inequality, white Americans can expect to see people of color and their allies taking much protest action, as they always have. If US history is any indication, one day our grandchildren or great-grandchildren might be celebrating as heroes the very figures some whites vilify now. Elementary schools across the country now include Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in their patriotic programs as a hero, but when he was living and breathing, he was jailed like a common criminal, chastised for not being respectful enough and not knowing “his place,” and regularly targeted by many white supremacists with death threats. So, as for me, I am going to be celebrating tomorrow’s heroes now, while I have the chance. I believe this is the ultimate in real US patriotism and respect for liberty and justice.