Sunday, September 24, 2017

Kaepernick, Race and Ritualism: One Point of View on Patriotism


I am beginning with the above hashtags because I want to be clear about my point of view. I am supportive of the protests today and the right to protest.

White Folks Showing Support

I also feel that it is important as a white woman, a teacher and a sociologist to not remain silent at this moment because to do so is to allow the detractors to make this about the lack of black patriotism or black disrespect. Nothing could be further from the truth. The athletes who protested today were showing utmost respect the principles upon which this experiment called America was based. This is about being disenfranchised from one's own government. A government that is supposed to be for the people. All people.

I have a long explanation that I hope a few of you will take the time to read, because how I feel about this is deeper than the lines in the sand that have been drawn today. This support is not something I just formed today. I have protested the rituals of the National Anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance for some time now and for much the same reasons, though with less personal peril, that Kaepernick stated last year. The United States of America is systemically becoming a police state. That the method chosen has been to do so racially, scapegoating black men, does not make it any less important or any less threatening to everyone's freedoms. Systemic, institutionalized racism expressed in the taking of black lives should be an issue of concern for all citizens who want to be free.

Anarchism and Power

Many of you probably know that I lean towards anarchistic understandings of power, authority and government.

While I accept that we will probably have some form of government for some time to come, I simply prefer for government to keep the impingement on my life and freedoms to an absolute minimum. To be clear, I also prefer for large businesses and corporations to stay out of my life as well. I generally have a suspicious reaction to all forms of power.

This has led to many of my conservative friends believing I am a liberal while many of my liberal friends are wondering if I am a conservative. I do not consider myself either as I consider it a false dichotomy. The ideological map is way too complex for binary limitations.

So here's a revelation that may lose me some friends on Twitter, Facebook and IRL. I have not stood up for the national anthem or the pledge of allegiance for a long time now. I view such rituals as less patriotism and more obedience-driven. Even as a child, I had my suspicions about the pledge of allegiance because it seemed holding ones hand over one's heart was perilously close to the scenes of German children saluting. It just feels like I am being asked to conform to something habitual rather than sincere.

For most of my "protest," I have chosen to simply sit quietly or not be present during those moments. Of course, this has gotten easier to do over the years because most people assume that I simply cannot stand as I sit quietly on my mobility wheels.

Picture of Cashman Field Las Vegas Nevada during a 51s game from the stands behind home plate.
(c) 2014 Carl Wilkerson
However, this hasn't always gone unnoticed. I had a man report me at Cashman Field to a security guard for sitting during the national anthem. Fortunately for me (a) the guard knew the constitution better than POTUS45 and (b) I am a crip and a white woman. So the guard just ignored the old man who was freaking out over my sitting. If I had been black, I am not as sure the guard would have been as sure of my right to sit it out.

Oath to the Constitution

Learning the history of both the national anthem and the pledge of allegiance, as I did, I found that our founding fathers had neither of these rituals in their day. I believe many of them would have worried about such rituals, which are extremely close to the protocols of imperialism that they fought against.

Please understand I had no problem taking an oath to uphold and defend the constitution of both the USA and the State of Nevada, which I was required to do when I started working at my school. I was sincere in those oaths. These constitutions are the basis for the laws under which we live and the foundation for our governments. All government servants, including the president and the military, take an oath to the constitution. Not to the flag. Not to the song. To the constitution.

It is the US Constitution, and specifically the first amendment to it, that allows me to sit down while others choose to stand.

First Amendment - Religion and Expression. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

There is a lot of discussion about free speech today on social media, but the right that kneeling before the flag and the anthem that is protected is the last phrase: "to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." Protest is petition.

Lessons from Sociology

I think there are two important sociological perspectives on this issue that can enrich our thinking.

First, Kaepernick, and the other protesters, have a strong case for grievance. In the midst of the debates, threats and platitudes some facts might be useful.

Police use of deadly force is highly biased towards persons of color. The data is incomplete on this because up until recently no requirement had been in effect to collect this data from local law enforcement. But even using the most conservative of estimates of use of force, as reported to the Department of Justice, the bias exists.

Vanity Fair, of all sources, has one of the best summaries of the research I've seen in an easy to follow format in an article for July 2016 called What the Data Really Says About Police and Racial Bias: Eighteen academic studies, legal rulings, and media investigations shed light on the issue roiling America, by Kia Makarechi.

The deaths are real. The biases are real. The biases are not because crime is higher among people of color. Oh, and just because black men are hit hardest by this doesn't mean the rest of us are safe.

Which leads me to the other lesson to consider:

The history of race formation in the United States and colonial America is a history of dividing the have-nots so that the haves can get richer at our expense. The concept of whiteness, unlike most other racial categories is not born of culture, language or religion (though all three were given privilege in the formation). The concept of whiteness was a way to prevent indentured servants and enslaved people from seeing that they have more in common with each other than they did with their wealthier oppressors.

In the late 1600s, as slave rebellions became prominent, laws were enacted to divide the oppressed into white and non-white categories and create the illusion that poor and indentured white folks had more in common with those who exploited their labor than they did with others who were indentured or enslaved. This was not done by lifting up those deemed white, but by putting down and lowering the status of those deemed not white.

stylized picture of stationary bike
As I have watched the rhetoric play out along political and racial divisions in this latest controversy, the echos of that 17th century division can be seen. Most poor and middle-class white Americans have far more in common with their black, brown, yellow and red peers than they do with the banksters and billionaires who fund the power elites of our worlds. But fear and helplessness and the illusion of power in an equal illusion of competition and scarcity keeps the racial divide firmly in place. Until we see who is the real problem, we will continue to repeat the current cycles of power and politics that are essentially going nowhere like a stationary bike.

Patriotism and What It Means to Be American

To summarize, let me say that patriotism is a feeling and an action that can only be meaningful if it is sincere. It cannot be just ritual. It cannot be required. It can only be given.

The American experiment was above all about freedom. Freedom means diversity and it means disagreement. This is why I believe that calls for unity are shallow, easier with which to comply. Unity requires conformity.

Equally important to understand is that diversity and disagreement does not mean all points of view and all thinking is equivalent. But it does mean people are free to be wrong even when they are right about a lot of things.

The hard part of freedom is to walk that thin line of tolerance and truth. The tests of our democratic republic should not be how much we agree or conform. Nor it should be how much we tolerate ignorant points of view. Rather it should be about the common cause of forming and negotiating our understandings of the world together.

If we seeks security, we will never be free because we will always be susceptible to the powerful who promise comfort. We must seek truth and that will be uncomfortable and difficult at times.

Protest is uncomfortable. But protest is most effective when it sheds light on grievances of power. According to that test, the #TakeAKnee protest has grown to be about as American as the Declaration of Independence.

I am too disabled to #TakeAKnee literally, so let me just say, I am kneeling in spirit and I commend those who can and do.

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