“We have a great country. We have great people representing our country, especially our soldiers, our first responders, and they should be treated with respect. And when you get on your knee, and you don’t respect the American flag or the anthem, that’s not being treated with respect. This has nothing to do with race. I have 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.” Donald Trump, in an interview with CNN, 24 Sept 2017.
In the last 48 hours, the President of the United States has been picking a fight with NFL players. Specifically, he has criticized the practice that some players have adopted of kneeling during the playing of the national anthem at the start of a game. In August 2016 San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began this #takeaknee protest in order to bring attention to the Black Lives Matters movement, and to protest killings of black men by white police officers. According to Kaepernick, he was “not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Of course, when Mr Trump says “this is not about race”, he is deliberately ignoring that this is all about race. In doing so, he adopts an ahistorical stance of colour blindness in order to disempower black Americans who protest against ongoing discrimination through economic, political and social systems that are structurally racist.
I’m struck by the timing of this recent outburst by this president who staunchly refuses to engage in any meaningful way with the history of the nation. Sixty years ago, in September 1957, Mr Trump’s predecessor President Dwight D Eisenhower struggled with an escalating situation in Little Rock, Arkansas. At the start of the school year, on September 3rd, nine students arrived at Central High School in Little Rock in order to being the process of desegregation of the school in line with the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs Board of Education three years earlier. Met by throngs of protesters, and opposed by Arkansas governor Orval Faubus, the black students were turned away from the school amid fears that widescale riots would break out. When Eisenhower eventually sent the 101st Airborne Division (without its black soldiers) to Arkansas, he explained the move as one designed to enforce the orders of the court, not as something that should be interpreted as indicating his position regarding integration or segregation. The crisis was never fully resolved: the riots petered out, but the students were verbally and physically abused during their time at Central High. Eisenhower’s official explanation for sending in the troops was that he wished to avoid anarchy; but everybody (including him) knew this was about race. Eisenhower had the good sense to never utter those words: “it’s not about race.” But then Mr Trump is no Eisenhower.
Ten years before Little Rock, in April 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first African American to play for a major-league baseball team since the 1884 season. The grandson of slaves, Robinson was probably the most talented American athlete of all time. At UCLA he excelled at track, baseball, football and basketball. He served with honour in the military during World War II. Years before Rosa Parks, he refused to sit at the back of a military bus, and was court martialled (and acquitted) for his opposition to an authority enforcing rules that were patently unfair. Despite his success, he was taunted and racially abused throughout his career in major league baseball. Signed to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, he faced racial taunts on the baseball diamond and in the press. In 1949 he played with two other black players on the All-Star team, the first time an All Star team was desegregated. Those players were also given lockers in a secluded part of the locker room; they showered separately from their white teammates. It was clear to Robinson that desegregation did not mean equality. Writing not long before his death in 1972, Robinson revealed his attitude towards the national anthem and the flag:
As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made. Jackie Robinson, I Never Had It Made: An Autobiography (1972)
Donald Trump sees the flag as universal: in his “colour blindness” he does not recognize the historical baggage of that flag and of that anthem. Of course, he doesn’t acknowledge problems with Confederate symbols, so how can we expect him to understand the complex historical relationship between the descendants of slaves and the descendants of slaveholders? He should have paid more attention to Frederick Douglass, who he lauded last February as having “done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more.” In 1852, Douglass’ address to mark the fourth of July reminded his audience of the lack of universality of American national symbolism. “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” he asked. The answer, he suggested, was “a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license… your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery…” To think that key national celebrations — the fourth of July, or Thanksgiving — hold an inherent universality is to misunderstand all of American history.
There are deep divisions in the American experience. The symbols of nationhood have long been used to cover those differences, to convince Americans that theirs is one progressive story. But this is an ahistorical notion, promoted now by an ahistorical president. Donald Trump chose a rally at Huntsville, Alabama as the opportunity to attack NFL players following in Kaepernick’s wake. Trump used his platform to denounce this protest as a “total disrespect of our heritage, a total disrespect of everything that we stand for.” Alabama is still a highly segregated state. Huntsville is still a highly segregated city. A more historically sensitive president might have chosen to steer clear of criticizing non-violent protest in a state where the civil rights movement escalated in December 1955, through the leadership of Ralph Abernathy, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. That is the heritage of Alabama: racial segregation, and non-violent protest against it.
But Donald Trump is a modern know-nothing. Ultra nationalist without any understanding of the nuances of nationalism, embracing a “colour blindness” which allows him to deny pervasive problems of racism, and an ahistorical proponent of a “heritage” that is neither shared nor universal. You might not agree with the NFL players’ protest, but the #takeaknee protest is precisely in line with a strand of American heritage. Respect that.