This op-ed by GQR Senior Advisor and professor of political science at the University of Washington, Christopher S. Parker, was originally published by The Seattle Times on July 2, 2020.
“What have I, or those that I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? … What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all the other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”
These words, part of a speech delivered by the esteemed Frederick Douglass in Rochester, New York, were penned in 1852. If, however, one replaces the word “slave” with “Blacks,” one is hard pressed to say not much, beyond the cosmetic, has changed in the 168 years separating that moment from the present.
I know, I know: Many of you think this an exaggeration. How could anyone claim, with even a shred of credibility, you ask, that much hasn’t improved since the antebellum period? What leaps immediately to mind is that we had a Black president. Surely, that counts as progress, does it not? One might well add that at least slavery and Jim Crow, times during which Black lives clearly had little value, are long gone.
Yes, slavery and Jim Crow, as historical periods, are long gone. Even so, how much has the relative worth of Black lives really changed since 1852?
Before rejecting the proposition, hear me out.
Sandra Bland. Michael Brown. Philando Castile. Jamar Clark. Stephon Clark. Manuel Ellis. George Floyd. Ezell Ford. Eric Garner . Charleena Lyles. Elijah McClain. Laquan McDonald. Twelve-year old Tamir Rice. Breonna Taylor. Che Taylor. None posed a threat yet were killed by police. This is not to mention Ahmaud Arbery and Trayvon Martin, killed by white vigilantes who were attempting to administer their own brand of “justice.”
Of course, these victims have more than their blackness in common. They were effectively lynched. Crucially, all were killed after Barack Obama claimed the White House.
This is just the tip of the iceberg in what was supposed to have been post-racial America.
In 2020, race-based disparities are evident when it comes to COVID-19. Not only are Black people more susceptible to falling ill to the coronavirus, but we’re also more likely to die from it. And much of this disproportionate vulnerability has to do with preexisting medical conditions: diabetes, hypertension, asthma and heart disease, which, in turn, are made more common among Black Americans, maladies attributed to racism.
Ultimately, what is racism if not an expression of the diminution of Black lives?
So, on July 4, 2020, as the country embarked on a weekend celebration of the American values for which the “Founding Fathers” fought, what are we to make of this holiday in light of the persistence of racism? Further, many white folks have asked me in the past several weeks: what, if anything, can they do to get the country on the right track?
The answer to the first question is simple. This holiday is a sham, a fraud to the 13% of the population whose forebears were slaves. By any metric, Black people remain second-class citizens. Whether it’s life expectancy, wealth or achieving a college education, Black people lag behind whites. (I can easily identify other criteria, but space limits recommend otherwise.)
Answering the other question requires a bit more elaboration. Even so, the solution is plain: patriotism. Progressives generally shudder at the mere mention of patriotism. They believe it commensurate with the political right, where it’s generally confused with nationalism. In reality, about the only thing these concepts share is commitment, where nationalism is committed to a primordial concept of a people, or nation if you will. A particular phenotype. Patriotism, on the other hand, is about a commitment to a set of ideals, regardless of one’s race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation.
Further, this commitment to the founding ideals is so deep that one is willing to sacrifice one’s self-interested pursuits for the benefit of the common good. That can begin with military service and include jury duty, voting and, yes, even paying taxes. These actions involve sacrificing time and money; and, with military service, the sacrifice of one’s freedom, or even one’s life.
These sacrifices are all predicated on the commitment to the values on which the country is founded: freedom, equality, tolerance. In the end, patriotism is about the preservation of these values in the American republic and applied to every American.
Patriotism is a term with which political theorists have long struggled. Still, many would agree that American patriotism is conducive to reform and activism, an argument supported by social science. For instance, my own research demonstrates that it is conducive to tolerance, militating against the violation of civil and religious liberties. Patriotism is also commensurate with more racially tolerant views. Patriotism, further, encourages political activism, something crucial to the health of modern democracies.
Further, patriotism has also motivated major progressive movements of the 20th Century: the women’s movement, labor movement and the civil rights movement. More to the point, these movements called on sacrifice — both from the aggrieved groups and from the broader political community, especially those in dominant positions. The aggrieved groups often sacrificed their bodies and livelihoods — even their lives, while those from dominant groups who served as allies were called upon to sacrifice privilege. An example from the former include Martin Luther King Jr. and Fannie Lou Hamer, a Black woman beaten so severely while in jail for sitting at a “white” lunch counter that she almost died; from the latter, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, slain attempting to register Black Mississippians to vote.
All of this is consistent with the overarching theme of patriotism: sacrifice in service to the common good. These examples make abundantly clear that patriotism is about action. It’s one thing to claim one is patriotic by wearing a flag pin, but it’s another to put something on the line; have skin in the game. Talk is cheap.
These examples also make clear that patriotism is about criticism and dissent. For those who doubt this, consider those who founded this country. Were they not dissenting against British rule? Were they not critical of taxation absent representation? Yet, they’re considered patriots because they risked everything, sacrificing for the (mostly) common good. Activists from the women’s movement to the civil rights movement followed similar paths. More recently, Colin Kaepernick, a Black athlete who effectively sacrificed a lucrative career in the National Football League to make the case that Black Lives Matter.
In the present context, patriotism is about the adoption of anti-racism on the part of whites. This will require white folks to interrogate their own privilege. Now, some may well argue that they’re not racist. Even if this is true, they still benefit from white supremacy, something suggested by Dr. King’s famous Letter From Birmingham Jail. In short, he averred that though not white supremacists, the fact that non-racists stood by and did nothing to deter racists made them accomplices to white supremacy. In other words, if they weren’t part of the solution, they were part of the problem.
If you wish to be part of the solution, you must interrogate and acknowledge your privilege. This will cause some discomfort, no doubt. Understand, though, that Black people are uncomfortable every time we step outside of our homes. Every time. We get no relief. So, for the sake of the country, you can afford to do this.
If you agree with this, try to persuade friends and family to interrogate their privilege; to perhaps support racial equality, even participate in Black Lives Matter protests sweeping the country. You may jeopardize, even lose, relationships. Yet, if patriotism is anything, it’s about sacrifice.
So, on this most American holiday, one where we celebrate American independence and the values on which the country was founded, ask yourself a question. Is America of 2020, at least for Black folks, really any different than Frederick Douglass’ America of 1852? If you conclude that it’s not, and you’re white, you know what you must do. No need to ask your Black friend for direction on this. The Black professor just told you what’s necessary.