Trump's NFL War Is Racism As False Patriotism

In the documentary 13th, Professor Kevin Gannon points out that “we are the products of history that our ancestors chose, if we’re white. If we are black, we are the products of the history that our ancestors most likely did not choose. Yet here we are all together, the products of that set of choices. And we have to understand that in order to escape from it.”

For all of America’s history, black folks have been forcibly distanced and disconnected from mainstream America’s ideals. So, why then, are we expected to respond to the symbols of those ideals in the same way that white folks do?

It is unfair to expect black Americans to engage in the narrow definition of patriotism as outlined by President Donald Trump during his State of the Union address Tuesday—to “salute our flag,” “put our hands on our hearts for the pledge of allegiance” and “proudly stand for the national anthem.”

In an otherwise monotonous speech, Trump made it clear—with his elevated voice, his forward-bent, directed posture into the microphone, his rather sassy eyebrow raise and side-eye and his encouragement of an extended applause break—that this was meant as a direct dig at the NFL players who have kneeled during the national anthem. While it is unfortunate that the president sullied an otherwise lovely story about a young boy named Preston (who chose to honor lost lives following Veterans Day) by marrying it to his own prideful agenda against the NFL, the repercussions go far beyond Trump’s war with the league.

02_01_18_BrownsKneelAnthem Seth DeValve, husband to Erica, with fellow Cleveland Browns players, kneeling in protest during the national anthem in August 2017. Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The president’s dig towards black athlete-activists is dangerous. This perpetuation of a narrow, false idea of patriotism serves to silence and condemn those who deviate from tradition with their sights on progress.

As Gannon pointed out, there are ugly aspects of our history that we, as a country, have to understand and confront if we are going to escape from the systems and cycles they have produced. Ironically enough, Trump exposed that he is willing to invoke black history when it is convenient for him. Trump’s mention of low unemployment rates for African-Americans is only a poignant addition to his State of the Union address in light of the oppressive past blacks have faced. Somehow, Trump is socially and historically aware enough to boast low unemployment rates for blacks specifically as an accomplishment (an accomplishment which, by the way, is not actually his to boast), but not historically aware enough to understand why blacks have a complex relationship with symbols of American ideals we’ve never fully experienced.

To reduce patriotic engagement to merely a display—hand over heart, standing tall during a song—is to erase the validity of active engagement that holds power accountable as a form of patriotism.

To resist corruption, to seek change, to be a voice for the marginalized, to call for accountability in the areas of systemic racism, to speak truth to power, is to show a commitment to this country’s espoused ideals by actually pursuing their realization.

To attack activists who deviate from traditional displays of patriotism, is to erase what is actually one of the most important aspects of patriotic, political involvement: accountability of those who govern.

Erica Harris DeValve is a Princeton University graduate. She is pursuing her Masters in Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, focusing her studies on the intersection of race and faith in the U.S. Her husband Seth DeValve is a professional football player with the Cleveland Browns.​