As African American Patriotism Declines, So Will America

Kneeling is the new standing now—for the national anthem, it seems. In the NBA, there is actually pressure to not stand during the anthem. In the first half of the NFL season, many players chose to kneel. It’s a trending choice now. And television sports commentators have gone out of their way each Sunday trying to persuade viewers to embrace the kneelers even if they don’t embrace the kneeling. But few pointed out how this is altering the dynamics of team sports, and not for the better. Not everyone is on board the kneeling train. Several teams have decided to simply stay in the locker room during the anthem, to avoid the drama. Yet much of the media’s attitude towards watching these pre-game protests is, “Love it or leave it!”

The result is no surprise: NFL and NBA TV ratings have tanked.

This trend says something about the African American expression of patriotism, despite press statements from teams about kneeling not being “about the flag.” Most of the players in these leagues are African American. The protests began as gestures against police brutality towards blacks, timed to occur during what is universally considered an outward sign of patriotic unity. Trying to cast the issue as unrelated to patriotism is disingenuous.  

Because of this, an odd narrative is now circulating that the protest gestures are simply an alternative sign of patriotism. But the original sentiment behind Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the anthem did not pose as patriotism. It was neither new nor novel. It reflected a well-established, though minority, view among African Americans: That blacks should be less embracing of patriotic gestures and symbolism because, well, this nation is not for us.

Since America’s beginning, black patriotism has always been complicated. Frederick Douglass eloquently unpacked the contradictions between the Declaration of Independence and the persistence of chattel slavery. Langston Hughes insightfully critiqued America for not living up to its grand ideals of equality and opportunity when the justice system enforced Jim Crow segregation and gave a pass to white mob violence and lynchings. But even after the unprecedented legal success of the civil rights movement and vast cultural shifts in everyday race relations since the 1960s, African American patriotism has continued to be defined with an asterisk.

We as African Americans have debated views about patriotism for a long time. And for decades, the winning conclusion stood that outward patriotism, while uncomfortable for some, was a nod to our progress and investment in this nation. If anything, it pointed to a reconciliation that American ideals and institutions were worth standing for, America’s warts and all. Ralph Ellison voiced this well in 1970 when he argued that black Americans are not a separate “other” in this country. Rather, America-ness is intertwined in the history of its black people. Ellison wrote, “the nation could not survive being deprived of [African Americans’] presence because, by the irony implicit in the dynamics of American democracy, they symbolize both its most stringent testing and the possibility of its greatest human freedom.” This profound assessment soon became a consensus view among civil rights activists, educators, and politicians. Black patriotism was not a contradiction.

But a change is occurring. Belief in the kind of reconciliation Ellison described is eroding, at least in the mainstream consciousness. Black intellectual influencers like Ibram X. Kendi argue (to much applause) that African American patriotic gestures are a sham because black folks are not really free. And it is not uncommon for some to call patriotism itself “racist.” The argument claiming America is “not for us” (and probably will never be) is becoming the default view somehow.

Actually, “somehow” is not accurate. This is how it happened: The shift began in 2017 when the NFL kneeling protest gained the most attention, after Kaepernick was out of the league. As other players continued the gesture, President Trump called on NFL team owners to fire kneeling players on the spot (though he used a bit more colorful language). Because the media is not good with nuance, the story and debate centered on Trump vs. the Right to Protest.

Most African American sports commentators followed this cue, saying that they might not kneel during the national anthem like Kaepernick, but respected a player’s right to protest as such. Whether someone has a “right” to launch a public protest to promote a social cause at their place of employment every week is debatable, but this is when commenters started arguing that kneeling during the national anthem had nothing to do with the flag, the military, or patriotism.

But this was no more than a Jedi mind trick. This is like saying: If I turn my back to you as you’re talking to me, it has nothing to do with me paying attention to you. In fact, perhaps it is a sign of how much I am listening. I respect you so much that I choose to turn my back as a token of my attention. There’s no greater gesture of respect. This is utter nonsense, of course.

The protesters’ supporters claimed to be holding the nation accountable and dismissed any critique of the kneeling gesture or the Kaepernick strategy. “Get on board and support kneeling or it means you support racism and police brutality” was the shout-down response. The best example is from a few months ago when New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees innocently expressed his opinion that people should stand for the national anthem and that doing so showed that “we are all in this together, we can all do better, and that we are all part of the solution.” He was immediately denounced by the sports world for not parroting the Jedi mind trick that kneeling had nothing to do with the anthem, the flag, or patriotism. He issued an apology the next day. 

Some say the kneeling protest is certainly political and that sports have always been political. They point to Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ 1968 Olympics protest. But this proves the opposite. Such protest actions only had their power because they were generally understood as socially inappropriate for the moment. It is akin to speaking ill of the dead at a funeral. If you give a eulogy and chide the deceased for mistreating you, expect a severe backlash, based on the understood etiquette of the event.

What is happening today is like people trying to infuse character critiques into the funeral ritual. Some may have valid reasons for their critiques, but most people see such actions as unaligned with the moment’s time and place. Drew Brees actually reflected what most people believe: that sports are an occasion to come together, in spirit, despite our everyday divisions. Those pushing the protests seem tone deaf to the tenor resonating with the typical sports fan. And, ironically, they do not seem forward-thinking enough to realize that by normalizing protest gestures into a national ritual, the protest soon loses its relevance. When Fortune 500 company executives and Congressional elites start taking a knee, the gesture is no longer bold.

Interestingly, in the early 1990s, I took a class my freshman year at UC Berkeley with Professor Harry Edwards, the man who organized the 1968 Olympics protest. On the very first day of our Principles of Sociology course, he told us one of his class rules: He would never cancel a session in deference to student-organized protests. He explained that our families paid hard-earned money for our tuition and that he couldn’t operate at the whims of protest grievances that might arise on campus.

As well-intentioned as the kneeling protestors may be in their provocations, something is getting lost in the national conversation: the relevance of the symbols of national identity, and what happens to a society when reverence for those symbols declines. Those who welcome the kneeling gesture need to study history.

Ibn Khaldun, a 14th century Muslim thinker lauded by Western scholars as the pioneer in the study of history, sociology, and economics, touched on this. He assessed that civilizations rise and advance by developing a sense of “asabiyya,” an Arabic term most translate as “group feeling” or “social cohesion.” Updating the term for today’s nation-states, it is more appropriate to apply it as patriotism or nation-ness (some might say “nationalism,” but that word brings unrelated, distracting connotations). According to Ibn Khaldun, civilizations fall when their sense of nation-ness fades away, particularly after achieving immense prosperity and their political elites turn complacent and ineffective through luxury and extravagance.

America is unique in the history of nations because its founding was not embedded in particulars of ethnic, racial, or religious identity, even though those elements influenced its shape. The American identity is anchored to principles—universal principles. This is what Douglass and Hughes explained when critiquing the shortfall in the principles’ application. In fact, it is the only logical way they could call on America to do better.

Because, in principle at least, America was “for us.”

What the Jedi mind trick of kneeling as the new standing has done almost overnight, is to make signs of national allegiance something to be apologized for. Increasingly, the historic tension within the African American community over patriotism appears almost won over by the “not for us” side. By pairing with protest, Black patriotism has been compromised.

This tension hits home for me. I dealt with it in my own life journey. In my mostly African American and Latino elementary school in the mid-1980s, I was selected for the school chorus where we performed all the popular patriotic songs: America the Beautiful, the Star-Spangled Banner, etc. There was nothing controversial about it. I enjoyed the singing, but, even more, I loved that rehearsal got me out of class for an hour.

Later, in my more racially diverse junior high, I had a homeroom teacher, Mrs. Walker, an African American in her 50s. She planted some important seeds for me. I had become a class clown by then. Once, Mrs. Walker scolded my friends and I because we were joking around during the Pledge of Allegiance. She then gave an impromptu speech about the importance of respecting the flag. My response: I sarcastically but cleverly hummed the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” in the background as she spoke. I’m not sure if she heard me, but I got some laughs out of it.

In high school and college, I pivoted from patriotic ambivalence to aversion. I embraced the “not for us” argument, influenced by the militant rappers of the day like Public Enemy and Paris. I remember telling an African American friend how I would never use the word “our” when talking about U.S. institutions. So, I understand this mindset better than Kaepernick’s supporters who themselves would never kneel. I was a Kaepernick.

The move away from that mindset occurred as I matured, interestingly, as an African American who converted to Islam in my twenties. Imam Warith Deen Mohammed, an African American Muslim leader and thinker, altered my trajectory several years before he passed in 2008. Once, in a talk he gave about how he came to embrace patriotism unapologetically, he remarked:

I said to myself, ‘I don’t care what they think of me. They may think that I am not worthy of being included as a citizen or worthy of the rights and privileges of citizenship. I don’t care, as long as I know there is a law that says I should have that. Until they change that, then I am going to live as though this country belongs to me as much as it belongs to any other person. I made that my decision long ago.’ And I said, ‘this is the psychological disposition that all of us need, if we are going to succeed in getting our share of this country.’

Imam Mohammed was ahead of his time. As early as 1977, he urged African American Muslims who were previously obsessed with race and racism, to embrace the flag and their American identity as they worked for the progress of black communities. Former world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali’s personal evolution reflected this arc and was influenced directly by Imam Mohammed. This occurred when the fruits of the civil rights movement were only beginning to appear. It is ironic that over 40 years later, when racial injustice is nowhere near what it was then, so many African American intellectuals now push the “not for us” narrative. When it comes to embracing our nation-ness, there are few Imam Mohammed voices in the mainstream today. And not enough Mrs. Walkers.

An environment is emerging where gestures of patriotism are to be second-guessed, if not avoided entirely. The Pledge of Allegiance is less popular today, and I would not be surprised if many elementary schools had ceased with patriotic songs, even before the pandemic.

Sports have always been one of the few realms that brings all Americans together. But sports media is pushing the reinterpretation of kneeling as a sign of respect; an “option B” in exhibiting patriotic love. This is illogical. If symbolic kneeling should be held with the same high esteem as standing for the flag, then how does standing mean anything? You cannot elevate one without downgrading the other. When rituals mean little to people, it’s easy to upend them on a whim. And it is clear we’re unwinding deep symbols of social cohesion at the whims of a few athletes who got woke just days ago.

American culture often takes its cue from movements in African American culture. African Americans who believed in America’s founding ideals and called on the nation to live up to them made patriotism more real for everyone. But if we keep the critique of our nation and lose the sense of universal ownership and belonging that our patriotic symbols are meant to instill, there is nothing left to stand for. And that is the beginning of the fall.


1776 Unites scholar Yaya J. Fanusie is a former CIA analyst and a consultant on U.S. national security and financial technology issues in Washington, D.C. He also hosts and produces the storytelling podcast, Rhythm of Wisdom.