Primary ’08: Race and patriotism in black and white
In the midst of primary season, Staci Bivens says that increased talk of patriotism means that silly season in American politics has arrived.
These days, major news networks are focusing on presidential hopeful Barack Obama’s choice to forgo wearing the American flag pen, which many politicians affix to their suits to symbolize their patriotism. Obama explained patriotism is encompassed in what you do and not in what you wear. While this argument makes sense intellectually, the absence of the American flag pen continued to confound some.
Questions on patriotism surfaced yet again after news organizations continued to loop 30 seconds of several sermons delivered by the Illinois senator’s pastor. I won’t bother to regurgitate the words. I have limited space to state my case here, and I’m sure your distance hasn’t shielded you from the repetition. The controversy has highlighted two crucial points that I will explore briefly: The intensity of racial problems in the United States and the differences in which blacks and whites exude patriotism.
Black Americans are governed less by a sense of blind patriotism than white Americans for obvious reasons - just look at American history. Slavery ripped hundreds of thousands of Africans from their homeland and forced them to become property with no rights.
Later, Jim Crow laws said blacks were separate but equal. However, blatant injustice proved that rhetoric false. Then there were the documented experiments conducted by our government known as the Tuskegee Study. From 1932 to 1972, hundreds of poor, black men in Macon County, Alabama were used as lab rats without their knowledge and without their full consent, to study the effects of untreated syphilis. Syphilis can be painful and fatal if left untreated. An advisory panel concluded that the testing was "ethically unjustified." During a presidential apology in May 1997, former President Bill Clinton said, "The United States government did something that was wrong - deeply, profoundly, morally wrong. It was an outrage to our commitment to integrity and equality for all our citizens."
It is with this comprehensive knowledge of the wrongs designed and enforced by various aspects of the American government that many in the African American community skeptically view government.
Yet, for many in the United States, viewing the nation with the same harsh judgment that it sometimes scrutinizes the rest of the world with is deemed unpatriotic. They see no link to how past maltreatment affects people in the present. Perhaps Obama explained it best in his now famous speech on race when he said, "Legalized discrimination - where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to black business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, from the police force, or fire departments - meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations. That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white…"
For some, the answer is to ignore past injustices and move forward. But for some, like my mom who was one of the first blacks to integrate into all white schools, it was not that easy. For people like my aunts who saw black men in Mississippi hanging from trees like lanterns, it is not that easy. And, for a lot of blacks who had to watch their parents say, "No sir," or "Yes sir" to children for fear of punishment - punishment supported by and enforced by government, it's not that easy. Blacks are more suspicious about our government. Blind patriotism is not as plentiful in the black community because we know what government is capable of - good and bad.
Yes, it is true. America has made great strides when it comes to equality and minority representation. However, the US needs to honestly to come to terms with its past and not just bury it. The "slavery happened a long-time argument" doesn’t cut it.
There is a reason why the Australian government has finally issued an apology to the Aborigines. It's because deep acknowledgment of past misdeeds matters. There is a reason why the Germans are mindful of their past treatment of the Jews. And, there is a reason why German society doesn’t look at the laws that are meant to combat future racism of that scale as "reverse discrimination." It is because making wrongs right matters and protecting the underrepresented matters.
All of this said, I do not believe that blacks are unpatriotic. Perhaps blacks are more patriotic in some ways, because in spite of this nation's faults, we loved this country before it even deemed us a whole person. We fought and died for this country even before we had the right to vote.
Americans need to accept Obama’s challenge to really examine race in the United States so that we can move forward. I suggest we leave the flag pens at home.
Staci Bivens is a 2006-2007 Alumna of the Robert Bosch Foundation Fellowship Program in Germany and a freelance journalist based in Chicago.
8th April 2008
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