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Trump, #takeaknee and American History

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Jackie Robinson

On Sunday, Mike Pence walked out of a football game between the Indianapolis Colts and San Francisco 49ers when players knelt on the field during the national anthem. ‘I left today’s Colts game,’ the vice president said in a statement issued by the White House, ‘because President Trump and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem.’ His walk-out reignited a controversy that has been smouldering for weeks.

‘We have a great country,’ Trump told CNN on 24 September.

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.

The 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was the first to #takeaknee, in August 2016, to protest against the killing of black men by white police officers. Kaepernick said he was ‘not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour.’ When Trump says ‘this is not about race,’ he is adopting an ahistorical stance of colour blindness in order to disempower black Americans protesting against ongoing discrimination through economic, political and social systems that are structurally racist.

Sixty years ago, in September 1957, nine pupils arrived at Central High School in Little Rock to begin the desegregation of the school in line with the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education three years earlier. Met by throngs of protesters, and opposed by the governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, the black children were turned away from the school. President Eisenhower eventually sent the 101st Airborne Division (without its black soldiers) to Arkansas – ‘not to enforce integration’, he wrote, ‘but to prevent opposition by violence to orders of a court’. The crisis – which was about race, not law and order, whatever Eisenhower said – was never fully resolved: the riots petered out, but the pupils were verbally and physically abused during their time at Central High.

Ten years earlier, in April 1947, Jackie Robinson was signed to the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first African American to play for a major league baseball team since 1884. The grandson of slaves, Robinson was one of the most talented American athletes of all time. At UCLA he excelled at track, baseball, football and basketball. He served in the army during the Second World War, and was court martialled (and acquitted) for refusing to sit at the back of a military bus. He was taunted and racially abused throughout his baseball career. In 1949 he played with two other black players on the first desegregated All-Star team: they were given lockers in a secluded part of the locker room, and showered separately from their white teammates. It was clear to Robinson that desegregation did not mean equality. Not long before his death in 1972, he wrote in his autobiography:

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.

In February, Trump described Frederick Douglass as ‘an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognised more and more’. On 4 July 1852, Douglass asked: ‘What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?’ 

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 licence… your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery.

The symbols of nationhood have long been used to cover the deep divisions in American experience. Trump used a rally at Huntsville, Alabama to attack NFL players following Kaepernick’s example. He said the protest showed ‘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 criticising 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. Trump’s criticism indicates a deep misunderstanding of American ‘heritage’, the history of racial injustice and non-violent protest against it.


  1. Joe Morison says:

    It seems very weird from over here but perhaps if the Brexotics get their way, we’ll be made to salute the Union Jack. To us, raising a single finger or mooning would be disrespectful; kneeling just seems a different sort of respect, one with an added message but no less respectful.

  2. Harry Stopes says:

    The response to James McClean, a West Brom player from Derry who refuses to wear the poppy on his shirt during October/ November (like the parading of soldiers before NFL games, the practice of adding this to the shirt is a new “tradition”) is most analogous. He is booed at grounds across the country throughout the year. We’re not so far from the Americans and their bigoted militaristic nationalism as we like to think.

  3. mototom says:

    Trump’s criticism indicates a deep misunderstanding of American ‘heritage’, the history of racial injustice and non-violent protest against it.

    Trump doesn’t misunderstand, he doesn’t misdirect himself, he is a white supremacist.

  4. IPFreely says:

    Maybe I am too dim to understand the American mores here, but how, in the name of Joe Louis, can kneeling at the national anthem be in any way ‘disrespectful’ to anything or anybody?

    • John Cowan says:

      If you’re too dim, so am I, and I’m a Yank. Kneeling is an act of submission; in a republic, always to God, as we don’t have human monarchs to bend the knee to. So by kneeling rather than saluting, the #takeaknee folks seem to be saying: Our loyalty is to God rather than to the country, for the country has not been loyal to us.

  5. eeffock says:

    Trump’s opposition to equality and justice is not simply a deep misunderstanding, although he is, undeniably, very ignorant.

    Trump attests to white supremacy and male supremacy with every breath of his truncated vocabulary. He is a life-long racist and misogynist and seeks to rally his peers in that regard. And that’s also why he spoke in Alabama.

    • John Cowan says:

      I think he is a misogynist by instinct but a racist only for the money. But then again, he seems to be President only for the money. (May, on the other hand, became PM solely because it’s on her bucket list, as far as I can tell from over here. Even Hitler and Stalin seized power to further their agendas, but what agenda does May have?)

  6. pacop says:

    This has nothing to do with the flag, soldiers, or Trump’s own personal bigotry. It is simply a continuation of longstanding Republican white identity politics. Trump’s bombast is no different in substance from Nixon’s southern strategy and Reagan’s endorsement of states’ rights in Mississippi. Trump just threw away the dog whistle.

    In the long run this may turn into a losing strategy for the republicans, who have now lost the popular vote in seven of the past eight presidential elections. But any turning in their fortunes is being greatly delayed by the electoral college, which was itself designed for no other purpose than to protect slavery from being overturned at the ballot box.

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