“We Want the Flag Back”: Celebrating Black American Patriotism

By Eric K. Ward & Lecia J. Brooks

“That day, the American flag was the image, the symbol, that pulled us into that situation. We live in America: the American flag means good things. It means that we can go where we want to go. We can ride our bike down any street in America. But it really represented a symbol of Do Not Enter. So they took that beautiful image and turned it into something ugly for me. And I want the flag back.” ~ Renée Lipscomb-McDonald, from “A Racist Attack Was Caught on Camera. Nearly 45 Years Later, It Still Stings,” interviews with the Black adults who were subject to a hateful attack as children in New York City in 1975

When our country celebrates Independence Day, the dominant images are of apple pie, red-white-and-blue bunting hanging from white picket fences, and blond-haired, blue-eyed children holding little flags along a parade route.

This is a good year to think instead of Crispus Attucks, among the first to die in the war for American independence, a stevedore born to an enslaved African father and an enslaved native Wampanoag mother. To look to the young people leading the Movement for Black Lives, a movement to liberate American humanity from the shackles of systemic racism. And to lift up the story-tellers like Renée Lipscomb-McDonald who can reflect on the harm done by white people using the American flag as a weapon of racial hatred, and still love that flag, and say, “I want the flag back.”

This is the patriotism we celebrate today: Black American patriotism, inspiring, leading, and joining with people of all colors and every national and ethnic origin to say, we’re fighting for an America that belongs to all of us.

Independence Day is a good day to take stock. Of all that was taken from the indigenous people who thrived here before the arrival of European colonists and settlers and enslaved Africans. Of the ways those enduring crimes continue to show up today.

For Black America and Native America, the war didn’t end with the Treaty of Paris in 1783. Look at today’s casualty figures: 1 in 1,500 Black Americans has died from COVID-19 (66 deaths per 100,000), 1 in 2,300 Indigenous Americans has died from COVID-19 (43 deaths per 100,000), compared to 1 in 3,600 White Americans (28 deaths per 100,000).

As The Washington Post reports, “The virus’s asymmetrical assault on Black communities may help explain why so much of the public underestimated the crisis. A new Washington Post-Ipsos poll found that nearly 1 in 3 black Americans knows someone who has died of COVID-19, compared with just 9 percent of white Americans.”

And there you have the impact of structural racism. Not only is Black America imperiled by the vulnerability to this virus derived from environmental racism, relegation into low-wage “essential” work, and generations of discriminatory barriers to healthcare. But it turns out white America is imperiled, too, by its willingness to look the other way as long as it’s somebody’s else’s parents, elders, siblings, kids who are dying of this disease.

Look anywhere and you see the blight on America’s tree of life: rising hate violence and paramilitary activity, mass incarceration and failed community safety systems, public health disparities and life expectancy determined by zip code. The number of white people moved to action by George Floyd’s murder shows the extent of the moral injury inflicted on all of America by the inhumanity of racist violence and structural inequality.

Independence Day is a good day to recognize that the war on Black America is a war on all of America. White supremacy has created the conditions we’re protesting now. White nationalism — which seeks to create a white ethno-state — exploits those conditions and endangers democracy for all.

Take Trump’s attempts to distract the nation from his failed COVID-19 response. He tried accusing the “fake news” media of exaggerating the virus. He tried scapegoating China, fanning the flames of anti-Asian violence. He retweeted conspiracy theories based in antisemitism. And he unleashed armed paramilitaries to shut down state capitols.

When the air went out of all of that, Trump needed a fresh target to shift the focus off his failures. He turned his attention to an old standby: demonizing Black America. This was before the current uprising in response to police brutality began. The easiest weapon in Trump’s base-building arsenal: attacking former President Obama. His trumped-up and immediately dismissed charges of “Obamagate” were all about reigniting ObamaHate.

It’s no surprise that Trump would seek to make a war on Obama a key front in his effort to shore up his popularity. Blowing the dog-whistle of racism on Obama is a big part of what made Trump who he is today. His flagrant flying of the racist “birther” flag began in 2011 and continued deep into his presidential campaign in 2016.

Just as Trump vilifies philanthropist George Soros as a way to tap into America’s unconscious antisemitism, he tested the notion of Obamagate to activate the racism that fuels ObamaHate. Just as his vilification of China created violent conditions for Asian Americans, his vilification of Obama set the stage for how law enforcement responded to Black protest just a few weeks later.

With Trump increasingly desperate to stem his deteriorating popularity and the Movement for Black Lives advancing moral gains, Black America needs to get ready. Despite the robust movement in support of Black lives in the streets right now, we need to understand that the white nationalist movement is undeterred.

White nationalism puts us at risk of losing everything our parents, grandparents, and their grandparents fought to win. Our ancestors built this country. Our people have always been central to upholding American ideals, challenging America to be its best self. We have spent generations defeating hate violence, from the Confederacy to Jim Crow. We cannot allow centuries of Black American sacrifice to die in the coming backlash.

Black American resistance is the best of American patriotism.

Black American patriotism builds broad-based multi-racial alliances while being clear about the special position that Black and Indigenous people hold — the faces at the bottom of the well, as Dr. Derrick Bell described us.

Black American patriotism recognizes that we are not just the experiential experts on hate violence and white supremacy; we are the community experts on resisting the authoritarianism that underlies the war on Black America. Black American patriotism calls us to strengthen our understanding of authoritarian and anti-democratic movements inside our community and to close the door on xenophobia, antisemitism, Islamophobia, misogyny and homophobia and transphobia.

Black American patriotism is the optimism that inclusive community is possible.

Black American patriotism understands the value of lifting one another up, of prioritizing the dreams of all of America’s children.

The America we have always fought for is an America that knows how to say it’s sorry, to keep long-forgotten promises. That’s committed to repairing the harms done to one another and the land that nurtures us all.

That’s the America we are fighting for today. It’s not just about toppling statues and defunding policing systems. It’s about what replaces them. Truth. Reconciliation. Liberty and justice not for some, but for all.

We recognize how much you have accomplished, Black America, and the cost incurred, over the past four years, and in particular the last few months. We salute you, Black America, for how far you have brought this country forward.

Black American patriots are building a 21st century civil rights movement, just like we built the civil rights movements of the 19th and 20th centuries. A 21st century civil rights movement in which America fully reckons with its original sins. A movement to liberate America’s humanity and free up inclusive democracy from the bonds of white nationalism.

We can do this. Happy Independence Day. It’s time for us to take our flag back.

Eric K. Ward is a Senior Fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center and Executive Director of Western States Center. Lecia Brooks is Chief of Staff at the Southern Poverty Law Center and a participant in Western States Center’s Leadership Initiative to Combat Antisemitism.

Based in the Pacific Northwest and Mountain States, Western States Center works nationwide to strengthen inclusive democracy.

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