Once again, President Donald Trump has inserted himself into the latest iteration of the culture wars with his recent comments targeting Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry and the National Football League. Whether it’s criticizing the removal of Confederate statues or equating anti-fascist protesters with white supremacists, make no mistake about it: Trump is pushing for a culture war.
The right to peacefully protest represents one of America’s defining values and separates us from a totalitarian dictatorship. No American should be comfortable when the president of the United States calls for the firing of athletes who choose to exercise their First Amendment rights.
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Trump proclaims that the issues are not about race, though his strategy of appealing to white identity politics foments racial discord. Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon openly shared his delight about this strategy, stating that the Democrats’ focus on racism at the expense of economic nationalism would help Trump crush the Democrats.
Probably to the chagrin of Bannon, Trump has been unsuccessful at emphasizing economic nationalism and staying away from racial topics. Instead, Trump has actively engaged in white racial politics as evidenced by his moral equalization of white supremacists and antifa in addition to proclaiming that by removing Confederate statues that we are “changing culture,” which arguably is a thinly veiled reference to “white culture.”
Let’s be clear about one thing: Contrary to what Trump says, the protests are not about disrespecting the flag or the national anthem. The protests are not intended to push Americans apart, but rather to bring attention to racial injustice. Using the presidency as a pulpit and the megaphone of Twitter, Trump has managed to create a false narrative and straw man’s argument about the protesters’ supposed lack of patriotism and love for this country.
Not once have any of the protesters uttered a disrespectful word about the men and women who have sacrificed their lives in service to this country. Not once have any of these protesters desecrated the American flag.
We need a more critical patriotism. America should not allow Trump to dictate his narrow view of patriotism on our country. A person can be both patriotic and simultaneously participate in a protest. Oftentimes, a false dichotomy is created between patriotism and protesting racial injustice. This dichotomy is perpetuated when one adopts a definition of patriotism that does not allow Americans to exercise the freedoms accorded to them via the Constitution. The fact that some NFL players placed their hands on their hearts while kneeling reflects the notion that one can protest and still exhibit patriotism.
To be sure, patriotism is important for our democracy. There is nothing wrong with demonstrating love for your country. However, telling employees that they cannot protest, as NASCAR recently told its drivers, is the embodiment of being un-American. Additionally, it is hypocritical for Trump to demand patriotism when he blatantly disrespected a veteran and prisoner of war, John McCain, and has yet to offer an apology.
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Trump wants black athletes to be seen but not heard — and to stay in their lane. By calling for NFL owners to fire football players who kneel during the anthem, he conjures up the metaphor of “$40 million dollar slaves.” In other words, Trump wants to communicate to these million-dollar athletes that they have no real power and work for billion-dollar owners on professional teams/plantations.
The fact of the matter is that Trump’s understanding of patriotism is a blind and uncritical love of this country informed by his privileged life as a billionaire white man. He has not experienced systematic prejudice or police mistreatment, such as that reported by NFL star Michael Bennett, who has joined other NFL players in protest. Trump misunderstands that the beauty of this country is that we can openly engage in protest while still being a patriotic America. We protest to, in the words of the Preamble of the Constitution, form a more perfect union.
Cokley is director of the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis at the University of Texas. Awad is an associate professor of educational psychology at UT.