by Charles M. Blow
Yes, Donald Trump has once again used racial hostility to rouse his base and is reveling in the achievement.
According to The New York Times, when Trump’s advisers appeared lukewarm about the uproar he created by chastising, in the coarsest of terms, N.F.L. players who chose to quietly kneel to protest racial inequality and police violence, “Mr. Trump responded by telling people that it was a huge hit with his base, making it clear that he did not mind alienating his critics if it meant solidifying his core support.”
Every way he is manipulating his majority-white base to oppose a majority-black group of private citizens is disgusting. Trump is disgusting.
But I am also infuriated by his framing: that this has nothing to do with race (whenever you hear that, know that the subject at hand must have everything to do with race) and that this is just about patriotism, honoring national ritual, celebrating soldiers, particularly the fallen, and venerating “our flag.”
What this misses is that patriotism is particularly fraught for black people in this country because the history of the country’s treatment of them is fraught. It’s not that black people aren’t patriotic; it’s just that patriotism can be a paradox.
W.E.B. Du Bois wrote over a century ago about this sensation:
“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
It is through that haze of hurt that black people see the flag, because the blood memory of the black man is long in this country.
Let’s start this story from its ghastly beginning.
Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr., citing the Trans-Atlantic Slave Database, writes that an estimated 10.7 million people survived the voyage — called the Middle Passage — from their homelands to North America, the Caribbean and South America, between 1525 and 1866. Of those, about 390,000 made it to North American soil. This was about 3 percent of the total who survived.
PolitiFact wrote: “Historian Herbert Klein of Columbia and Stanford Universities, who worked on the database, said that the data suggest about 85,000 people destined for North America did not survive the trip across the Atlantic.”
The overall slave trade in North and South America caused about 1.8 million deaths. There was so much human flesh being tossed over the sides of those boats — or jumping— that sharks learned to trail the boats to feast on it.
As Haaretz wrote in 2014 in an interview with Marcus Rediker, the author of “The Slave Ship: A Human History”:
“There are descriptions of coerced cannibalism, the hanging of innocent individuals by their toes, the amputation of limbs, feeding by means of the ‘speculum oris, the long, thin mechanical contraption used to force open unwilling throats to receive gruel and hence sustenance,’ branding with white-hot metal rods, starvation to death, shackling with handcuffs or by chains to other captives, and rape.” And this was just onboard the ships.
And while the percentage of slaves brought to the United States was relatively small, American owners bred slaves like cattle.
As the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History put it, “Well over 90 percent of enslaved Africans were imported into the Caribbean and South America.” Only a small fraction of African captives were sent directly to British North America, and “yet by 1825, the U.S. had a quarter of blacks in the New World.”
Furthermore, “While the death rate of U.S. slaves was about the same as that of Jamaican slaves, the fertility rate was more than 80 percent higher in the United States.”
Those children faced a harsh and uncertain future, including a strikingly high mortality rate. As Rebecca Tannenbaum’s book “Health and Wellness in Colonial America” points out:
“While good data is hard to come by, estimations of infant mortality (deaths among infants up to a year old) among African-Americans during the 18 century ranges from 28 to 50 percent. Child mortality (children from one year to 10 years old) was also high — 40 to 50 percent.”
This says nothing of the untold number of older children and adults who died during captivity in America due to cruelty, starvation, exposure, assault, and lynching and other forms of murder.
We often hear about the 620,000 people who died during America’s Civil War (in recent years, scholars have estimated the number was actually higher), trying either to eradicate slavery or save it, but what we hear less often is that black people were included in that number.
According to the National Archives:
“By the end of the Civil War, roughly 179,000 black men (10 percent of the Union Army) served as soldiers in the U.S. Army and another 19,000 served in the Navy. Nearly 40,000 black soldiers died over the course of the war — 30,000 of infection or disease.”
After the war and the Emancipation Proclamation, the terror continued. According to the N.A.A.C.P.:
“From 1882-1968, 4,743 lynchings occurred in the United States. Of these people that were lynched, 3,446 were black. The blacks lynched accounted for 72.7 percent of the people lynched.”
Then, there are America’s heinous and racially biased state-sponsored executions. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, there have been 1,460 executions since 1976, when the Supreme Court effectively lifted a moratorium on the death penalty. Almost 35 percent of those executed were black, although the proportion of black people in the country hovers around 13 percent.
In fact, the the youngest person executed in America in the 20th century was a 14-year-old black boy named George Stinney. He was convicted in a rushed miscarriage of justice in which the jury was selected (all white), the trial was conducted (it lasted only a few hours, and his appointed lawyer didn’t ask a single question) and the verdict was rendered (after only 10 minutes of deliberation) all in the span of single day.
The 5-foot-1, 95-pound Stinney was so small in the electric chair that they had to use a book as a booster seat. Some say it was a phone book; others say it was the Bible.
This is to say nothing of the disastrous effects of mass incarceration and the chaos unleashed by sucking so many young people, particularly young men, out of communities.
As the Pew Research Center put it in 2013, “The incarceration rate of black men is more than six times higher than that of white men, slightly larger than the gap in 1960.”
Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow,” has put it more starkly: “More African-American adults are under correctional control today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.”
And then come police shootings. According to a database maintained by The Washington Post, there have been 730 police shootings so far this year, putting 2017 on track to match or surpass the number of shootings in 2015 and 2016. But here again there is a racial imbalance: black people represent nearly a quarter of those shot but only about an eighth of the general population. When you look at unarmed victims, blacks make up nearly a third of that cohort.
Throughout most of this pain and bloodshed, some version of the flag has waved.
So how dare anyone suggest that people simply rise and conform to custom when they feel the urgent need to protest. How dare America say so cavalierly, “Forgive us our sins and grant us our laurels,” when forgiveness has never been sufficiently requested — nor the sins sufficiently acknowledged — and the laurels are tainted and stained by the stubbornness of historical fact. How dare we even pretend that the offenses have been isolated and anomalous and not orchestrated and executed by the nation?
So those football players should take a knee if they so choose. If America demands your respect it must grant you respect and the first order of that respect is equality and eradicating the ominous threat of state violence.
People upset with those who kneel seem to be more angry about black “disrespect” than black death. (Here, I need to applaud the non-black players who demonstrated their solidarity in the cause of free speech and equality.)
We have to accept that different Americans see pride and principle differently, but that makes none of them less American.
Indeed, we Americans see the flag itself differently. As the civil rights legend Fannie Lou Hamer once said, “The flag is drenched with our blood.”
(This column originally appeared in the New York Times SEPT 28, 2017 under the title “The Flag is Drenched with Our Blood”)
Charles M. Blow is a New York Times Columnist and nationally-known commentator: “I invite you to visit my blog By The Numbers, join me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter, or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.”