As more National Football League players and even college and high school players stand with arms linked or kneel in protest it is not a phrase from one of Donald Trump’s tweets that stands out most to me. It’s not any of his seemingly endless tweets about it. It is not even his statement during a rally in Alabama that drew such attention to the few NFL players who had been protesting up to that time. At the Alabama rally he said players should be fired and that owners who did so would be considered heroes. But that’s not what is sticking in my head either. It is something he said right after that, a phrase that many people didn’t even notice–“total disrespect of our heritage, a total disrespect of everything we stand for.”
I keep hearing “our heritage” and “everything we stand for” and I have to acknowledge that clearly what he meant was “our” and “we” as in “white people”. And, of course, the word “heritage” had only recently come to the forefront as the argument against tearing down Confederate statues and symbols that serve as racist reminders of our true national heritage. Clearly Donald Trump had been listening again to the voices of the alt-right and the apologists for our racist past and present.
If standing for our national anthem is nothing more than a show of support for “our heritage” then it is a wonder that any person of color, any Native American, any queer person, any immigrant has ever stood for it. African-American heritage goes back to being forcefully removed from Africa and brought in chains to the Americas to live as slaves. If I were African-American I would have a difficult time wanting to honor that heritage. I would have a difficult time honoring an anthem written by a slave-owning aristocrat who wrote words against my people in the third verse, even though that verse is never sung anymore. I would be hesitant to celebrate the country that kept my people segregated for a century after supposedly granting my people freedom. I would not trust those who have done their best to keep black citizens from voting and full participation in society. And I would know that the police are to be feared rather than trusted.
Because of white privilege most white people don’t think of “our heritage” as belonging to all of us. Our schools don’t typically teach us about the contributions of people of color in science, history, and the arts. “Our heritage” is whitewashed. It is white European leaders and heroes in the pages of our history books. Because of it those of us who are white don’t have to worry about discrimination based on our skin color. We don’t have to worry about getting arrested, beaten, or killed simply because of melanin. If we were black we would better understand that the police and military are the protectors of the ruling class and wealthy capitalists. Yes, they help people in trouble, catch murderers, and they do serve and protect many Americans, but they also absolutely protect the assets of the rich and powerful above all else. Witness Standing Rock. Witness the civil rights movement of the sixties. Witness the raids on gay gathering places in the 50s and 60s. Witness the litany of unarmed young black men killed by armed police who fear them.
Many of my fellow white folks fear the loss of “our heritage” as the country becomes more mixed and we head toward becoming a minority in “our” country. It scares the bejesus out of racists, so they lash out whenever African-American citizens stand up for the rights that should belong to all of us. Sometimes it is by dismissing the protests as meaningless. Other times it is by portraying movements like Black Lives Matter as radical and violent, even when there is no evidence that it is true. Yet other times, when things start looking too scary to them, it is lynching, beating, and killing to put people back in their places.
What Trump is doing with his tweets and rants about the anthem protests and by using words like “our heritage” is calling upon those who are scared of losing their privilege to stand up and fight against those who do not honor “our heritage”. The racists among us will hear that call and respond.
So that is what sticks in my mind–“our heritage”–a call to protect it against those who they believe are not really part of it. When that happens, Donald Trump will have blood on his hands.