During this period of racial strife, President Donald J. Trump added gasoline to the fire last week at a rally in Alabama when he spoke about NFL players who — during the playing of the national anthem — have been silently protesting social injustice.
Reaction was swift, most notably in the NFL where owners, players and others condemned what they saw as Trump’s irresponsible and divisive comments. Resistance manifested itself in the form of even more coaches and players locking arms, holding hands, kneeling together and engaging in other various forms of protest. It was civil disobedience at its best.
Due to the fact that he has the discipline and temperament of an unruly 5th grader, Trump was unwilling to acknowledge his callous and careless comments. He could have, more sensibly, focused his attention on the crisis in Puerto Rico, health care, and other immediate concerns that directly affect the lives of millions of Americans across racial lines. But he just had to keep the fires burning; that’s how he rolls.
The president was all too willing to feed tasty red meat peppered with racially tinged venom to the predominately White southern crowd. He knew that this was the type of coded anti-Black, anti- minority, anti-progressive message that more than a few of his followers crave. They eat it up.
Despite his many, many shortcomings, Trump is tuned in to the values, sentiment and mood of his political base. This is a voting bloc that is largely White, extremely conservative, often racist, anti-Semitic, isolationist, homophobic and xenophobic. These are the voters for whom the issues of God, guns and gays (and more recently immigrants and non-Whites) are perennial staples. These are the men and women to whom the American flag is sacred. One of valor and honor. A symbol of freedom, faith and justice.
On the contrary, for many people of color, America is a nation that has not lived up to such principles. These are the people who see their siblings, relatives, communities and minorities in general as being routinely socially, economically, psychologically denounced, denigrated, disenfranchised and, in many cases, outright dismissed by a mainstream society that sees them as less than equal or fully human. People whose lives are often rendered as meaningless by others. Thus, Old Glory does not resonate with the same level of trust or admiration.
The nation is witnessing battle lines being drawn in relation to racism, White supremacy and various other social issues not seen in America since the 1960s. It is somewhat ironic, perhaps even unsettling given the fact that almost a decade ago, a considerable swath of the nation banded together to elect a Black man to the world’s most prestigious office. Americans across racial and socio-economic lines rejoiced at the fact that a nation that had only ratified a Civil Rights bill into law in 1964 and a Voting Rights Act in 1965 was able to elect a man of color to the presidency 44 years later!
To be sure, there were more than a few others who were deeply resentful of what had transpired. Rather, they saw the election of a Black president as an affront to their heritage, values and history. Indeed, throughout the eight years of President Obama’s tenure, more than a few of his detractors (mostly White) seethed in anger and resentment. They further unleashed their outrage on right-wing blogs, talk radio, op-ed pages of conservative newspapers, private clubs, secret societies, and for others in selective, often restricted venues. Thus, to this racially disgruntled crowd, Trump’s election to the presidency in November 2016 signified a restoration of Eurocentric culture and whiteness in general.
Moreover, they (right-wing Whites) have been deeply emboldened by his victory and have furthered utilized his presidential victory to promote their radical, yet socially draconian agenda of racial politics. These are the people who embrace a Dred Scott policy as it relates to Blacks and other non-Whites. They have put away the dog whistles and have brought out their racially spewing bullhorns. They have been aided and abetted by President Trump as he has eagerly and shamelessly embraced the actions of White supremacists referring to some of those individuals as “very fine people.” Such behavior from a commander in chief is unfathomable in the 21st century.
The fact that so many coaches, owners, players, entertainers, businessmen, fans and citizens in general have joined together and supported dissenting players, denounced Trump’s comments and avidly defended the First Amendment is inspiring. However, there is a danger in that too many people will become focused on the NFL, Hollywood, etc., as opposed to remembering Colin Kaepernick’s protest against police brutality and other forms of racial injustice. We cannot allow this crucial message to get lost.
For the moment, momentum appears to be moving in the right direction. We can only hope that such progress will continue.
Dr. Elwood Watson is a professor of history, African-American studies and gender studies at East Tennessee State University.