Is there such a thing as a black American?
This is a really easy question that the United States has yet to answer correctly. And it’s for this reason that I am worried about the future of our country.
That last statement can feel cliche given our current environment, where partisans spin routine conflicts into existential threats and describe every election as the final verdict on the nation’s fate. But something different is happening in our politics today.
There seems to be a subtle but concerted effort to paint black citizens who criticize President Donald Trump or the United States as un-American. Black people who dare suggest that the country is not living up to its professed ideals are offhandedly deemed unpatriotic and ungrateful for the blessing of being born in the “shining city upon a hill.” If our critiques are not met with a crude suggestion to buy one-way ticket “back” to Africa, we’re accused of rent-seeking in laziness and victimization. It’s as if some political strategist discovered the best way to counter claims that our leaders are indifferent to pervasive racial inequalities is to imply the accusers hate the nation and the troops.
After all, in the American parade of horribles, unpatriotic ingrates are worse than any racist could ever be because, well, at least the racists love America. Why do you think they want it so badly for themselves?
There is no lack of incidents that create cause for concern. When black NFL players kneeled during the national anthem to protest racial injustice, the president called them “sons of bitches” who are disrespecting the nation, the flag and veterans. He then invited the professional hockey champion Pittsburgh Penguins to the White House and called the all-white assembly of mostly non-American players “incredible patriots.”
As a black man in Northern Virginia, I was well aware that the state’s gubernatorial race was seen as a bellwether for white identity politics and the electoral expediency of racial animus. For weeks, we were bombarded by Republican nominee Ed Gillespie’s campaign ads with dog-whistled soundtracks about the preservation of Confederate statues and taking stands on Election Day to tower over the lot of heathens who’d dare take a knee during the national anthem. So some view Democrat Ralph Northam’s win as a repudiation of the politics of racial resentment. I remain worried because questioning black people’s allegiance to the country is still seen as a viable political strategy.
When Rep. Frederica Wilson, a black congresswoman from Florida, chastised the president for making insensitive comments to Myeshia Johnson, the widow of U.S. Army Sgt. La David Washington killed in Niger, White House chief of staff Gen. John Kelly called her an “empty barrel” and others labeled her a national disgrace. The White House then contrasted Kelly and Wilson, saying it was “highly inappropriate” to question a four-star general and that we should all “thank God for patriots like Gen. Kelly.”
The list goes on. Black Lives Matter has been characterized as “un-American” by Trump emissary and former New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani. During Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ confirmation hearing, witnesses testified that he’d once called the NAACP un-American. Trump likened majority black inner cities to violent foreign countries. Former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka recently made the dysphemistic suggestion that the major issue facing black America is not systemic racism, segregated communities or socioeconomic disparities, but “black African gun crime against black Africans,” conveniently leaving out “American.”
And, of course, few things compare with Trump’s insistence that the nation’s first black president was, in fact, not an American at all. And he was quite pleased that Arizona’s embattled former Sheriff Joe Arpaio volunteered to look into Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Trump recently pardoned Arpaio from a criminal contempt conviction during a racial profiling case, calling him a “great American patriot.”
In my previous life as a military officer, my job was to be preoccupied with threats to America’s well-being. And it is precisely for this reason that the current political rhetoric around race and patriotism feels especially acute and inappropriate.
This tactic—the attempt to disentangle blackness from patriotism and America—is extremely dangerous. It is born of the ugliest parts of our history and presents the most dire threat to our political stability.
Let us never forget that the only thing that has ever broken the Union in half was the question I began with: Should there be such a thing as a black American?
We went to war over that question. More than 600,000 of our countrymen died over that question. A president was assassinated over that question. The notion of a black American was so controversial that our Founding Fathers avoided it altogether. Citizens turned their guns on each other. Racist state regimes violently suppressed constitutional rights. And the Army’s elite 101st Airborne Division had to be deployed just so nine black teenagers could go to high school in Little Rock, Arkansas.
So when the patriotism of black Americans is questioned—even if it’s done simply to reframe a debate on more favorable terms and avoid uncomfortable conversations about race—the nation’s worst impulses resurface. It fosters the perception that black people in the United States are less American than their white neighbors. Being seen as less American means one has less of a claim on citizenship, civil protections and equal opportunity. It’s what creates voting laws that complicate the voting process for black communities instead of making it easier. It’s a rationale for the aggressive policing of minority communities. It’s at the core of the view that black achievement in the United States isn’t a product of intellect and hard work, but of white magnanimity.
And as a veteran, I take deep offense at any attempt to separate blackness from America and patriotism. Black people in the United States have fought in every war since the nation’s inception—even before they could access citizenship. Black troops left their families, took up arms on foreign shores, and risked their lives for an idea, a promise. They fought in the Revolutionary War for American Independence, in the War of 1812 for American self-determination and in the Spanish-American War of 1898 for American expansion—all with the hopes that their service would compel the nation to recognize their rights to full citizenship. What higher form of American patriotism is there than fighting for the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness when you can’t access it? That is the very Spirit of ‘76 that led to the nation’s creation. And, out of necessity, this spirit is still very much alive and well in black America because we have yet to realize the fullness of the American promise. These are not signs of lesser Americans, but the signature of superlative citizens.
And yet, despite fighting for unrealized freedoms, scores of black veterans returning home from conflict were denied access to veteran benefits and the other rights of full American citizenship. Jehu Grant was an enslaved man in Rhode Island who fought in the Continental Army. But when Congress passed the Pension Act of 1832, Grant’s annuity was denied because America determined slaves couldn’t be soldiers. When black World War II vets returned home, nearly all of them were denied access to the G.I. Bill, which helped white veterans buy homes and get more education that helped create the atrocious racial wealth gap today. This is what happens when black people—even those willing to put their lives on the line—aren’t seen as real Americans.
This—this inability to allow black Americans to be fully black and fully American—is our national weakness. And our enemies know it. The recent revelations that Russia took out fake ads on Facebook and used fake Twitter accounts to exacerbate racial tensions in the United States should come as no surprise. The fact that other countries have long sought to exploit racial discrimination in order to weaken the United States is not shocking. Racism is our fault line; it is our Achilles’ heel.
So this tactic of labeling black citizens who are critical of our government and leaders as un-American is dangerous ground. It is playing with a fire that’s consumed us in the past and is the one domestic threat that can dismantle us again.
I am worried about our country.
Not because some myopic and lazy politicians decide to play on people’s fears and prejudices to win elections. Not because white nationalists march across university campuses with discount Tiki torches. Not because we are so polarized in our politics that each side sees the other as evil and destructive.
I am worried about our country because it has not yet decided if a black American is a paradox or a fellow citizen. We cannot be both, and history has proven the country cannot survive the former. Either the United States will be preserved and made more perfect by those who believe it can be the world’s largest multiracial democratic republic bound together by a notion of equal access to our founding ideals, or we will squander the opportunity and the republic will slip through our grasp.