2008 Presidential Election, Race and Racism
Professor Vernellia Randall
Speaking Truth to Power!

Pride, Patriotism and Black Americans


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Sunil Adam
The Indian American


The unkindest cut of the presidential primary contests didn’t come from the Clinton campaign against candidate Barack Obama. Or vice versa. It certainly didn’t come from the hopeless underdogs in the Republican pack against their high-riding Democratic counterparts. It didn’t even emanate from a large section of the media that seems besotted by the charismatic freshman senator from Illinois and congenitally biased against the junior senator from New York. While one can make a case against MSNBC’s trio – Tim Russert, Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann – it would be a digression.

The unkindest cut came from conservative commentators and talk show hosts who called into question the patriotism of Michelle Obama, the first black woman poised to become the next First Lady of the United States. Several news cycles in the talk radio circuit and the blogosphere were dominated by a discussion of how unpatriotic she was when she said: “For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country.”

It is debatable if there is always a connection between pride in the country and a sense of patriotism (does one need to be proud of one’s parents or children to love them?). But it is worth examining if racial minorities in the United States view patriotism differently from the white majority. Can there be different forms of patriotism, or should everyone conform to the majority view of patriotism – unqualified pride in one’s country (which, presumably, also involves sporting lapel buttons, bumper stickers of the American flag and placing your hand on your heart when the national anthem is played).

Historically, religious, racial and cultural minorities in all societies have had to prove their patriotism, unlike the majority community or group whose patriotism is taken for granted. Muslims and Christians in India, Hindus in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Malaysia, the Chinese in Indonesia, Kurds in Turkey, Turks in Germany, Jews all over Europe, etc., have always been subjected to suspicion and the scrutiny of their patriotic leanings.

Are Chechens proud Russians, too? Are Corsicans and Algerians in France loyal to the Fifth Republic? Are French Canadians Canadian enough? What about the loyalties of Arabs in Israel? And let’s not even talk of the Irish in Britain.

The American experience has been somewhat different. Despite being a multiracial, multiethnic and multicultural nation, America, until the 1960s, remained insulated from “minority” issues because of the peculiar nature of its evolution as a nation-state – immigration and assimilation of European races, on the one hand, and oppression and subjugation of non-European races, on the other.

While assimilation ensured the patriotism of the European stock, slavery, segregation and other legal discriminations against non-Europeans, including blacks, Native Americans and Chinese, made their patriotism, or the lack of it, almost inconsequential. It is the inconsequential nature of the minorities that enabled the United States to send black troops to fight in World War II and not think twice about interning Japanese Americans during the war period – all in the name of defending liberty.

The contradictions in American patriotism came to the fore during and after the tumultuous civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, as well as with the opening up of immigration from Afro-Asian countries and a growing intellectual support for multiculturalism as against assimilation. The contradictions stemming from these developments have not been satisfactorily resolved to this day.

Yes, there was a brief period after the wanton attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when Americans of all hues and cultures emotionally comforted each other – perhaps the most poignant expression of patriotism there can be. But after the shock had worn off, whites and nonwhites looked at 9/11 very differently.

Believing that America was targeted because of its freedom and democracy, whites overwhelmingly supported the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and saw them as a part of the struggle against terrorism. Even those who didn’t agree with the rationale for the Iraq War supported it as a patriotic duty.

Whereas, a 2005 Pew Research Center poll found blacks nearly twice as likely as whites to have strong reservations about the Iraq War. That’s not only because they didn’t believe the linkage between 9/11 and Iraq, but also because they viewed 9/11 very differently. Most blacks, though they abhor terrorism, sympathize with the real or perceived grievances of Muslim countries against a white America manipulating their lives and destinies.

In 2002, Walter Mosley, a black writer and Bill Clinton’s favorite novelist, was quoted in the British Guardian newspaper as saying he hasn’t met one black who was surprised by the 9/11 attacks. “Like everyone else, they were shocked by the magnitude of it, and appalled by the deaths, but they weren’t surprised by the hate and anger that produced it. Black Americans are very aware of the attitude of America towards people who are different, people whose beliefs are different, people of a different color. We live with that attitude every single day. We know how hated America is.”

In a psychological context, blacks always identified the Afro-Asian fight against a world order dictated by the European stock with their own struggle against discrimination and prejudice. But the poetic irony is that the blacks’ fight for equality and justice at home never affected their patriotism or their American identity. The evidence lies in the fact that they never embraced the separatist Black Nationalism advocated by a number of fringe groups, including the Nation of Islam movement led by the controversial Louis Farrakhan.

As standup comedian Chris Rock explains in his own inimitable style, this is still the greatest country in the world – even for blacks. “America,” he says, “is like your uncle who put you through college, but molested you.”

This contradiction has been a constant in the black American experience. It is entirely plausible therefore that Michelle Obama remains patriotic even if she has not always been proud of her country because of the continued need to struggle for racial equality, even in this day and age. Her newfound pride in her country is entirely justifiable considering that the Democratic primaries have shown that the gap between American promise and reality is closing.

The heartening response of white America to Barack Obama’s candidacy has made the entire black community proud of their country, arguably, for the first time in its 400-year history. As Obama makes his inspirational journey toward 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., with the support of what he calls the New American Majority, American patriotism may be finally resonating “We the people” in a way that the American Founding Fathers never imagined.

Sunil Adam is the editor of The Indian American, a bimonthly magazine. This column appears in the March-April issue of the magazine. He can be reached at sunil@theindianamerican.com

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