Like most kids in the 1980s, part of my daily school routine each morning back then was to stand for the pledge of alliance. Images of my grade school teachers asking a class of snaggle-toothed, freshly groomed brown-skinned joyous third graders run across my mind. We all rose for the pledge, but none of us really knew what it meant. How could we, since we were children?
I remember standing together, silent and thinking more about the impending morning chocolate milk more than the pledge. But the pledge has never felt right to me, even when I was just a kid. I stopped rising and standing for it about 30 years ago. Throughout the years various people have asked me why I don’t rise. I usually just respond with an answer based on the treatment of minorities (racial, sexual, religious) and women, and I explain that I do not feel like the United States its iconography represents justice, respect, acceptance, and freedom.
My relationship with my country is a conflicted one. In the United States, violence and harm continues to be enacted upon racial, sexual, and religious minorities and women and is often sanctioned by America’s institutions. How do I explain to my 4-year-old that a 19-year-old white male walked into a Black church and killed 9 people only to get arrested, unharmed, and given a meal from Burger King to eat?
The U.S. flag is the national symbol, and while to some it may represent national pride, without question it also symbolizes the tragedies perpetuated in is honor – genocide, slavery, colonialism, systemic oppression among them. Sometimes when I look at the flag, I think about the settler colonialism that led to Indian Boarding Schools and the genocidal “Trail of Tears” which decimated indigenous populations.
These actions under the idea of “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” was central to the flag, Manifest Destiny, and the message of American unity it spouted. I thought about Frederick Douglass’ speech “What to a Slave is the Fourth July?” In the speech delivered on July 5, 1852 at an Independence Day celebration in Rochester, New York, Douglass stated, “As white men, women, and children united under a flag that meant freedom and democracy to them, kept millions of Africans and American born men, men and children enslaved.”
Sometimes when I look at the U.S. flag, I think about the fact that day-after-day it was continuously raised high over the Japanese internment camps where over 100,000 people were unjustly imprisoned during World War II. Other times, I think about the thousands of children, teenagers and adults who are, right now, held in cages at our southern border immigrant detention centers where American flags fly high. Does the flag symbolize freedom and democracy for them? Of course not!
The hypocrisy of the American flag was never more apparent to me than it was on January 6, 2021, as I watched the Capitol insurrection on television. The symbols of the racist past from antebellum slavery (like nooses and confederate flag) and from Holocaust (like Nazi and concentration camp symbols), were easy to condemn. I found it even more shocking to witness a police officer beaten to near death with the American flag, an act that made the contradictory symbolic meaning of the flat explicit .
The flag also represents a specific American value system. In 1970, Robin Willams Jr. in American Society: A Sociological Interpretation found 15 widespread values that are central to the American qay of life. Karen Cerulo shared these in Social Relations, Core Values, and the Polyphony of the American Experience published in Sociological Forum in 2008 (from p. 352):
- Achievement and Success as the primary goal of every individual.
- Activity and Work with little emphasis on leisure and a disdain for laziness.
- Moral Orientation including the absolute judgments of good and bad or right and wrong.
- Humanitarianism realized through philanthropy and aid to those in need or crisis.
- Efficiency and Practicality as demonstrated by seeking the fastest and least costly means of achieving a goal.
- Process and Progress a belief in future development and technological advancement.
- Material Comfort sometimes articulated as ‘‘the American Dream.’’
- Equality in its most abstract form; as an ideal rather than a policy.
- Freedom expressed by emphasizing rights of the individual over the state.
- External Conformity, meaning that one strives to be a ‘‘team player’’ and does not ‘‘rock the boat.’’
- Science and Rationality as the primary vehicles by which to master the environment for material benefits.
- Nationalism and the belief that U.S. values and institutions are the very best in the world.
- Democracy based on personal freedom and equal opportunity.
- Individualism or the emphasis of personal rights and responsibilities.
- Racism and Group Superiority or the edification of a white, Anglo-Saxon, or northern European racial background.
Williams’ findings showed that U.S. values often proved contradictory in substance. Americans are achievement-oriented and favored work over leisure and laziness. At the same time, they advocate the quickest and shortest path to achieving their goals. Americans favor personal freedom and equal opportunity, but they also express non-egalitarian feelings of racial bigotry and prejudice. And while Americans value patriotic commitment to the nation, they emphasize individual rights and freedom over the greater good.
To understand the Capitol riot, we have to understand the values that would lead a large of people mostly from the privileged racial group to react so violently. I posit that the perceived progress from the social protest and the elections preyed on white fragility and these signs of progress were constantly met with hostility from the government. From the beginning of the Trump administration, racism was clearly a governing principle. Examples of this institutional racism include the travel ban, the cages and detention centers at the border, the attacks on Black NFL players, the praise for the white supremacists conducting violent attacks in Charlottesville, and the attacks on school curricula (attempting to outlaw the teaching of critical race theory, for instance).
And at the center, the American flag with all its history stands tall. In art you learn to draw with intention because when you erase, it leaves marks, a memory, and no matter how hard you try to erase it, the mark is still there. As long as the value system noted above marks this country, progress will be that much harder and physical and symbolic violence will always be the primary response to change. Watching the insurrection not only triggered thoughts of physical violence but the symbolic violence of understanding how limited minorities avenues for social justice and social life.
And even though there has been progress over the years, the values that the flag represents show us that there are limitations. Systems of oppression change but still remain. Slavery changed to sharecropping and Jim Crow, which in turn changed to mass incarceration and to the New Jim Code. It makes me wonder, just as Audre Lorde did, whether the master’s tools will ever dismantle the masters house.