by Frederick A. Hurst
There was a time when we folks of color could rely on the predictability of White folks and be assured that, whether they were good or bad, we could predict their moves in any given situation. But nowadays, we don’t know what to think about White folks and that has become a real functional problem.
I mean, if White folks legally lynch us, co-opt us, cheat us or deny us economic and health security and justice under the law, we are not caught by surprise, just as we are not caught by surprise when White folks join us in genuine opposition to such behavior and honestly contribute to reversing the effects of it as do many White folks. However, Black folks are finding it more and more difficult to distinguish White friends from White foes.
These are such confusing times that I am even unsure how to write about what seems to be happening. Black folks generally want to be one with White folks when they deserve it. But how can we be one with White folks while watching the many ways they rationalize acquitting cops who we watch murdering our Black men on national television? How can we be one with them when they elect a Donald Trump as president and let him twist their minds over the difference between using the flag and national anthem as touchstones of legitimate protest and using them to divide our country and to so easily make White folks believe that our Black athletes, who kneel during the national anthem, are unpatriotic?
My brother was killed in Vietnam while White folks were burning the American flag at the Pentagon and all over the streets of America in protest of the war (I was at the Pentagon during the protests observing White violence). Our Black athletes are kneeling to the flag in deference to all it stands for and as a reminder to White folks of what it has always stood for and should still stand for – most of all, justice. They are not desecrating the flag in protest. They are honoring it and all that it stands for. And my family story is not unique among Black folks.
So, it is disconcerting to hear White folks, who are supposed to be our friends, succumbing to Trump-like attacks on our patriotism even as many of them and/or their parents were among the ones who burned the flag and ran President Lyndon Johnson out of politics and laid the foundation for the election of Richard Nixon as his successor.
I don’t mean to belabor the point but my youngest brother served and died in Vietnam shortly after my oldest brother returned from his Vietnam service and my second youngest brother served on the DMZ in Korea shortly after that. My namesake, Uncle Frederick, served in the Pacific campaign in WWII and my Uncle Alton served in North Africa in the same war. And like so many other Black folks who served the American country and flag, both uncles returned to a society that rejected them and often lynched their Black counterparts for “stepping out of line” in the name of the “confederacy” and the flag that they tried to use to replace our own American flag.
Our White “friends” seem to have forgotten that Jackie Robinson, while serving in the United States Army in honor of the same American flag, was court marshaled for refusing to move to the back of a Southern bus years before Rosa Parks was arrested and later commemorated for the same behavior. So it is very disconcerting to listen to White “friends” suggest that their “love” of the flag is somehow greater than our love simply because we honor it in a different way.
Many Black folks feel that we are being victimized by something else that is going on in White America. White folks are fighting for power among themselves. And they are trying to use folks of color as pawns in their battle, which they can succeed at only if we folks of color allow them to do so. But stopping it is not easy because all sides in this White struggle – liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, alt right and far left – are fighting for their base and a shifting White middle and, unfortunately, a good portion of that White middle is bigoted as are most of those who identify with the alt right.
White emotions are running high – which often times means running amok – making it easier for the Trump-like demagogues on all sides to influence White opinion through faux patriotic, racist catcalls, which is why patriotism and the flag and racial appeals are proving to be easy tools for the Trump-like to divert even good people’s attention away from the real White battle for raw power.
By any stretch of the imagination, the “old days” were slow going for African Americans but we always knew where we stood and what the fight was about and prepared for it. There was no confusion. We had good White folks and bad White folks and we always had to be prepared to fight even the good ones, who felt compelled to compromise with the bad at our expense. But we could reason with the good ones and even some of the bad ones. We understood this and had the all important benefit of no confusion.
President John Kennedy’s equivocation during the Civil Rights Movement is a good example. He was not a great civil rights president but we were able to keep our concerns on his mind until he was tragically assassinated and Lyndon B. Johnson stepped in and chose to be a historical leader on the issue of civil rights. But the situation today with Trump and the hard right, the radical left and the confused middle is out of control. We Black folks no longer have clarity. We don’t know who White folks are anymore. Too many seem to have completely lost their identity which is why watching them unite around patriotism and the flag is so scary and reminiscent of past historical trends that didn’t bode well for Black folks and certainly didn’t bode well for the European Jewish community during the Nazi era.
When the good White folks and the bad White folks united around such amorphous concepts as patriotism and the flag and claimed them as their own while ignoring the real issues of their times, we got lynched, literally and figuratively, and White folks justified it among themselves until the amorphous trends played themselves out.
One thing I know. Black folks should not be the first ones to speak out against the unfair characterization of Colin Kaepernick and other Black athletes and their supporters as unpatriotic for kneeling in protest of injustice. White folks should be, just as they should be unequivocal in speaking out against Trump-related bigotry. And as history has made clear, when White folks fail to act, Black folks must not fail to act. And we should not be the ones to have to remind White folks, friend and foe alike, of the same moral obligation that Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded his fellow White ministers of in his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.”
He wrote: “I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” (emphasis added; available in full at www.afampov.com)
In this day and age, the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. written as he sat in isolation in the Birmingham jail during one of his many battles against injustice, should not be necessary. Unfortunately, they seem to be more necessary now than ever before. It is not a racist president or that substantial part of his White base that is racist who are most confounding. It is our confused White “friends” who are most worrisome because confusion is so easily misdirected by tyrants like Trump who understand that, in the midst of confusion, logic fails and appeals to emotions dominate and symbols like the flag can be useful in manipulating the behavior of confused White people, especially when they consider themselves to be righteous as so many White folks do, and who also consider themselves to be the arbiters of what is righteous.
So we Black folks and our many allies of color, and more enlightened White folks, are going through perilous times waiting for our confused White allies to recover from their confusion. And we know that during their recovery period, which we know can last for days or decades, we will bear the brunt of the consequences unless we prepare to defend ourselves, which we will do because historical circumstances have given us a new level of sophistication. You can’t hang us all!
Watching White folks unite around their own misappropriation of flag and country is disconcerting but historically familiar. We know where it could carry them and we know we are in for a tough fight. But we also know it’s a winnable fight and a mere continuation of the long fight from slavery to freedom that has been unabated since the first African slave was forced to build America without pay. Yet, from the very beginning, we have served our country and honored our flag with our blood. So, to see White folks willingly misappropriate the American flag as their own in this day and age, when we are presumed to be an enlightened people, is disheartening.
I don’t mind speaking up about it even though I understand there will be consequences. But my courage pales in comparison to that of Colin Kaepernick and those other Black athletes who continue to kneel in the view of huge crowds of mostly White folks who don’t want to hear the message these brave Black athletes are kneeling for and who conveniently convert the message into an anti-flag and country scam that in their confused minds justifies their tolerance of injustice in total contradiction to what our flag stands for.
I have no words that can heal White confusion. History says it will eventually work itself out but not without some cajoling and substantial discomfort for all of us. But history also tells us that the period from the onset of the confusion to the working out can be catastrophic, which is why I hope our White “friends” regain their senses soon.
Frederick A. Hurst is co-owner, with his wife Marjorie J. Hurst, of An African-American Point of View (Point of View). The free community newsmagazine by and for the African-American community and for other readers who are interested in news from the African-American community, in its 11th year of operations. It is based in Springfield, MA and is published twice monthly, circulating in Springfield and in Connecticut. This article first appeared, in a slightly longer form, in the most recent issue of Point of View and is published here with permission.