Tuesday, January 24, 2012

On Patriotism by Randall Kenedy

Ever since Obama emerged as a serious contender for the presidency, he has had to contend with racially inflected insinuations questioning his Americanism and patriotism. He has responded by stressing his “normalcy”. Like his predecessor, Obama repeats time worn versions of the American narrative –celebratory stories that venerate the Founding Fathers ( despite their slave-holding), laud the pioneers who “won” the West (despite their participation in the ethnic cleansing of the Native Americans), and applaud America’s soldiers (despite their involvement, often as draftees, in imperialistic or otherwise misguided ventures.) Like his predecessors, Obama sends flowers to commemorate the Confederate dead* . Like his predecessors, Obama expresses belief in the divinely ordained superiority of the United States. Like his predecessors, Obama proclaims loudly, unreservedly, and often that he loves his country.

There is, however, an alternative opinion that African- Americans ought not to love the United States. Holders of this view see African-American patriotism as a pathology akin to “love” that exploited wives feel towards their battering husbands or that mistreated children feel towards their abusive parents. Often ignored, this tradition attracted a bit of attention during the frenzied controversy over Obama’s association with Reverend Jeremiah Wright. I know this tradition well. My father espoused it. His view of the United States was more unforgiving than that voiced by Reverend Wright. Some will think that my father, too, was “crazy.” They are wrong. He was an intelligent, thoughtful, loving man, who, tragically, had good reason to doubt his government’s allegiance to blacks, and thus to himself.

My father, Henry Harold Kennedy, Sr., never forgave America for its racist mistreatment of him and those he most loved. Born in 1917 in Covington, Louisiana, my father attended segregated schools, came to learn painfully that because of his race certain options were foreclosed to him despite his intelligence, industry, and ambition, and witnessed countless incidents in which blacks were terrorized and humiliated by whites without any hint of disapproval from public authorities. He bore a special grudge against police, all police, because, in his experience, a central function of police was to keep blacks in their “place”.

I saw with my own eyes why he developed such a loathing. On several occasions in the 1960s when he drove his family from Washington, D.C., to my mother’s ancestral home, Columbia, South Carolina, my father was pulled over by police officers not because he had committed any legal infraction but simply because he was a black man driving a nice car. I am not making an inference here. This is what the police openly said. And then, noting his Washington, D.C. driver’s license, they would go on to say that things were different in the South than up North, and that my father should take care to behave himself. “Okay, boy?” Then there would be a pause. It seemed as though the policeman was waiting to see how my father would respond. My dad reacted in a way calculated to provide maximum safety to himself and his family: “Yassuh,” he would say with an extra dollop of deference.

Incidents of this sort profoundly alienated my father. In his view, they justified his refusal to view the United States as “his country”. He felt neither that he belonged to it nor that it belonged to him. He attempted to make the best of his situation and, in the view of many, succeeded admirably. A post- office clerk married to a schoolteacher, he was often happy, had many friends, was widely respected in his neighborhood and church, and owned a home. He sent each of his children to Princeton University, and lived to see them all become lawyers (one is a federal judge). It could be argued that my father’s life is a vivid embodiment of the American Dream. But my father did not see it that way. Like Malcolm X, he believed himself to be the victim of a terrible and ongoing injustice that white America refused to acknowledge satisfactorily.

My father echewed any sentimental bond with the American government or the American nation. He rejected patriotism. I once asked him why he enlisted in the Army during the 1940s. His response? “I joined in order to eat” He offered no talk about wanting to serve his country. Rather, he candidly declared that the only attraction he saw in military service was refuge from want. Years later, during the Vietnam War, he maintained that any black man drafted by the United States government should go to Canada rather than risk his life for a nation that, out of racial prejudice, continued to subordinate black folk. He relished Muhammad Ali’s quip that the Vietcong had never called him “nigger”.

My father’s alienation was such that in virtually any conflict between the United States and some other country, especially any Third World country, he sided presumptively with America’s foe. In the 1980s, when American officials railed against the Ugandan head of state Idi Amin, my father defended the dictator, reasoning that any black man who got white folks that mad had to be doing something right. In the 1990s, during the first Gulf War, my father hoped for America’s defeat:

“You don’t see Bush pulling out the stops for black folks catching hell right here, do you? You don’t see him going the extra mile to get straight with black folks after having vetoed the civil rights bill or having helped that racist Jesse Helms, do you?...These white people here had to be positively shamed into doing anything, even the least little thing, against the South African government. And when those damn South Africans whipped up on poor Angola and Mozambique, all that white officials over here could do was try to figure out how to join in… And just watch what happens after the war in Kuwait. Bush will talk about helping Kuwaitis rebuild their country, while black communities here starve for attention…And watch what happens to the black soldiers coming home. Do you think they will get and special hand for “serving their country.” Hell, no! They will probably get kicked in the butt like I was…They’ll be told they don’t qualify for this and they don’t qualify for that. They’ll be told in so many words that all they’re good for is cannon fodder, and that if they don’t like it they can get in line for prison where there are already enough black veterans of Vietnam to outfit a good-sized army… Boy, you just don’t know how evil and nasty these white folks can be.”

There was is much that was objectionable in in the statements in Reverend Wright’s various statements publicized during the presidential contest in 2008. His suggestion that a government plot is behind the AIDS catastrophe is a baseless and destructive canard. His unqualified praise for Louis Farrakan offered support to a figure whose record includes forays into anti-white racism, anti-Jewish bigotry, and intraracial intimidation. Reverend Wright’s critique of American racism, moreover, is all too one-sided and static – as if the struggles of the Civil Rights Revolution have failed to bring about dramatic and positive changes in race relations even amid the stubborn and frustrating continuation of racial injustice.

But there is also much that is deserving of criticism in the negative reaction to Rev. Wright. First, the air of outraged wonderment that suffused many responses reflected a notable ignorance of the spectrum of belief one encounters in the black community. As journalist Gary Kamiya noted, “the great shock so many people claim to be feeling over Wright’s sermons in preposterous. Anyone who is surprised and horrified that some black people feel anger at white people, and America, is living in a racial never-never land.”
And it is notable that candidate Obama, too, expressed shock in some of his varied responses to the Reverend Wright imbroglio. It is hard to believe, though, that he was truly unaware of the sentiment and rhetoric that generated the uproar.

The fact is that much of what Reverend Wright voiced strikes a chord with many black people; his anger at American unwillingness to face squarely the two great social crimes that haunt United State’s history – the removal of the Indians and the enslavement of the Africans; his suspicion that white America fears the emergence of strong, autonomous racial-minority communities. This is not to say that blacks uniformly or even predominantly embraced the particulars of his message. Many of Reverend Wright’s black congregation understood him to be engaged in a performance that makes liberal use of exaggeration and parody. Moreover, some of those who clapped and shouted appreciably were expressing approval of what they saw as his courageous articulation of figurative, as opposed to literal, truths.

The great mass of politically involved blacks regretted that Reverend Wright’s sermons redounded to the detriment of Obama’s candidacy. And most turned against Reverend Wright when he insisted on defending himself in a fashion that seemed, at best, indifferent to the Obama campaign. But there was no groundswell in black America to repudiate the basic message of the remarks that so infuriated white America.

Second, many observers abjured Wright simply for daring to denounce the United States at all –as if that is, in and of itself, illicit- as if the governing authorities of the United States have never done anything that could possibly justify someone calling for divine retribution ( though such calls were made in the past by both Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln!). Reverend Wright’s signature declaration –“God Damn America”- was part of a sermon in which he criticized various social problems; baleful developments like massive increases in rates of incarceration that are so shameful in their production of avoidable pain that they do constitute a moral atrocity warranting God’s damnation!

The other statement by Reverend Wright that led to the ideological quarantine put upon him came in the sermon he delivered soon after the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York City on September 11, 2001. In “The Day of Jerusalem’s Fall” Wright offered a variety of criticisms of American political culture. Presciently anticipating the military interventions to come , especially the war in Iraq, Wright complained that “far too many people of faith in 2001 A.D…have moved from the hatred of armed enemies to the hatred of unarmed innocents. We want revenge. We want paybacks, and we don’t care who gets hurt in the process.” He went on to chastise Americans for assuming what he saw as a false posture of innocence. After all, he declared, Americans have unleashed violence to accomplish their ends all over the world. “The stuff we have done overseas,” he said, “has now been brought home to roost! Violence begets violence. Hatred begets hatred and terrorism begets terrorism.”

Many people, including Barak Obama, have fulminated against Wright’s statement. Yet it contains a useful message that was especially important to articulate after the 9/11 attack. His message was that the United States is also tainted by worldly sin – its imperialism, its dispossession of the Indians, its subordination of blacks, its use of atomic weapons, its misadventures in Vietnam, Chile and Nicaragua; and still other misdeeds about which too many Americans are ignorant or indifferent. How could anyone, especially an American, say what he said about the United States, especially in the those of grief immediately following 9/11? In the eyes of many he was stepping over the line of political incorrectness- the intolerant, parochial conformism of the patriotism line.

Yes, Reverend right’s remarks were marred by hyperbole, one-sidedness, and an irresponsible willingness to perpetrate erroneous folktales. Worse, however, is the complacent smugness from which arose the feverish anger that Wright provoked and that temporarily posed a threat to Obama’s presidency. Neither of these alternatives is inevitable. Both should be abjured. If pushed to choose, however, between Wright’s excessive denigration of America and the excessive exaltation epitomized by his most severe detractors, I’ll take the former. Its consequences tend to be less lethal.

* Obama was, however, the first president to send a wreath to the D.C. memorial that honors African-American veterans of the Civil War

Randall Kennedy is the Michael R. Klein Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. He received his undergraduate degree from Princeton, and his law degree from Yale. He attended Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar and is a former clerk to Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.


  1. The mass incarceration disaster that so starkly and disproportionately burdens black communities dramatically decreases opportunities for employment, civic engagement, and family life. And nothing more reinforces the stigmatization of African Americans than their pervasive association with imprisonment and recidivism and all of their many dismal consequences. Yet little has been done or will likely be done by the Obama administration to address this massive problem. Challenging the destructive Romance of hyper-punitiveness would be risky for any politician. For Obama, though, the risk would be greater still, since taking a strong stand against mass incarceration would encounter intense opposition, invite association with the most despised sector of colored America, and prompt complaints of racial partiality. This is a risk Obama is unwilling to take.

  2. I am not blaming Obama – at least not solely or mainly. The problems are beyond the capacity of any single person to remedy, even a president. They include a deeply flawed Constitution, prevalent strains of bigotry, and defective institutions, most importantly public schools and the Fourth Estate, that mis-educate an appallingly ignorant populace. Unless the obstacles that confront liberal reformism are removed, a presidency capable of delivering upon a truly progressive agenda may well be impossible.

  3. Obama was never as liberal as some progressives imagined him, to be. Apostles have consistently given his ambiguous rhetoric more of a leftish spin than was ever warranted. A revisiting of Obama’s speeches and writings reveals numerous instances of illusory promises. Moreover, the list of his retreats from progressive commitments is considerable and will undoubtedly grow. In defense of Obama, supporters cite the need for strategic prudence and adaptability. But, in my view, Obama underappreciates that sometimes a political leader can win in the long wrong by pushing a position or an appointment in the short. With Obama, unfortunately, his supporters on the left (champions of the poor, civil libertarians, gay rights activists, organized labor, environmentalists, antiracists) have good reason to worry about the extent to which he will fight to advance or defend their aspirations. Obama’s much-vaunted pragmatism degenerates at key moments into mere expediency, facilitating default on the difficult task of promoting progressive policies and values… his political cautiousness prompts him on many occasions to cede excessive ground to the right.