David Brooks’ misreading of Kaepernick and history
Earlier this week, Dave Zirin wrote that “Colin Kaepernick is on a mission to make this country face the reality of racist police violence, one anthem protest at a time.”
David Brooks, on the other hand, is on a mission to resurrect colorblindness and a distorted narrative of “solidarity” in America.
In his New York Times editorial, “The Uses of Patriotism,” Brooks tries to convince his target audience of high school football players and NYT readers that “pulling a Kaepernick… is extremely unproductive.” Why? Because “we have a crisis of solidarity.”
For Brooks, “solidarity” was the social milieu of a nostalgic and undefined period of American history. During this period, the national anthem and the declaration of independence united all Americans, regardless of race. As he explains: “whatever their other identities — Irish-American, Jewish American, African-American — they were still part of the same story.”
Yet, this “same story” only exists in Brooks’ imagination. Native Americans shared a different history than the colonists who broke their treaties and burned their villages.
Black slaves, born into servitude, could scarcely get a glimpse of the American ideals of liberty preached by their white masters, as Frederick Douglass scathingly observed in “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?”
Every major struggle in America, from Nat Turner’s rebellion to the March on Washington, was fueled by the idea that different groups of Americans have different stories. The same can be said of the movements that emerged over suffrage, the eight-hour work day, and most recently gay rights.
To say that “the idea system that has always motivated reform” is “the sense that we’re all in this together” is to mystify history and the lived experiences that sparked social movements in this country. This line of thinking also marginalizes the differences that sustain inequality and oppression today.
Rather than explore the complexities of the American experience, Brooks provides cherry-picked quotes and facts that mislead the reader away from oppression-based solidarity, and instead, toward nationalist solidarity. He tells us that Martin Luther King Jr. sang the national anthem; therefore, we should too. Likewise, Lincoln’s nationalist ideals were the catalyst of abolition, not the bloody conflicts, battles, and struggles that emerged from a nation divided.
Nowhere does Brooks mention that King — an anti-Vietnam radical — was assassinated trying to organize a multiracial army of the poor to occupy Washington DC and radically restructure American society. Nor does he tell his readers that Lincoln supported slavery as late as 1858, and that his proclamation was in no small part a product of the political and economic pressure imposed on him by united abolitionist interests.
In the absence of a serious treatment of history and its complexity, Brooks exemplifies a tendency toward — to modify a term from Mike Beggs — Frankenstein journalism: the crude incorporation of quotes and blips of history, torn of context, and stitched together in an appeal to authority.
At the expense of rigorous analysis, readers are left with a reductionist view of American history that serves white nationalist interests in the present.
While Brooks might like watching black athletes perform in the arena, he does not want them disrupting the oft-touted conservative ideology that being patriotic is how you change American society. According to Brooks, black athletes need to express “gratitude for our ancestors and what they left us” because if they don’t “other [white] people won’t be motivated to right [their] injustices.” Here, Brooks furtively echoes the racist politics of southern reconstruction, which prescribed the proper places of African Americans in American society, and, more specifically, how obedience to nationalist dogma and a helping hand from whites should be black America’s strategy for achieving social change.
If the article’s mystification of race and race-based struggles in America is not enough to persuade readers against a Kaepernick-style protest, Brooks leaves his audience with a maneuver straight out of Stephen Miller’s playbook: hyperbolic horror.
Without providing any links or a semblance of evidence, Brooks warns us that we are living at a time when “many schools no longer teach American history” and “a globalist mentality teaches students they are citizens of the world rather than citizens of America.”
Ultimately, Brooks’ attempt to fear monger in the present and whitewash history is not new. Neither are his appeals to abstractions like unity and togetherness, which marginalize racial differences in the service of civic obedience, to say nothing of the interests of those who just want black athletes to shut up and play ball.
While Brooks will contend that we are one nation, united by a song and other “shared displays of reverence,” athletes like Muhammad Ali, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Tommy Smith, John Carlos, Toni Smith, and Colin Kaepernick will continue to remind us otherwise.
It is their “stories,” not the fictional tales of harmony and oneness, which high school athletes and Brooks’ readers need to hear.
Szetela is an assistant professor in the liberal arts department at Berklee College of Music. He has published book chapters, peer-reviewed articles, and op-eds on issues of politics, race, and sports in the United States.
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