*“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery.” —Frederick Douglass (1852)
In a few days, the masses will commemorate America’s day of independence by firing up their grills and launching off fireworks into the night air. For at least 24 hours, the spirit of patriotism will neutralize the animus brewing between Whites and Blacks due to a slew of racially motivated incidents that have occurred this year. Ironically, people of African descent cheerfully partake in the festivities associated with July 4 despite America’s extensive and well-documented history of racial discrimination. The most recent chapter of this narrative resulted in the death of nine African American parishioners at the hands of a psychotic, Confederate flag-waving White supremacist in Charleston, S.C. Couple this massacre with the ever-looming threat of police brutality and excessive force toward minorities, and it creates a simmering stew of heightened tension. As a result, the various channels of social media have become flooded with alarming images of the American flag being mutilated by enraged, embittered Black radicals. These cage-rattlers seem to have a poignant message for Uncle Sam: “Take patriotism and shove it where the sun don’t shine.”
“F*** America. This country ain’t done s*** for me, my family, or for Black people, in general,” says Wynton Johnson, 31, a 6’5 security guard whose dream of playing professional football evaporated after he was wrongfully convicted of grand larceny and sentenced to five years in a maximum security prison. “I have a better chance of being shot by the police than getting a job from some White racist who can’t even stand to look at my face during an interview. F*** the flag and f*** the crackers who made it. To them, I’m going to always be a n**** first and an American second.” He continued, “The people in my neighborhood can’t find a job, and it’s not because we ain’t looking. When we walk into a building to look for work, the White people can’t stop staring. Why should I be patriotic when my kids can’t depend on their daddy to provide them with the finer things in life—the s*** Black people can only dream about, or steal.”
Johnson, a father of three, currently resides in Compton, Calif. His apartment complex sits in the heart of a gang-infested, drug-addled neighborhood where gunshots echo in the wind and ghetto birds (helicopters) can often be spotted hovering over a crime scene. Johnson says his living environment is “like a warzone” and that he dreads playing host to his children during their weekly visits.
“It ain’t safe for my kids where I live—too many drive-bys,” he explained. “They stay with their grandma. It’s only temporary until I find some work and a better place to live. I do security, but that hardly pays my rent. I ain’t looking for no handouts. But I could use some help.” He added, “It’s funny, all I gotta do is drive a few miles north and I’ll eventually end up in Beverly Hills where all the rich White folk are. That’s how it is all over the country. Blacks scratching and scraping to survive while White people watch from a distance counting all the money. I don’t have time to be patriotic. I’m just another n trying to survive.”
If there was ever a time for Blacks to question their allegiance to the country’s flag, it might be now:
• The incarceration rate for African Americans is about 3,074 per 100,000 residents, which is more than six times the national average. Black men in their 20s and early 30s without a high school diploma are particularly vulnerable. According to reports, with an incarceration rate of 40 percent, they are more likely to end up behind bars than in the workforce.
• In February, the unemployment rate for African Americans was 10.4 percent, while the comparable rates for Whites, Hispanics and Asians were 4.7 percent, 6.6 percent and 4.0 percent, respectively, according to data released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The national unemployment rate was 5.5 percent last month. Last year, 23.7 percent of those who are Black and unemployed had attended some college, 15.4 percent had bachelor’s degrees and 4.5 percent had advanced degrees.
• A 2014 study by the Young Invincibles, a nonpartisan education and economic opportunity advocacy group, found an African American college graduate has the same job prospects as a White high-school dropout or a White person with a prison record. The study attributed the gap to racial discrimination. According to the Center for Popular Democracy, a liberal think tank in New York, on an hourly basis during the past 15 years, Black workers’ wages have fallen by 44 cents, while Hispanic and White workers’ wages have risen by 48 cents and 45 cents, respectively. Black wealth has also shrunk, while Hispanic and White wealth has stabilized.
These statistics aren’t surprising to Johnson, who attributes his struggles and those of others like him to an ongoing aversion by Whites to accept Blacks as equals. “Let’s be real—the American flag and the Confederate flag are one in the same. They were both around during slavery. Do you think a slave really cared about which flag his slave master had? All he knew is that in the morning, he would have to go back to the cotton field. Both flags should be wrapped in chains, because they both represent the oppression of Black people. I’ll be patriotic when the government writes me a check for what my ancestors had to go through.”
Webster’s Dictionary defines patriotism as devoted love, support, and defense of one’s country. If social media is any indication, there is a growing number of flag-stomping anti-patriots like Johnson. Making matters worse, the past few years have brought forth numerous, highly publicized, cases of police aggression toward minorities. And just recently, the tragedy in South Carolina has sparked a volatile mixture of outrage and paranoia that continues to dominate headlines and public discourse. The aftermath also includes a string of six Black churches that have reportedly been burned to the ground. These crimes might have gone unnoticed if not for the media’s heightened awareness of racially motivated altercations. In years past, many Black residents of the South experienced extreme prejudice without having the luxury of Twitter and Facebook to broadcast their suffering.
“I don’t mean to sound insensitive, but that church in South Carolina wasn’t the first to be targeted and it won’t be the last,” says Kimberly Sherrett, 49, a longtime resident of Inglewood, Calif. “I grew up in North Carolina, so I’m no stranger to the Confederate flag, the KKK, and the Aryan Brotherhood. When I was a little girl, I was told to accept racism as part of my everyday life. I’ve witnessed hate crime in its worst form. The only reason that it seems like more of an issue now is because the media is finally giving it the attention it deserves.”
The most current data from the FBI shows that Blacks, Jews, gay men and Hispanics were the groups most often the targets of hate crimes in 2012. In total, 7,164 people were victims of hate crimes last year, down about seven percent from 7,713 in 2011. According to the report, nearly half of all reported hate crimes were racially motivated, with 66 percent deemed anti-Black, and 22 percent anti-White. In 2011, the data revealed that 71 percent of racially motivated crimes were committed against Blacks and 16 percent against Whites.
Although she’s aware of the lingering inequalities that hamper Black progress and safety, Sherrett says it doesn’t compromise her appreciation for America. A massive replica of “Old Glory” hangs above the porch of her brightly colored Victorian home. Sherett comes from a family of military veterans, including her father who is a retired Lt. Col. of the U.S. Army. “I’m not ignorant of the fact that racism is alive and well in this country,” she explained. “But that doesn’t stop me from appreciating the comforts that America provides compared to other places. When I hear someone sing the “Star Spangled Banner” or “God Bless America,” it brings a tear to my eye. These songs help me to remember that it is a privilege to be part of a democratic and free nation.” She continued, “I travel abroad quite a bit. In many countries, people aren’t allowed to express themselves freely. American citizens have that right. Whenever I share my views with other people, I feel like I am exercising my right to free speech. To me, that’s a way I show my patriotism.”
Kimberly’s husband, Rennison Sherrett, 48, is originally from the Virgin Islands. He migrated to the states when he was 13-years-old. Although his roots extend beyond America’s borders, Sherrett says there is no place he’d rather be. “I’m not an American-born citizen, but I’m proud to be an American,” he declared. “It’s a lifestyle that I’m willing to fight for. In this country, you may not be able to become a billionaire, but there’s a possibility of rising beyond the status quo and achieving prosperity. In other nations, this possibility doesn’t exist.
“People who are born in America have no concept of how different their lives would be, if they were living in a third world country,” Rennison went on to explain. “The Black experience in America is like a trip to Disneyland compared to what I’ve witnessed in my homeland. Half the world is starving to death. We throw away food without batting an eye. If people don’t like it here, they can leave. But chances are, when they see what I’ve seen in other places, they’ll come crawling back to the land of milk and honey. I’m a proud patriot. I don’t have a reason to be anything else.”
Like the Sherett family, many African Americans who embrace patriotism have this in common: military service. Today, approximately one in five soldiers are Black, compared with nearly 27 percent in 1985 and 1995, according to Army figures. The share of Black soldiers is still larger than the 17 percent of the U.S. population who are African Americans of military enlistment age and education.
Representation in the Navy also has slipped slightly: 21 percent of its ranks were Black in 2005, compared with 17 percent today. The Air Force has remained fairly steady for nearly 30 years with about 17 percent of its enlisted personnel being African American. The smallest representation of Blacks is found in the Marine Corps, which has seen its rate of enlisted African Americans decline from more than 20 percent in 1985 to about one in 10 today, according to the Pentagon.
Surveys also indicate that the percentage of Black youth interested in serving had fallen sharply, from 26 percent in 1985 to 10 percent in 2012. Research indicates that a key factor is a decrease in support for military service among Black “influencers”—political leaders, teachers and parents—during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
“In America, patriotism ebbs and flows,” explained Ron Brewington, president of the Tuskeegee Airmen Association. “Every country has warts; sometimes these flaws cause people to become bitter and agitated. America will never be perfect, but it’s our job to push it in that direction.”