Debating Black Patriotism

with Briahna Joy Gray

The issue of black patriotism has a long and complicated history. It’s not hard to see why, for the first 200 or so years after the nation’s founding, black Americans might have been critical of patriotic sentiments. Many have been critical in the past, when racial injustices were ubiquitous and egregious, and many remain critical today, when the situation is quite a bit more complicated.

I understand the skeptics. But, I maintain that there is a strong case to be made for black patriotism. Not a reflexive, unthinking patriotism, but one based in the promise of the nation’s founding and the clear progress that has been made since the nineteenth century, since Jim Crow, and so on. There is still work to be done, no doubt. But as I’ve said, I believe America’s promise and its progress will be fulfilled for black people in this country in the fullness of time, as long as we nurture what we already have.

In this excerpt from my recent conversation with Briahna Joy Gray, we debate the merits of black patriotism. Briahna is an able (and respectful and civil) interviewer and debater, so we really get into it. We both believe that black people cannot effect real change in this country without the help of a cross-demographic coalition, though we have some different ideas about how to go about putting one together. Enjoy, and please do let me know your thoughts in the comments.

This video and transcript are taken from a longer conversation currently available only to newsletter subscribers. It will be made publicly available later this week. For early access to videos and podcasts, Q&As, and other exclusive content and benefits, click below to subscribe.

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BRIAHNA JOY GRAY: I was reading your case for black patriotism. That's what it was. And maybe this is a good place to shift gears. In this piece, you make the case for why has black people should see America, in its exceptionalism, as part of [their] own legacy. I don't mean to mischaracterize it. Do you want to sum up your argument in your own words?

GLENN LOURY: Well, yeah. I mean, I'm pushing back a little bit against the fashionable, skeptical attitude about the American project. How did Touré put it in a Fourth of July piece that he had in the Griot? “F-U-C-K the Fourth of July. Juneteenth is my holiday.” And I'm basically just saying, if we want to solve the problems of the African American community in the twenty-first century, we're not going to get it done at the United Nations or in the world court. We're going to get it done in the cauldron of American politics. And we need our fellow Americans to get it done.

And, on the whole, while the story is a story that includes slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, redlining, and all the rest, the story is also a story that includes emancipation and the civil rights movement and all the rest. If you look at it in terms of the long arc of history, of world history, it's a little bit of a challenge to find another instance of an enslaved and dominated people who, over the course of a century, a century-and-a-half, are empowered with full and nearly equal—I don't want to quibble—citizenship within the polity.

I mean, slavery has been a commonplace of human culture. Emancipation is a relatively rare experience. And although it has taken a long time, we are now in the twenty-first century. We have experienced the presidency of Barack Obama. Not a panacea to be sure, but certainly an indication of a different political opportunity set than existed previously. We've got billionaires, we're the richest people of African descent on the planet.

We're basically a very privileged people in a situation that affords boundless opportunity, and there's nothing wrong with, warts and all, affirming the value of our membership in this political community rather than sitting petulantly off to the side with our fist balled up, our arms folded across our chest, tapping our toe and saying “America, I'm waiting for you to live up to your promise.”

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What's so interesting about this is that I am really loathe to agree with Touré in any respect here. I'm not especially interested in what ultimately to me feels like a very performative kind of anti-patriotism, and for political reasons, those being my goal of establishing a broad multiracial coalition of folks, many of whom I know are very deeply invested in America as a country and are very proud.

I think it's natural to like where you're from. For all of its warts ... I grew up overseas and spent half my childhood playing the “my country's better than yours” game with international kids. I understand that kind of intrinsic desire to defend one's home. But, just like loving your parents and being committed to them and wanting to defend them doesn't mean that you have to be blind to their failings, especially at your own deficit—according to your therapist—doesn't mean that you have to have blinders on to what America has really done.

You, in this article, set up a sort of a binary. You say, “Is America a venal, a moral rapacious bandit-society of plundering white supremacists founded in genocide and slavery and propelled by capitalist greed, or a good country that affords boundless opportunity to all fortunate enough to enjoy the privileges and bear the responsibilities of citizenship?" You go on to say, of course, there is some warrant in the historical record for both sentiments, which I would agree with. It's a little A, a little B, it's an enormous, diverse country with, at this point, a longish history. We're getting there, we're catching up. And there's going to be some things that we should all be proud of as a country and things that we should all condemn as a nation.

But I'm curious about, why the need to even tee up the "weight of the evidence" in one way or the other? Why does it matter? If we can accept both truths as real, why the desire to get—particularly black people or any other group that has plenty of cause to want to draw attention to the country's failings, failings that, up until the 1960s, were largely papered over historically—why the desire to push back against them and, what it feels like is, force them to adopt the mainstream, whitewashed version of American exceptionalism?

I said, patriotism, not jingoism, and I make a distinction between the two. So it's not one of these, you know, kind of reflexive "my country, right or wrong," die for the flag, wrap myself in the flag, Donald Trump-esque ... that's not where I'm coming from.

My main motivation, you ask why, is a fear that the consumption by elites, who are very privileged people who have microphones put in front of them and television cameras turned on when they enter the room, of a very personal kind of sentiment. They're alienated from their country, they're angry, they have a particularly ideological perspective. And they consume that in their expressions. Colin Kaepernick taking a knee is a classic case of this, has a cost. The cost is in terms of political backlash and alienation of people who we need and who are our natural allies.

And here I'm going to betray the influence of my Bernie Sanders-supporting wife LaJuan, who is constantly saying we need a working-class coalition of progressives in order to get the policies. Childcare, healthcare, et cetera, et cetera. Even though I didn't vote for Bernie Sanders—I'm going to confess that—I have a great deal of sympathy for that sentiment. And we can't get it done on our own. We're only 10, 12, 13% of the population here. I'm talking about African Americans. And we can't get it done with a coalition of non-whites, in my opinion. That's the wrong way to go.

And even though I might not sign off on the entire policy agenda of the left wing of the Democratic Socialists of America or whatever, I will sign off on the Adolph Reed-articulated impulse to define the issues in such a way that we can bring the interests of people across racial lines into alignment with one another.

For many people, the Pledge of Allegiance or “The Star-Spangled Banner” or Abraham Lincoln or FDR or whatever, “we're going to take down George Washington” stuff, for many people that's gratuitously offensive. And it gives a wide opening to the Sean Hannitys of the world, who no longer wants to look at the NFL. He says, "Saturday is my football day." He's going to watch college football, not pro football. And of course, he's Sean Hannity—whatever. But there are millions, tens of millions of people that are influenced by that kind of thing. We need those people on the side of a political program aimed at effectively addressing the most serious problems confronting the African American community.

I mean, there are going to be some issues. If I keep talking, I'll get myself into trouble. But there are going to be some issues, like immigration, where the right wants to build a wall on the border, where the experience of a dispossessed people who have come fitfully into some semblance of equal citizenship—that's African Americans—militates in favor of sympathy for those who seek refuge.

On the other hand, where the economic facts on the ground might actually say that there's some competition or some trade-off between the interests of these various ... Let me not be cryptic. It's not obviously the case that the interest of an unskilled lower working class African American native born person, whatever their color, is advanced by relatively liberal immigration policies bringing large numbers of low-skilled people in, and so forth. Even if they're people of color.

So there are going to be arguments. I'm not saying that whites and blacks across the working class are going to agree about everything. But the gratuitous offense given to the country-loving sentiments of many of our fellow citizens by the indulgence, as I see it, of ideas that are really the privilege of of the ideological elites amongst African Americans is the thing I'm objecting

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