Jackie Robinson

On Sunday, Mike Pence walked out of a football game between the Indianapolis Colts and San Francisco 49ers when players knelt on the field during the national anthem. ‘I left today’s Colts game,’ the vice president said in a statement issued by the White House, ‘because President Trump and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem.’ His walk-out reignited a controversy that has been smouldering for weeks.

‘We have a great country,’ Trump told CNN on 24 September.

We have great people representing our country, especially our soldiers, our first responders, and they should be treated with respect. And when you get on your knee, and you don’t respect the American flag or the anthem, that’s not being treated with respect. This has nothing to do with race. I have never said anything about race. This has nothing to do with race, or anything else. This has to do with respect for our country and respect for our flag.

The 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was the first to #takeaknee, in August 2016, to protest against the killing of black men by white police officers. Kaepernick said he was ‘not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour’. When Trump says ‘this is not about race,’ he is adopting an ahistorical stance of colour blindness in order to disempower black Americans protesting against ongoing discrimination through economic, political and social systems that are structurally racist.

Sixty years ago, in September 1957, nine pupils arrived at Central High School in Little Rock to begin the desegregation of the school in line with the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education three years earlier. Met by throngs of protesters, and opposed by the governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, the black children were turned away from the school. President Eisenhower eventually sent the 101st Airborne Division (without its black soldiers) to Arkansas – ‘not to enforce integration’, he wrote, ‘but to prevent opposition by violence to orders of a court’. The crisis – which was about race, not law and order, whatever Eisenhower said – was never fully resolved: the riots petered out, but the pupils were verbally and physically abused during their time at Central High.

Ten years earlier, in April 1947, Jackie Robinson was signed to the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first African American to play for a major league baseball team since 1884. The grandson of slaves, Robinson was one of the most talented American athletes of all time. At UCLA he excelled at track, baseball, football and basketball. He served in the army during the Second World War, and was court martialled (and acquitted) for refusing to sit at the back of a military bus. He was taunted and racially abused throughout his baseball career. In 1949 he played with two other black players on the first desegregated All-Star team: they were given lockers in a secluded part of the locker room, and showered separately from their white teammates. It was clear to Robinson that desegregation did not mean equality. Not long before his death in 1972, he wrote in his autobiography:

As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.

In February, Trump described Frederick Douglass as ‘an example of somebody who's done an amazing job and is being recognised more and more’. On 4 July 1852, Douglass asked: ‘What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?’

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 licence… your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery.

The symbols of nationhood have long been used to cover the deep divisions in American experience. Trump used a rally at Huntsville, Alabama to attack NFL players following Kaepernick’s example. He said the protest showed ‘total disrespect of our heritage, a total disrespect of everything that we stand for’. Alabama is still a highly segregated state. Huntsville is still a highly segregated city. A more historically sensitive president might have chosen to steer clear of criticising non-violent protest in a state where the civil rights movement escalated in December 1955, through the leadership of Ralph Abernathy, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. Trump’s criticism indicates a deep misunderstanding of American 'heritage', the history of racial injustice and non-violent protest against it.