The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

To many Americans, being patriotic means being white

Members of the San Francisco 49ers kneel during the playing of the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Indianapolis Colts, Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017, in Indianapolis, prompting Vice President Pence to leave the game. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
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Vice President Pence portrayed his walk out of Sunday’s game between the Indianapolis Colts and San Francisco 49ers as an of act patriotism.

Pence’s remarks followed President Trump’s lead in trying to make the NFL players’ national anthem protests of racial inequality in America about patriotism instead of race.  Or as the president tweeted last month:

Are the protests about race or patriotism — or both?

Most Americans, however, see it differently. In a YouGov/Economist survey conducted earlier this month, 66 percent said that NFL players choosing to kneel during the playing of the national anthem is “a matter of race” compared with 34 percent who thought it was “a matter of patriotism.”

But this debate about whether the NFL’s #TakeAKnee protests have more to do with race or patriotism misses a more important point. American patriotism has always been racialized.

This is what millennials think about the NFL protests

Within the social science literature on intergroup relations, Jim Sidanius and Felicia Pratto’s influential theory of social dominance argues that politically dominant groups — like whites in the United States — effectively claim “ownership of the nation.” According to this theory, “nationality and ethnicity are complementary because their power has enabled whites to successfully define the prototypical American in their own image.”

Consistent with that contention, social psychology research finds that for many “to be American is implicitly synonymous with being white.” Moreover, whites who feel a sense of solidarity with other whites have historically felt more strongly attached to such symbols of patriotism as the national anthem and the American flag.

The figures below provide more new evidence that whiteness and American patriotism are deeply linked. The first graph shows a strong connection between how attached white Americans are to their own racial identity and how attached they are to American patriotism.

The analysis combines four survey questions from the 2016 American National Election Study (ANES) into a measure of white consciousness. The first two gauge how important being white is to respondents’ identities and how much whites believe their own racial group is discriminated against. The remaining items, developed by Duke political scientist Ashley Jardina, are: “How likely is it that many whites are unable to find a job because employers are hiring minorities instead?” and “How important is it that whites work together to change laws that are unfair to whites?”

The left-hand panel above shows that whites who score high on that measure of racial consciousness feel particularly good about the American flag. Nearly 90 percent of whites who have strong attachments to their racial group said that seeing the flag made them feel “extremely good,” compared with only about a quarter those who score low in white racial solidarity.

The right-hand graph shows a similarly strong link between white consciousness and a sense of American identity. These associations between white consciousness and patriotism are mostly unaltered after controlling for partisanship, ideology and demographics — further bolstering the conclusion that white identity is strongly intertwined with American patriotism and American identity.

NFL owners who donated to Trump have fewer black executives than other teams

The next figure shows an even more direct link between whiteness and American patriotism.

The left-hand side of the display shows results from a June 1995 NBC poll that asked respondents, “When you hear about someone being ‘patriotic,’ do you think of a white man, a white woman, a black man or a black woman?” The results again show that the public’s image of the prototypical American “patriot” is far more likely to be white than black.

In keeping with those findings, the right-hand display shows that, in a February 2012 ANES survey, few whites thought African Americans were particularly patriotic. Only 28 percent of white respondents thought that the word “patriotic” described most blacks very or extremely well, compared to 51 percent who thought most whites are patriots.

Patriotism is often closely mixed with racial resentment

This view that African Americans are insufficiently patriotic fits well with modern theories of prejudice, which argue that contemporary white racial resentment is characterized by “a moral feeling that blacks violate … traditional American values.” In fact, one of the statements that Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher used to measure racial resentment for the Obama campaign in 2008 was, “I often feel that African Americans aren’t as proud and patriotic about this country as I am.”

Racial resentment is also characterized by beliefs that African Americans are insufficiently industrious, obedient and deserving — prevalent themes that Trump and his supporters tap into when they describe black players protesting racial injustices in America as disrespectful, spoiled and ungrateful.   It’s certainly no surprise, then, that whites who held racially resentful beliefs were especially likely to be against NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem, well before Trump started commenting about the issue last month.

Nor is it surprising that white racial resentment was strongly linked to groundless speculation about whether President Barack Obama was really born in the United States — the same “birther” beliefs that helped make Trump popular with Republicans in the first place. Trump and his supporters claimed that his birther crusade against the first black president had nothing to do with race — just as they are now claiming that their opposition to NFL protesters is about patriotism, rather than race.

White identity politics isn’t just about white supremacy. It’s much bigger.

But both birtherism and Trump’s attacks on athletes kneeling to protest police violence against blacks easily evoke widespread racialized ideas of American patriotism — conceptions of citizenship that often equate being American with being white.

Michael Tesler is associate professor of political science at the University of California at Irvine, author of “Post-Racial or Most-Racial? Race and Politics in the Obama Era” (University of Chicago, 2016) and co-author of the forthcoming “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Election and the Battle for the Meaning of America.” (Princeton University Press, 2018).