Hundreds participate in a demonstration in Tallahassee on Feb. 15, in response to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis's rejection of a high school AP African American Studies course. (Alicia Devine/Tallahassee Democrat/AP)
5 min

This is the first Black History Month in a time in which lynching is a federal crime and Juneteenth is a national holiday. Last March, President Biden signed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act — only three Republicans voted against the measure in the House, and the Senate passed it by unanimous consent. The preceding summer, the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act became law, when it, too, passed with the Senate’s unanimous consent and just 14 House Republicans opposing it.

And yet, shortly before this Black History Month began, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) blocked an Advanced Placement African American Studies course from being offered in his state’s high schools. His decision flowed from more than two years of manufactured outrage on the right over structural racism and elements of Black history. Critical race theory was anthropomorphized into an anti-American boogeyman lurking in our schools and libraries. The term “woke” was transformed into a catchall pejorative used to condemn a range of nonspecific critiques, including disdain for the comprehensive accounting of our nation’s history on race.

This Republican two-step, already spreading from Florida to Virginia and beyond, proclaims Black History Month with one hand while furiously erasing the ability to teach that history with the other. The result is a politics that honors Black achievement but recoils from a deeper exploration of that which makes such progress nothing short of a national miracle.

It celebrates Juneteenth while glossing over the horrors of chattel slavery. It takes pride in criminalizing lynching (after nearly 250 attempts across more than a century of trying), yet discourages discussions that touch on the terroristic intent of this often-communal violence. It quotes the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and celebrates the “colorblindness” of Frederick Douglass while ignoring their social and policy critiques that would have them labeled as disciples of wokeism today.

These politics reflect a central feature of Trumpism: uncritical patriotism. In the “America First” worldview, there is room to valorize the overcoming of a hardship, but vanishingly little space to discuss the hardship itself.

Confronted with the idea that such unwillingness to reckon fully with the nation’s history on race is itself a form of intolerance, these two-steppers hide behind the feel-good legislation and the occasional Black Republican candidate. We do not have to guess at this — Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) went into a verbal crouch at a rally last year on behalf of the party’s Black senatorial nominee in Georgia: “If Herschel Walker wins, that means we’re not racist.”

Like many issues that seem at first to be solely about race relations, these double-dealing policies are evidence of our atrophying democratic culture. Uncritical patriotism is not just a disposition that demonizes those who chastise our country for its racial inequality and for not living up to its professed ideals. It’s a pollutant that sullies the nation’s fabric and toxifies our interactions with one another.

More than this, it becomes a weapon to be wielded against whoever dissents from the pristine view of America. Historian Pauline Maier noted that overzealous displays of empty patriotism driven by political expedience are as old as the nation itself. In the “bitter partisan politics” of the 1790s, Republicans excoriated Federalists for not reading the Declaration of Independence aloud at every Fourth of July celebration. In this regard, today’s Republicans come by this proclivity honestly.

Uncritical patriotism fosters an American exceptionalism that obsesses over the things the nation has gotten right, while suggesting that there is no bad side for the camera to capture. Perfunctory nods to the nation’s symbols become more important than living out the nation’s values. It robs us of the one thing that could make us genuinely exceptional: the relentless journey of a large and diverse republic from an oppressive society to a more equal and inclusive one.

The Republican Party has increasingly been commandeered by a cohort wedded to this unnuanced and fractious nation-worship. Though the views of these right-wing extremists might not be grounded in racial hatred, many can certainly point to interracial friendships and instances when they have celebrated Black Americans. The problem is political, not interpersonal. Honest critique of our country and demands for reckoning with our past are as unwelcome to them as the White Lion in Wakanda.

Black History Month is not only a celebration of the ingenuity and perseverance of a people who are as central to the nation’s story as any other group. It is also a distinctive marker of the nation’s progress — precisely because of (not in spite of) the inhumanity that greeted the formation of Black America. To recognize only the achievements of Black Americans, without duly honoring their struggle, is to deprive a people and a nation of the thing that actually makes it great. Juneteenth is special because the nation is celebrating the end of the shameful hypocrisy of slavery after rationalizing it for centuries. Historic anti-lynching legislation is more meaningful when it is correctly understood as an overcoming of domestic terrorism that the United States tolerated, and even fostered, for decades.

The beauty of America is not that it was born great and has remained so, but that it was deeply flawed and has been made by countless Americans — particularly those excluded and oppressed — a little more perfect over time.