For what, exactly? For turning a skeptical shoulder to an American banner. Now that’s an eggshell brand of patriotism, if it can’t withstand Berry’s biceps.
It’s the tired-outness of Crenshaw’s rhetoric that is so discouraging. He either doesn’t recognize, or doesn’t want to recognize, what a baneful old tradition he is following when he suggests a Black protester must be sanctioned for anti-Americanism.
“The bare minimum requirement” of competing in the Olympics should be “that you believe in the country you’re representing,” Crenshaw told Fox. The unctuous Ted Cruz chimed in on Twitter, “Why does the Left hate America?” As if Berry, a 32-year-old native of Ferguson, Mo., the daughter of an Iraq War veteran, and a college graduate with a minor in criminal justice, must be some kind of liberty-loathing infiltrator.
As opposed to a hard-working woman who hasn’t so much as broken a rule. Who has done nothing but self-start, achieve and support herself by working multiple part-time jobs while winning medals in the hammer throw. Who simply tried to read and think after Michael Brown was shot six times by police in the streets of her hometown in 2014, because she was frightened for her son, a 15-year-old Black male with a potential bull’s eye on him. And who is simply trying to provoke some thought over the fact that the anthem was written in 1814, when Blacks were enslaved and regarded as just three-fifths of a person, and basic racial justice still hasn’t been achieved.
“I never said I hated this country!” she tweeted. “People try to put words in my mouth, but they can’t. That’s why I speak out.”
Crenshaw has been busy campaigning against “wokeism” and what he calls the “anti-racism industry that is incentivizing victimhood.” He might have had an interesting conversation with Berry about that. But that won’t happen as long as Crenshaw insists on tapping into one of the nastiest veins of discourse in American history, the cyclical suggestion of disloyalty whenever prominent Black figures speak out.
We heard it in 1968, in George Wallace’s mush-mouthed decrying of “minority group rebellions” causing “domestic disorders” with their insistence on what he called “innergration.” We heard it in 1972 in Richard Nixon’s “law and order” campaign to protect suburban housewives from “those damn Negro-Puerto Rican groups out there.” We heard it in Donald Trump’s suggestion that any “son of a bitch” who didn’t stand for the national anthem should be kicked off an NFL roster.
That’s the broader context into which Crenshaw’s edict about Berry lands.
“We don’t need any more activist athletes,” Crenshaw said.
The question becomes exactly who is allowed to speak up in protest on racial issues?
Dan T. Carter, author of a definitive biography of Wallace, “The Politics of Rage,” and emeritus professor at the University of South Carolina, observed that throughout civil rights history, Black activists have suffered the accusation of disloyalty simply for pointing out our national failure.
“There is certainly a harsh, hard rhetoric that attempts to demonize them and cast them out of American society,” he said.
Carter is at work on a book about Wallace’s notoriously vicious white supremacist speechwriter Asa Carter, who once charged that the NAACP was run “by the same gang who financed the Russian Communist Revolution with millions out of New York City.”
In this venomous tradition, no one is an appropriate campaigner for racial justice — only traitorous fomenters of agitation and disunion. Ministers such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy were supposed to be “men of God and should not be delving into political issues,” the professor observed.
Entertainers were especially dangerous in the view of Asa Carter, who ordered up a KKK beating of Nat King Cole when he appeared in Birmingham in 1956 to sing to a White audience, though Cole was fairly apolitical. And of course, Tommie Smith and John Carlos were vilified as subversives and received death threats after lifting their black-gloved fists on the medal podium at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968.
Compulsory patriotism is not at all an American value; it is its own form of treachery. In fact, it’s hard to identify a braver American impulse than the one to speak freely from a platform in the face of pressure.
“It’s our sacrifice. It’s our podium. It’s our moment,” Berry said after the trials. Which the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee rightly recognized when it loosened its rules on social justice protests and rescinded a sanction against Berry for raising a fist at the Pan American Games in 2019.
As Berry remarked before the Olympic trials, it has bothered her that she wore the bold letters USA on her chest while being unable to express her convictions, thanks to the ludicrous ban on political statements imposed by the International Olympic Committee. “I’m glad to be able to say that without being punished,” she said.
But if Crenshaw and Cruz had their way, she would be. Maybe one day, the compulsory-patriotism crowd will wake up and peel themselves away from the language and intimidations of George Wallace. If that day ever arrives, Black American athletes would have one less reason to take a knee or turn away from the flag.