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Colin Kaepernick, Ted Cruz, Frederick Douglass and the Meaning of Patriotism

“Ted Cruz schools Colin Kaepernick on ‘context’ of Frederick Douglass quote.” So read a headline in the Washington Times last week. The story that followed was about a twitter exchange between the athlete-activist and the junior senator from Texas. On Independence Day, Mr. Kaepernick tweeted out a quotation from Douglass’s famous “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” speech: “What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? The Fourth of July is yours, not mine. There is not a nation on earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour.” Kaepernick tweeted these powerful lines in conjunction with a one-minute video in which words from Douglass’s speech (read by the actor James Earl Jones) overlay images of American racist violence, from slavery to police brutality.

The “schooling” celebrated by the Washington Times and other right-wing outlets consisted of Senator Cruz taking to Twitter to take Kaepernick to task over “two critical points.” First, Cruz thought it was important to point out that the speech was delivered in 1852, before slavery was abolished and the country made “enormous strides” on civil rights. Douglass’s language sounds harsh, Cruz was conceding, but that was because “the grotesque evil of slavery” was still around. Second, Cruz pointed out that the speech from which Kaepernick quoted actually ends on a hopeful note, with Douglass praising the “great principles” of the Declaration of Independence and calling on Americans to live up to those principles. “READ THE ENTIRE SPEECH,” Cruz demands in the final tweet in what the right-wing is hailing as a heroic takedown of Kaepernick.

Indeed. READ THE ENTIRE SPEECH. Better yet, read as many of Douglass’s speeches and essays as you can get your hands on. If you do, you will discover that it is Senator Cruz, not Mr. Kaepernick, who is misleading about Douglass. Furthermore, you will discover that Cruz’s narrow and shallow view of Douglass is but a symptom of something deeper that ails his soul: a narrow and shallow understanding of patriotism.

In his nearly six decades as a progressive reformer, Douglass dealt with many faux patriots like Cruz. In response to those who appealed to “the virtue of patriotism” to try to silence Douglass and his abolitionist comrades, he had this to say: “I, too, would invoke the spirit of patriotism; not in a narrow and restricted sense, but I trust, with a broad and manly signification; not to cover up our national sins, but to inspire us with sincere repentance….” Douglass went on with several more powerful lines, but you get the point. His patriotism was not the sort of thing we likely to hear from Cruz and his ilk.

But what about Cruz’s point about “context”? Is he right to say that the critical message of the Fourth of July speech was no longer relevant after the abolition of slavery and the “enormous strides” the country made on civil rights?

The short answer is no. Until the day he died in 1895, Douglass practiced the sort of critical patriotism that is alien to Cruz’s worldview. There is perhaps no more compelling piece of evidence for this point than a speech Douglass delivered in Washington, D.C. in 1888 entitled, “I Denounce the So-Called Emancipation as a Stupendous Fraud.” Much like his 1852 speech about Independence Day, Douglass used what was supposed to be a celebratory occasion – in this case the 26th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in D.C. – to offer a stinging rebuke of the country for failing to live up to the demands of justice.

Douglass began the speech by acknowledging that his audience longed to hear an oration that was “joyful and glad” and chockful of “illusions of hope.” But Douglass was not about to give that sort of speech. To do so would be to abdicate his duty as a citizen and a true patriot. “Well, the nation may forget; it may shut its eyes to the past and frown upon any who may do otherwise,” but Douglass refused to do so.

As Douglass surveyed the American scene (the speech was ostensibly about the condition of former slaves in the South, but Douglass said many of the ideas applied to the North as well), he could not help but conclude that many black people were “worse off, in many respects,” than they were as slaves. Douglass knew the likely conservative response: they haven’t tried hard enough. Douglass’s rejoinder reveals the distance between his politics and the politics embraced by Senator Cruz. No, Douglass said, it is not enough to instruct black people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Instead, we need to come to terms with the “systems” (a term Douglass uses repeatedly in the speech) that subject black people to domination. Why, Douglass concluded, must emancipation be declared to be a “stupendous lie”? Because black people were being “systematically” cheated out of their earnings and “extorted” by a “whole arrangement” of economic, social, and political practices that amounted to nothing more than a “villainous swindle.” Although slavery had been abolished for a quarter of a century, Douglass surveyed the American scene and could not say that the country had achieved emancipation.

When Mr. Kaepernick surveys the American scene, what does he see? He sees dramatic gaps between white and black economic success. He sees great disparities in educational attainment across the color line. He sees a country in which people of color confront far more barriers to adequate health care, home ownership, and economic opportunity. And he sees a country in which black people are far more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, beaten, or killed by law enforcement.

In the face of these facts, what is a true patriot to do? Mr. Cruz and Mr. Kaepernick have given us their answers. What is yours?

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Nicholas Buccola’s books include The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass, The Essential Douglassand The Fire is upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate over Race in America. He is the Elizabeth and Morris Glicksman Professor of Political Science at Linfield College. 

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