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September 11, 2016
by Ruth Gordon, MA, MSW, LCSW

Does Patriotism Equal Racism?

September 11, 2016 18:02 by Ruth Gordon, MA, MSW, LCSW

The questioning of the suitability of The Star-Spangled Banner as the National Anthem is nothing new in American history. Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, has refused to stand in honor of the flag that he believes is a symbol subjugation. His actions have reignited lingering questions regarding racism and patriotism.

It is a good idea to take the time to examine this uneasiness and ambivalence more closely. Part of an individual’s identity is connected to his/her country of origin. Failing to take into consideration both the pluses and minuses of a piece of one’s heritage can lead to seriously damaged self-esteem and self-confidence.

Francis Scott Key wrote the anthem (as a poem) while aboard a British ship during the War of 1812. He was there to negotiate the release of American prisoners. 

The British, concerned that Key would divulge the plans for the storming of Fort McHenry in Baltimore, kept him on the ship until that battle was resolved. Key’s poem was written as he observed, with astonishment, that the British had failed to overtake the fort.

Key, as with many of the country’s founders, was a slave owner. His reference to slavery can be found in the third stanza of the anthem. The controversy over the meaning of his words has long been debated. The poem was set to music to a British song by John Stafford Smith entitled Anacreon in Heaven, which was written in 1771.           

Key never explained the intended meaning of the words of the third stanza, which refers to the slaughter of slaves and hirelings. 

During the War of 1812, the British, under Admiral George Cockburn promised African slaves and others on the American side freedom if they would fight alongside the British. Some 4,000 individuals joined the British forces as the Colonial Mariners. The British kept their promise and many of the slaves were granted land in Trinidad, where any number of their descendants live to this day. The new residents in Trinidad were called Merikans.

It is not known if Key was glorifying the killing of slaves per se, or the enemy. Arguments have been presented in both directions. Woodrow Wilson ordered the song to be named the National Anthem in 1916. The order was not ratified by Congress until 1931.

At the 1968 Olympics gold and bronze medal winners in the 200 meters, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raised their black-gloved fists in the air rather than participate in the traditional salute to the American flag.  Although this gesture was interpreted as an acknowledgment of black power, Smith and Carlos said it was a gesture of respect for human rights.

The controversy was in the limelight again in 1996 when Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, a basketball player for the Denver Nuggets, refused to stand for the National Anthem, stating that the flag was a symbol of oppression and that the United States had a long history of tyranny.

At the other end of the spectrum was Frederick Douglass, a national leader of the abolitionist movement. Douglass loved the National Anthem, and was said to have played it on his violin for his grandchildren. Douglass, in fact, was an escaped slave. In 1871 he gave a speech at Arlington National Cemetery in which he praised the flag and the Union soldiers, whom he described as noble.

A contemporary of Colin Kaepernick is Rashad Jennings. Jennings (a running back for the New York Giants) has said that he appreciates living in a country where one is not jailed (or worse) for expressing their point of view.  He has been an active proponent for Black Lives Matter. Jennings points out that by the time The Star-Spangled Banner was ratified as the National Anthem, the controversial third stanza was left out.

While the Star-Spangled Banner is about the flag, they are two separate entities. Does the controversy stem from the words of the song or the flag itself? Clearly, there is dispute about the caucasian experience as compared to what blacks, Latinos, Asian, and other “minorities” have encountered in terms of equitable treatment.  Is the protest about history? Do we need to assign the honor of being called The National Anthem to another song entirely?

Any number of poems and songs have been suggested, including the powerful words of Emma Lazarus who wrote the sonnet, The New Colossus, which is inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty.

Is it, in fact, possible to ameliorate the wounds of the past? If not, how do we honor the so-called melting-pot that is the United States of America?  

In the real, as opposed to the ideal, world situations are really never about extremes. They might appear to be that way, but they are not. There have always been groups of “haves” and “have nots”. Do we, as a nation, attempt to mature to the point of placing more emphasis on the present and future than on the past? Is there a road that allows for genuine mutual respect? 

It has been suggested that the struggle is between hypocrisy and humanity. Reports are that President Wilson believed that African Americans were happier under slavery.

Is it possible to reconcile a stated belief that The United States is a country of apartheid and lynch law with an appreciation for the actual freedoms and quality of life that is possible in the United States? All systems are flawed. There are those who, while harboring painful memories, are able to celebrate their citizenship.

Why do so many individuals believe that patriotism and racism are identical twins?

The idea that those who are not citizens should be deported is not original. In 1928 Captain Walter Joyce, director of the National Americanization Committee ,argued for such deportation as a representative of the VFW. In 2016 the issue is still being debated.

How can the United States, which is founded on the belief that differences of opinion are normal’ maintain this mantra for 78 years?

The truth, as pointed out by Dr. Jessica Stern, an expert on terrorism, is not black and white.  Racism, Patriotism, and all the other “isms” are complex. If there were easy answers they would have been found. 

It behooves those who care to manage to maintain an open-minded approach.  Perhaps what is needed is to re-define what constitutes patriotism. If the conundrum is not resolved, the nation is left with immense numbers of individuals who cannot be comfortable in their own skin or with their heritage. No one would describe this as freedom.    


Beacham, J. (2016, August 31). Real History: Star-Spangled Banner Made Anthem to Keep America Racist. Retrieved September 10, 2016.

Brown, K. (2016, September 4). Op Ed: Colin Kaepernick and the Racist History of our National Anthem. Retrieved September 10, 2016.

Emery, D. (2016, August 23). The Star-Spangled Banner and Slavery. Retrieved September 10, 2016.

Gribbin, B. (2016, August 30). The Star-Spangled Banner Celebrates Beating the British, Not Slavery. Retrieved September 10, 2016.

Hoilman, C. (2016, August 30). Enough Already! Why Our National Anthem is not Racist. Retrieved September 10, 2016.

In Defense of the Star-Spangled Banner. (2016, September 4). Retrieved September 10, 2016.

Johnson, N. (2013, February 13). Black Americans and "Merikans. Retrieved September 10, 2016.

Miner, M. (2016, September 2). If the National Anthem is Racist, Let's Rewrite It. Retrieved September 10, 2016.

Schwartz, J. (2016, August 28). Colin Kaepernick is Righter Than You Know: The National Anthem is a Celebration of Slavery. Retrieved September 10, 2016.

Stepman, J. (2016, August 29). Unlike the NFL's Kaepernick, Fedeick Douglass Loved the Star-Spangled Banners. Retrieved September 10, 2016.

Woolf, C. (2016, August 30). Historians Disagree on Whether the Star-Spangled Banner is Racist. Retrieved September 10, 2016.

About the Author

Ruth Gordon Ruth Gordon, MA/MSW/LCSW

A practical approach to problems encountered in daily life. A confidential and comfortable atmosphere in which we will use humor to help you gain perspective on current concerns. Enhance your skills for creative problem solving.

Ruth Gordon has a clinical practice in Naples, FL

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