It’s odd that instead of attending to the threat of nuclear war with North Korea, President Trump finds time to embroil himself in controversies with a black sports commentator and NFL players about their speech and symbolic protest against Trump’s and the country’s treatment of people of color. It’s odd, that is, until you consider the audience Trump is trying to reach. President Trump knows white Americans. After all, he claimed nearly 60 percent of their vote. If racial code is a dog whistle for many white Americans, then racial protest by African Americans is a screeching siren that makes these same whites howl.
I work among educated whites, a demographic that supported Trump but to a lesser degree than they supported past Republican presidential nominees. Their inclination to suppress or punish dissent by African Americans isn’t terribly different than Trump’s. For instance, last year, after black students at DePaul University shouted down the racist provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos during a campus appearance at which he spewed insults at minorities, the then-president of the university chided the black protesters while apologizing to the DePaul College Republicans who invited Yiannopoulos. The black students were threatened with disciplinary action; nothing happened to the College Republicans who invited a known racist to campus.
In a nation where African-American leaders have been assassinated because of the power of their oratory (think M.L.K and Malcolm X), it’s not hard to grasp that white Americans from all walks of life would agree with the White House that ESPN’s Jemele Hill should be fired for calling Trump a “white supremacist” or that fans should boycott NFL games if players continue to kneel in protest during the national anthem. But neither Hill’s comments nor the players’ conduct is outside the norms of black protest; they are only outside many whites’ limited tolerance for such dissent.
During the 1980 presidential campaign, for instance, Coretta Scott King said, “I am scared that if Ronald Reagan gets into office, we are going to see more of the Ku Klux Klan and a resurgence of the Nazi Party.” After the assassination attempt on President Reagan, Ardith McPherson, a black government clerical worker who disagreed with Reagan’s cuts to government entitlement programs, said, “[I]f they go for him again, I hope they get him.” The United States Supreme Court held that McPherson’s speech was protected by the First Amendment and that she could not be fired for it.
And if Trump is correct that quietly kneeling during the national anthem “disrespect[s] our flag and country,” then we should immediately repeal the federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. King criticized America and its leaders in no uncertain terms, accusing Republican presidential nominee Sen. Barry Goldwater of preaching “Hitlerism” in 1964. A 1966 Gallup Poll found that only 33 percent of Americans felt positively toward King. It’s ironic that we as a country now honor King, yet some are willing to criticize NFL players for emulating the peaceful protests for which King is celebrated.
Trump’s misguided critique and his appeal to white intolerance of black dissent raises a larger question: why should we judge black protest by white norms when it is typically those norms against which the protest is lodged? The presupposition among whites that they should not be discomforted by black dissent is itself an aspect of white supremacy. So, too, is the distorted amplitude with which such dissent is heard. Trump has on more than one occasion given a wink and a nod to violence against a political opponent or the U.S. government. At a rally in August of last year, Trump said about Hillary Clinton: “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.” Unless free (and at times provocative) speech is only the prerogative of white men like Trump, he and his supporters should respect Ms. Hill’s and the NFL players’ right of dissent.