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No, “The Star Spangled Banner” Does Not Promote White Supremacy

The polls are in, and Americans overwhelming agree that the NFL’s symbolic attack on America’s anthem is unacceptable. A survey conducted this week by Remington Research Group finds that 64% of Americans believe that NFL players should stand and be respectful during the “Star Spangled Banner” at the start of football games. The only question that I would ask is what does the other 36% believe? Since when did standing for the national anthem and the American Flag become an issue of racial insensitivity? America is, in spite of its imperfections, the most racially inclusive nation on Earth and is always in the process of becoming “a more perfect union.” For American football players to treat this good and noble nation as a hotbed of racism and white supremacy is wrong and necessarily self-defeating.

Some of the NFL players who are taking a knee during the national anthem are, according to their claims, protesting the racism embedded in the anthem itself. Francis Scott Key wrote the four stanza poem “The Star Spangled Banner” while on a British prison ship in Baltimore Harbor during the War of 1812. Fort McHenry was under assault from the British Royal Navy, and Key kept watching the flag pole to see if the Stars and Stripes fell during the assault. As dawn broke the morning after fierce fighting, Key was ecstatic to see that the American Flag still waived over the Fort, indicating that the British had not completely taken Baltimore. Standing on the deck of the British ship, he began to write words to the poem, which he would later complete on shore, memorializing what he saw during the British bombardment of Baltimore Harbor.

It is the third stanza of “The Star Spangled Banner” that has been used by some to justify disrespect for the national anthem. Key wrote that:

“And where is that band who so vauntingly swore, That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion A home and a Country should leave us no more? Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution. No refuge could save the hireling and slave From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave, And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

The reference to “hireling and slave” in the fifth line of the third stanza has been cited as proof that the anthem itself is racist, and that honoring it honors racism, police brutality, and white supremacy. Such claims are patently absurd, and lack both context and common sense. Many historians agree that Key’s reference to “hireling and slave” is a reference not to the abhorrent practice of holding humans as chattel property by plantation owners, but to the British military’s practice of forcibly conscripting troops to serve in its ranks. This interpretation makes sense, since the poem is about the battle for Fort McHenry, not plantations in Virginia. Honoring the anthem is not honoring racism or white supremacy; it is honoring a nation that has constantly reapplied its founding principles to expand the rights and protections of our Constitution to all citizens of the Great Republic. It was a poem written for a nation fighting for its right to exist, not for a nation seeking to subject its own citizens.

NFL players, like all Americans, have a right to express their beliefs regardless of public opinion. They do not have the right, however, to be immune from public outrage over their actions. The height of this absurdity was well illustrated this past Sunday during an NFL game in London, wherein players for the Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars knelt during the “Star-Spangled Banner,” yet remained standing during Britain’s “God Save the Queen.” Such an act of disrespect is not only unacceptable on foreign soil, but it is also historically illiterate. The British Empire was responsible for the promulgation of the slave trade in America and the Caribbean, as well as the oppressor of the American colonies during the American Revolution. Such a stunt proves the point that this entire episode is more about public attention than truly protesting a point of policy.

The American Flag stands for all Americans, and the “Star Spangled Banner” is the Anthem of all Americans, regardless of their race, color, or the sound of their name. We are the most free and prosperous nation on the planet, and we should all be pulling together to create a “more perfect union,” not dividing our nation by disrespecting its symbols. Addressing issues of racial tension and inequality is in keeping with the spirit of creating a “more perfect union,” but this needs to be done without trashing the very symbols of the American Republic.

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