I Pledge Allegiance?

For the last two weeks, my daughter has been making the same observation wherever we go:  “Look, Mommy; the American flag!…God Bless America!”  We don’t talk much about the flag in our house (or about blessing America), but today I found out why she had become such a vexillologist.*  When I dropped her off at pre-school this morning, her regular Tuesday music session was already in progress.  I helped K quickly wash her hands so that she could run off and join her classmates.  As I walked out of the room, I heard her music teacher say, “Okay, let’s stay standing, because I brought my flags with me today!”  I left the classroom, but stood outside the door to watch as the music teacher picked two children to hold two flags, and then led the group in a song that I couldn’t hear, but assume was patriotic.  Watching all of this, I was caught off guard.

My husband was raised in the black nationalist tradition, and I am first-generation—both of my parents are immigrants to the United States.  As a result, neither my husband nor I are strangers to alienation within the borders of one’s own country.  As far back as high school I stopped automatically pledging allegiance to the flag every morning.  Part of it was pure teenage rebellion; I was just daring somebody—anybody—to try and force me to recite the creed.  But part of it was also a political awakening.  It had started becoming obvious to me that, some 30 years after the civil rights movement, Blacks were still not necessarily embraced as rightful citizens of the United States.  The American flag, in all its starred and striped glory, still did not represent me, and so I did not have to pledge allegiance to it.  One need only look at the enduring birthism movement in the country, a full 3 years into Obama’s presidency, to find continuing evidence of the country’s ambivalence towards its minorities.

As an adult, I remain conflicted about my country of origin.  Our national conversation—or maybe lack thereof—regarding marginalization and subordination is discouraging.  A social and legal embrace of “colorblindness” have made impotent the words of the Fourteenth Amendment; instead of genuine respect and dignity for all citizens, we have mere formal equality, as if treating similarly people who are not similarly situated could ever result in justice.  The current discourse about reproductive rights has left me feeling attacked and hurt; the rhetoric makes clears that my capacity as a woman for thoughtful and rational decision-making is still questioned.  Buoyed three years ago by the election of our first Black president, I am now deflated by the racism and classism that still abounds; that is, indeed, on the rise, as indicated by presidential candidates who “don’t want to give their money to Blacks,” or who “are not concerned about the very poor.”  Although I never feel more American than when I am abroad, when in my own country, patriotic stirrings wax and wane.  I dismiss The Star Spangled Banner as war propaganda, but eagerly harmonize to “This Land is Your Land;” I roll my eyes at “America, The Beautiful,” yet, “If I Had a Hammer” never fails to bring me to tears.  I’m ultimately more patriotic to the idea of what American could be, but not what it presently is.

Which brings me back to my daughter.  What, exactly, do I want to teach her about allegiance to the flag?  She is, after all, a citizen of this country, and must learn that, if only to ensure that she exercises her rights.  Like me, however, I’d also like her to see the potential of the United States—which means teaching her to love this country, so that one day she might be motivated to improve this country.  And yet, as I walked away from her classroom today, I felt uneasy about having watched the classroom teacher help K place her tiny hand over her beating heart.  My reaction to such early political indoctrination regarding a country that has still not done right by all its citizens is mixed; much like my feelings about my country, I suppose.

*vexillology: the scholarly study of flags

8 thoughts on “I Pledge Allegiance?

  1. I would like to believe that this country is still failing it’s poorer citizens, and for the most part, I do. But what about the people in the hood that are completely happy with their existence? And don’t really care for a better life for their children? There is inequality everywhere, but shouldn’t we also place some personal responsibility on people? (These are sincere questions, I’m not being rhetorical.)

    My mother grew up very poor and went to DC public schools. My grandma pushed her to do well in school and go to college, so by the time I was born, my family was upper-middle class. As much as I try to make myself aware of what is going on in our communities, I see more issues of classism rather than racism.


    1. Thank you for your reply, Jess M. There are a couple of things in your response to which I would like to respond.

      It seems like you’re trading in myths about poor people–and black people, it would seem, by your reference to the ‘hood–that are just that: myths. Everyone has an anecdote about a poor person who didn’t want to improve their life even when given an opportunity. Do those people exists? Yes; there are outliers everywhere. But in general, poor and/or black people are not “happy” to be poor, and sociologists have documented that time and time again. They care about their children, and their communities, just like you or I do. They want better things for their family just like everybody else, but structural inequalities often make it impossible for them to achieve those things. And they’re not stupid–they see what you or I see, and they often know that the odds are stacked very high against them. If that creates what seems like apathy, it’s really no surprise. But it’s easier to assume that they want to be marginalized, rather than accept responsibility for our complicity in their marginalization. The other myth in which you’re trading is the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mantra, which has also been repeatedly shown to not be realistic, across the board. Are there exceptions? Of course, and I commend your grandmother for being one of those exceptions (even though I question whether she didn’t, in fact, have social and cultural capital which allowed her to make a way when others couldn’t), but across the board, we are all vulnerable, and our country responds to our vulnerabilities in different ways. When our country responds to the vulnerabilities of the poor, or of minorities, that response is often unhelpful.

      As far as problems being more an issue of class than race, the data and research does not bear that out. Race and class are inextricably intertwined. And yet, we continue to see the independent effect of race in all aspects of American life. I don’t know if you caught the NY Times article a few weeks ago (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/21/business/blacks-face-bias-in-bankruptcy-study-suggests.html?pagewanted=all) about how blacks are steered into the more difficult Chapter 13 bankruptcy proceedings, instead of the less burdensome Chapter 7 proceedings, at a rate much higher than whites, EVEN AFTER controlling for income, home ownership, assets, and education. I teach education law, and just discussed with my students the disproportionate identification of black students as emotionally disturbed or mentally retarded, EVEN AFTER we control for poverty (Latinos, for example, who are also subject to high rates of poverty, inadequate nutrition, toxic environments, etc. relative to Whites are not identified as ED or MR at the same rates). I could refer to loads more studies, but the theme is the same in the workplace, in banking, in healthcare: race exerts a unique and significant impact on the life chances of minorities; and, the experience is even more particularized for Blacks. Again, it’s easier to believe that we’re post-racial, and that all of this is an issue of class, but it’s not. America still has a race problem.

      Finally, I don’t want to dismiss your suggestion that personal responsibility is important. To the contrary, we are all responsible for our life outcomes to some extent. But personal responsibility is dwarfed by structural inequalities that limit some of our life chances. It’s about inadequate parental leave policies that make it difficult for women to advance in the workplace. It’s about equal protection jurisprudence that ignores the unconscious or hidden racial bias that animates our law and policies as long as the word ‘race’ is not invoked, while striking down any affirmative action programs which recognize that race must be accounted for. It’s about refusing to acknowledge that we make it easier for middle and high-income individuals to make and perpetuate their wealth, through tax breaks, inheritance laws, and monetary policies. We also differentially distribute human capital–training, knowledge, education, and employment. We differentially distribute ecological resources, in the form of clean environments for some, and toxic wastelands for others. And then, after we distribute these resources differently, we characterize them differently. We don’t call it “undeserved charity” or “entitlements” when we talk about tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy, but we sure do stigmatize it when it’s welfare. Given this reality, the personal responsibility trope becomes almost humorous.

      All this said, I am at once hopeful about what America could become, and conflicted about what it is. Am I happy to be an American citizen? Yes, I am. Even given the obstacles, is success more possible here than in many other places in the world? Yes, it is. All the same, I’m not yet ready to jump up and down, and wrap myself in the flag. And I’m certainly not ready to teach my child to worship that flag without also teaching her about the ideals for which the flag stands–ideals that we have not yet achieved.


      1. “we are all vulnerable, and our country responds to our vulnerabilities in different ways. When our country responds to the vulnerabilities of the poor, or of minorities, that response is often unhelpful”

        Yes! This is a wonderfully thoughtful response, ORJ. I couldn’t have said it better myself. Literally . . . I haven’t read most of the studies you mentioned! Thank you for giving me more and better language to navigate this often-discussed issue.


      2. Thanks, Magnolia! I wish I could take credit, but I’ve been very much informed by Martha Fineman’s work on dependency and vulnerability, as a compliment to, and perhaps a replacement for, identity politics. Vulnerability is a universal human condition, but is also highly individual in its manifestation, which helps people understand why it is important for the State to sometimes treat different individuals differently, and why it is important for the State to think about how its policies magnify or minimize vulnerability among its citizens. If you’re interested in the idea, definitely check out her work; she’s a law prof at Emory, and does amazing work.


  2. I think teaching the pledge of allegiance to children that small is problematic if the goal is really to teach loyalty to country. I think children should know the pledge – I think all Americans should know it – for its historical significance. It’s like the Star Spangled Banner – I think it’s a beautiful song and it would mean more if folks could understand the context in which it was written and why FSK decided to write it. I would love to know more about the pledge, but we aren’t taught that – all we know is about pledging allegiance to a flag, of all things. I think it’s important to teach our children about our country and it’s traditions, but the teaching of the pledge as a given way to start the day – naw, I can’t get into that.


    1. Given the start to your response, I thought you were going to say something else. Something along the lines of how the idea of nationhood, itself, can sometimes be problematic. In that vein, something I’ve worried about is teaching children exceptionalism; teaching them that the American flag is all there is. To counter that, I’ve been looking for good children’s books that feature flags from all around the world, and I’ve been thinking about how to talk to K about different levels of belonging. To her credit, when I spoke to a school administrator about the concern I was having with all the flag songs (this week, I walked in to find my daughter and classmates marching around the room, each holding a flag, and singing, “It’s a Grand ‘Ole Flag;” that really pushed me over the edge), we talked about how flags can be symbols for many things, and how doing a lesson centered on creating a family emblem might be a good way to deepen all this flag talk.

      She also admitted to me that she, too, was uncomfortable with the flag songs and imagery, and we discussed why. The right has really ruined symbols of patriotism for me; they’ve hi-jacked the flag, its meaning, and warped what it means to love, and show love for, one’s country. I would like to reclaim that; I don’t want to be embarrassed to wear a flag pin (as I would be now) because of its associations with conservative, un-progressive, and exclusionary law and policy. I’m hoping teaching songs like “This Land is Your Land” and “If I Had a Hammer” will help me, and my daughter, do that. And to that extent, I’ve contacted her music teacher about incorporating those songs into the lessons.


      1. I do think nationalism is problematic, but when I really think about it, it’s only American nationalism that bothers me. Why not be proud of your country, which often means being proud of your culture and heritage and traditions. But there is something about American nationalism that is ugly; perhaps because of the exceptionalism that you noted, also because of the wretched past and knowing that what makes me patriotic is not the same as what patriotism means to others, particularly on the right. But I don’t feel like I can’t claim those symbols for what they mean to me. Because at the end of the day, I’m an American too – that’s all I know.


  3. I wrote a post about explaining the term “African American” to my kids who genuinely had no idea what it meant, or why it was different from being just plain American. My parents are immigrants and told me there was no need for me to pledge my allegiance to anything or anyone other than God and my future husband. I went to all white schools growing up, so NOT saying it would make me stand out even more – so I just put my hand over my heart and mumbled anything that came to mind.

    I never felt that I truly belonged to this country, although I love the opportunities that are available to people here – even though those opportunities aren’t always distributed equally. I am homeschooling now, and spending a ton of time explaining race, culture, class, and heritage – not because it is part of the curriculum, but because the kids have so many questions just from observing the world around them and reading. I can’t imagine what they would do if they didn’t have someone to answer all those questions for them. Would they look around the room, then at the teacher (who may as well be dressed as Betsy Ross and sewing American flags during recess), then just say “never mind”?

    I don’t believe that saying the pledge will make them feel any more American, being treated fairly will.

    P.S. I am otherwise dignified, but I’d have cut up with the Grand Ol’ Flag song… cut. up.


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