This article was first published in the Washington Post.
Beneath the surface of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings this past week, another proceeding was underway. It went on quietly in the background, masked by two unending days of senatorial questions and monologuing that bookended all of the judge’s responses. Amid the inquiry into Jackson’s fitness to become the first Black woman on the nation’s highest court, American patriotism was on trial.
As the nation’s spotlight turned to the hearings, competing versions of patriotism were on display. Sen. Cory Booker’s (D-N.J.) rousing and emotional speech on the second day of questioning typified one vision. “There is a love in this country that is extraordinary,” Booker said before pointing to Jackson’s parents, who faced Jim Crow’s racial discrimination, and saying, “They didn’t stop loving this country even though this country didn’t love them back.” Describing the discrimination faced by Black Americans and immigrants from China, Ireland and other countries, Booker said that real patriotism declares, “America, you may not love me yet, but I’m going to make this nation live up to its promise and hope.”
Booker’s speech echoed Jackson’s nomination acceptance remarks at the White House last month, her opening statement on the hearings’ first day and the tenor of many of her answers throughout. She paid homage to Black civil rights icons as she told the Senate, “I hope that you will see how much I love our country and the Constitution, and the rights that make us free.” And she called out the specific notes in Black Americans’ song of patriotism by explaining how her African name signaled both pride in her heritage and hope for our nation’s future.
But these appeals ran headlong into another kind of patriotism. Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) latched onto Jackson’s sentencing decisions in child pornography cases and used every opportunity to attack her judgment, character and competence. Hawley’s accusations were so inflammatory that even conservative commentators labeled it demagoguery and dishonest. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) challenged Jackson’s service as a public defender for four detainees at Guantánamo Bay and insinuated she relished the opportunity to represent terrorists against America. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) suggested that Jackson harbors a hidden agenda to go easy on violent criminals and child predators, as well as integrate critical race theory into grade schools and the legal system. On this latter point, both Cruz and Blackburn implied that Jackson’s mention of the 1619 Project in a speech and service on the board of a progressive Washington, D.C., private school that has an anti-racist action plan must mean she believes America is fundamentally and irredeemably racist. It seemed clear that the objective was to paint Jackson as unpatriotic, a threat to the country and a particular conception of the American way of life held by some in the GOP.
One narrative told of an American patriotism, born of hardship and optimism and incremental progress, oriented on our nation’s professed ideals. The other professed a patriotism that is combative, subsisting on the identification of adversaries and promoting the constant presence of threat — an inward-facing intolerant form of nationalism. The former is expansive, inclusive and unifying; the latter, narrow, restricted and privileged. With race still central to national policy debates, the hearings presented Americans with these differing versions of what it means to love our country. The week gave us a taste of both and tacitly demanded that we identify which we prefer.
To answer, we must reckon with what, exactly, American patriotism is. Definitions abound, but philosopher Stephen Nathanson offers some general contours of patriotism. In his book “Patriotism, Morality, and Peace,” he refers to it as “special affection for one’s own country, a sense of personal identification with the country, special concern for the well-being of the country, and willingness to sacrifice to promote the country’s good.” There is little objectionable here — but once theory meets our history, our identities and our visions for the country, things get complicated quickly. Not only does the expression of patriotism include an exaggerated kind that excuses cruelty and immorality, as well as an ethical sort that marries values to the national interest, but there is also no consensus on what American patriotism should look like or who can be its prototypical embodiment.
In the United States, patriotism is connected to the national identity. And racial and ethnic minorities have long been perceived to be less American than White people. When a single race is connected to the national identity in a multiracial country founded on the idea of our inherent equality, the resulting hierarchy is especially disconcerting to those who are not members of the national identity group. As those who have been excluded and marginalized battle for inclusion in a nation they helped create and sustain, a choice emerges for the country: Receive these demands as opportunities to hew closer to the nation’s ideals — or see them as threats that must be resolved in an expedient manner.
Black patriotism contains affection for America, concern for its well-being and a willingness to sacrifice for it. That patriotism explains why enslaved and oppressed generations of Black Americans still fought, sweated, bled and died in all of the nation’s wars despite being denied access to liberty and democracy at home. It understands that, although the United States has long breached the social contract with its Black citizens, the fight to enjoy the rights and privileges associated with being accepted as truly American is necessary and more than worth it. And because Black patriotism sees Black identity as compatible with the national identity, it rejects the idea that Black people are a lesser kind of American. Jackson and Booker gave voice to this brand of patriotism — distinct, as a product of Black American history but now the province of all peoples once excluded from America who have insisted that they, too, belong here.
Conversely, a more uncritical and extreme American patriotism recoils at the idea of a changing nation and permits questionable behavior toward those who desire evolution of the American identity instead of blind assimilation. It makes enemies out of compatriots, bearing no tolerance for those with whom they share a democracy unless they adopt the same worldview and agree on unquestioning national loyalty. This is the fuel that drove the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, where self-proclaimed far-right patriots sought to violently wrest control of a presidential election outcome to protect against threats they perceived to be housed in Black and Hispanic communities.
In this light, the trial running alongside Jackson’s confirmation hearings begins to make more sense. We are a politically polarized nation in which partisans view their opponents as existential threats to America and its democracy. Too many of us have rewarded politicians who run on messages of division and distorted facts out of political expediency. We are sold a purely capitalistic view of the values that undergird America — where equality, liberty and justice are treated like finite commodities and limited resources that require the denial of them to some so that they can be enjoyed in full by others.
And yet, amid the conspiracy-driven antics of those who profit from a politics of division, a patriotism insisting that many peoples can indeed become one persists. If justice is done, senators will consider Ketanji Brown Jackson’s nomination on the merits of her professional record and judicial temperament alone. As for the trial that accompanied her hearings, the American people are judge and jury. And posterity awaits our verdict.