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The Gymnastics of Patriotism

A column by Steve Russell about race in America.

I've been watching and thinking about Gabby Douglas, the teenage heroine of the London Olympics. Or so I view her. I was thinking of Olga Korbut, Nadia Comaneci, Mary Lou Retton, Shannon Miller—all young girls who taught us that tough is not just a masculine trait.

I was looking forward to seeing Gabby Douglas on the Wheaties box. I have granddaughters.

Then there was the uproar about her hair. Really, America?

Then there was the uproar about her mother's bankruptcy. Hey, America, if Gabby's mom had the sum the Romneys spent training and feeding Rafalca the dressage horse, she would not have gone bankrupt. I hate to break it to you, but since 2008 a lot of hard working people have gone bankrupt in lesser endeavors than boosting a daughter towards Olympic gold.

And I mean no disrespect toward Rafalca. As the Cherokee cowboy Will Rogers said, “A man that don’t love a horse, there’s something the matter with him.” It may be a rich man’s sport, but Rafalca is a fine animal and if she were mine, wild horses could not keep me from watching her dance.

Now there's an uproar that Gabby Douglas wore a pink leotard rather than red, white, or blue. Like Michelle Obama before her, she's "unpatriotic," goes the narrative.

What is this urge white Americans always have for black Americans, not to mention American Indians, to prove their "patriotism?" America, your involuntary citizens from Africa or Native America prove their patriotism every day they don't set out to kill you.

And if that's shocking, and you just can't wrap your mind around the history of white people vis-a-vis black people and Indians, then can you wrap your mind around the history of disturbed individuals and mass murder?

Make yourself two lists.

Including political motivations or not is arguable, since people who commit mass murder for political reasons are in my view no less disturbed, but I understand reasonable people can differ.

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Put aside those who kill without racial selection of victims.

But then you are left with how many times a black or an Indian since, say, Nat Turner, has set out on a mission of wholesale slaughter of white people.

Now think about how many disturbed white people have engaged in wholesale slaughter of black people or Indians, and to be fair in light of the last paragraph we can exclude Chivington and Custer. Wounded Knee I, a massacre of noncombatant Indians in 1890, might be a fair cut off date, since that also excludes the Civil War.

You can even put the Asian guy who shot up Virginia Tech in the "general racial minority" category, even though it dulls the point of historical injustice. Asians have suffered racial injustice big time, but as purposeful immigrants. American Indians are not immigrants and African-Americans were imported to serve whites.

Go ahead, use Professor Google. Make your own lists by your own standards.

How many minority mass killers targeted whites, and how many white mass killers targeted minorities?

"Patriotism" in the American context is fidelity to the constitutional principle of peaceful coexistence with others not like you, whether they are different in what they believe or different in how their bodies appear.

There is something cockamamie in the way white people deploy the term "patriotism" as a cudgel against blacks and against American Indians. This cudgel comes into play whenever the disfavored minorities do something to win the admiration of the American public. I am reminded of the jihad against the great Sac and Fox Olympian, Wa-Tho-Huk, also known as Jim Thorpe.

If I point out this inconsistent public discourse, I will of course be accused of “playing the race card,” a term that entered the American political lexicon when OJ Simpson proved that a rich black man could buy as much “justice” in America as a rich white man. Google T. Cullen Davis.

And I still want to see Gabby Douglas, in whatever hairstyle makes her comfortable, on a Wheaties box.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.