Chanting U-S-A! Patriotic or Racist?

5 years ago

During the past few weeks I’ve heard that USA chant more times than I'd like. At the Republican National Convention, the crowds started chanting "U-S-A!" during certain speeches. Then, last week, while I was sitting in the bleachers at the Democratic National Convention, the Time-Warner Arena rocked with the call, “Fired Up!" and response, "Ready to Go!” and the cheers of “Four More Years!”. It was exciting and uplifting to see all of these delegates of different races, genders and religions rallying behind the President.

Then when speeches turned to “bringing jobs home”, pockets of the floor erupted with “U-S-A! U-S-A!”, as it did when Vice President Joe Biden bellowed, “General Motors is alive and Osama Bin Laden is dead!” The crowd was whipped into a frenzy by talk of trade imbalances and dead terrorist masterminds.

Suddenly, I wasn’t so comfortable anymore.

Sept. 6, 2012 - Charlotte, NC, USA - American flags are waved as President Barack Obama speaks to the delegation at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Times Warner Cable Arena Thursday, September 6, 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Credit Image: © Harry E. Walker/MCT/

It was bad enough when Republican delegates chanted "U-S-A!" during their convention in Tampa. Wouldn't it have made more sense for the cheer to be "G-O-P!" or "R-O-M-N-E-Y"? As it turned out, that chanting was in attempt to drown out other chants from Code Pink protesters or Ron Paul supporters.

But it felt even more disconcerting to hear the "U-S-A" chanting at a convention full of Democrats -- the party that touts inclusion of all Americans, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or status. The Presidential election is not the Olympics where the American team is competing against a rival country. Isn’t everyone on the ticket American, anyway (although Donald Trump may beg to differ)?

Unless… some Americans are more American than others.

Think about that for a moment.

While the delegates waved their flags and stomped their feet, I did a quick check of the social media to see if anyone else was disturbed. I wasn’t the only one who noticed this shift in the atmosphere.

Earlier during the Democratic National Convention, I had noted how diverse and welcoming the crowd in Charlotte was. I saw Reverend Jesse Jackson standing united with a group of Sikh delegates. Julian Castro shared stories about the sacrifices made by his abuelita so he could go on to become Mayor of San Antonio, Texas. Benita Veliz, a former valedictorian and undocumented immigrant who was brought to the US as a child by her parents, spoke in front of the convention about the DREAM Act. Indian American actor Kal Penn spearheaded the Obama campaign’s youth outreach. Congressional candidate Tammy Duckworth stood on stage (on two prosthetic legs) to tell how, as the daughter of a Thai immigrant, she went on to earn a Purple Heart for losing her limbs in combat as the pilot of a Blackhawk helicopter. It felt like America was truly the land of opportunity.

But during a town hall meeting on Asian Pacific American issues, I was reminded that labor unions and immigrants have not traditionally been political bedfellows. After all, it was 30 years ago this year, that a group of Detroit autoworkers beat to death Chinese American Vincent Chin, because they blamed him for outsourcing of manufacturing jobs to Japan. And with a President whose citizenship continues to be called into question by a vocal minority –- despite the fact that he has actually shown us his birth certificate -– all this U-S-A chanting seems out of place.

This week, our nation marks the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on New York City. September 11 was an event that not only claimed thousands of American lives, but also marked a turning point for racial profiling and hate crimes against Muslims (or as the recent Sikh temple shootings have shown us, other groups perceived as “foreign”).

While some people may say chanting “U-S-A!” is a show of patriotism, at best it feels like coded patriotism that wishes for a certain kind of America. At worst, dog whistle racism – the kind of remarks about “welfare queens”, "illegal immigrants" or “terrorists” that don’t mention ethnic groups by name, but draw on common stereotypes and slurs heavily while allowing to speaker to get a pass.

It’s not the first time these chants have taken on a life of their own. Last year, when crowds gathered in front of the White House upon news of Osama Bin Laden’s death, chanting the now familiar “U-S-A! U-S-A!” In March, a Texas High School got in in hot water for chanting USA at predominantly Hispanic rival team. Wouldn’t it have been more appropriate to call out a school cheer? Wasn’t the other team also from the United States?

Our nation is going through difficult times. We have obstacles to surmount, but we also have freedoms to celebrate. Let’s celebrate our nation, but not at the expense of our dignity or graciousness. That would be so... un-American.

News and Politics Editor Grace Hwang Lynch blogs at HapaMama and A Year (Almost) Without Shopping.

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