Freedom and the Fourth of July

What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is a constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes that would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation of the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour. 

Frederick Douglass, July 5, 1852

Freedom, Liberty, and the Fourth of July –
By Roger Moreano

As fireworks light up the sky all across the United States each Fourth of July, Americans come together to celebrate the birth of a nation founded on the ideals of freedom and liberty. Yet the journey toward true freedom has been fraught with inequities and struggles that continue to resonate today.

The Paradox of Freedom

“Who is freedom for?” This question has haunted the American conscience since its inception. The promise of freedom, as envisioned by the Founding Fathers, was inherently limited. It was, in practice, freedom for White, land-owning men. Enslaved Africans, Indigenous peoples, women, immigrants, and other marginalized groups were systematically excluded from this promise. 

The most glaring contradiction in the American promise of freedom is the institution of slavery, America’s “original sin.” Enslaved Africans were denied their basic human rights, forced into labor, were not considered fully human, and were treated, legally, as property – a lifetime in bondage, from birth until death. 

The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, but freedom for Black people remained elusive. The period following the Civil War, known as Reconstruction, saw some progress with the establishment of the Freedmen’s Bureau and the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, granting citizenship and voting rights to Black men. However, these gains were short-lived. The Jim Crow era ushered in a new wave of racial terrorism from White supremacists such as the Ku Klux Klan and racial oppression through laws that enforced segregation and disenfranchised Black citizens. The systemic denial of economic opportunities, education, land ownership, voting rights, and basic civil rights perpetuated a cycle of poverty and inequality for another century following the Civil War.

For Indigenous peoples, the arrival of European settlers marked the beginning of a long history of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and forced removal. The United States government’s

Indian Removal Act of 1830 led to the Trail of Tears, where thousands of Native Americans were forcibly relocated from their ancestral lands. US government policies such as the Dawes Act aimed to assimilate Indigenous peoples by breaking up tribal lands and eroding and eliminating cultural practices. The creation of “Indian Boarding Schools,” which were created to “Kill the Indian to Save the Man,” led to over a century of Indigenous children being abducted from their families and enduring physical and mental abuse, sexual abuse and assault, and other dehumanizing, depraved, and abusive practices often from priests, nuns, and other religious and government figures. Hundreds of Native children died in these ghoulish conditions. (1) Such acts of violence and dispossession have had lasting impacts on Indigenous communities, who continue to fight for their rights and sovereignty.

Women, and in particular, Women of Color, were also denied the full spectrum of freedom and liberty promised by the American Revolution. It wasn’t until the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 that White women gained the right to vote. Voting rights came decades later for Women of Color. (2) Even then, the struggle for gender equality was far from over. To this day, women have continued to face discrimination in the workplace, in education, and under the law. The fight for reproductive rights, equal pay, and protection against gender-based violence highlights the ongoing battle for true gender equality.

Immigrants, who have been integral to the fabric of American society, have often faced exclusion and discrimination. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Immigration Act of 1924, which established quotas based on nationality, are stark examples of how immigration policies have been used to maintain racial and ethnic hierarchies. These exclusionary policies denied many the opportunity to seek a better life in America and contributed to a narrative of otherness that persists today. In recent years, we have seen conservative policies support bans of immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries, echoing the discriminatory practices of our past. Former President Trump promises to bring back the ban “even bigger than before” if he is elected President in 2024. (3)

The Legacy of Discrimination: Voting Rights and Economic Inequality

The right to vote, a fundamental aspect of freedom, has been historically denied to many Americans. Literacy tests, poll taxes, and other discriminatory practices were used to disenfranchise Black voters well into the 20th century. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 aimed to address these injustices, but recent efforts to roll back its protections indicate that the fight for voting rights is ongoing. (4)

Economic inequality is another component of the legacy of systemic discrimination. The denial of the GI Bill benefits to Black veterans after World War II is a poignant example. While White veterans were able to access housing, education, and employment benefits, Black veterans were systematically excluded, exacerbating racial wealth disparities. (5) 

Richard Rothstein’s seminal work, “The Color of Law,” meticulously documents how government policies and practices have institutionalized segregation and economic inequality. Rothstein highlights how the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) policies favored White homeowners, while redlining practices systematically denied Black families access to homeownership and wealth-building opportunities. (6) These policies, rooted in White Christian supremacy, have shaped the political, social, geographic, educational, business, legal, and economic landscape, perpetuating cycles of poverty and segregation for generations of marginalized communities.

The residual effects of these historical inequities are evident today. Marginalized communities, including People of Color, LGBTQ communities, low-income families, immigrants, the Unhoused, and People with Disabilities, continue to face systemic barriers. Educational disparities, healthcare inequities, mass incarceration, and economic exploitation are all modern manifestations and the lasting legacy of America’s historical injustices.

Toward a Truly Equitable America

To create a truly equitable America, we must acknowledge and address the lasting effects of past inequities. This involves a multifaceted approach that includes as a starting point:

  • Acknowledging the Past
    Understanding and acknowledging the historical context of systemic discrimination is crucial. This includes educating communities about the true history of marginalized groups and the policies that have shaped their experiences. In this divisive political climate, this is often the most difficult hurdle to overcome. Using the guise of being “race neutral,” opponents to racial equity use the language of colorblindness to prohibit or limit the discussion and addressing of systemic oppression in America. (7) (8)
  • Promoting Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)
    Countering misinformation about DEI is essential. DEI initiatives aim to create environments where all individuals have equal access and opportunities. Promoting DEI involves active efforts to dismantle barriers and create inclusive spaces in education, workplaces, and communities. And, yet again, in this hostile political climate, opponents of DEI have waged a successful campaign to label DEI as “discriminatory.” Engaging with communities and having honest dialogue that informs people what DEI seeks to do will be crucial to transforming perspectives.
  • Supporting Reparations, Economic Justice, and Voting Rights
    Reparations are a critical component of addressing historical injustices. This includes financial compensation, but also access to education, healthcare, and economic opportunities. Policies aimed at closing the racial wealth gap, such as affordable housing, fair lending practices, and support for minority-owned businesses, are essential. Again, disinformation about reparations abound. Ta-Nehisi Coates makes one of the most compelling cases for reparations in his classic 2015 piece in the Atlantic Magazine called “The Case for Reparations.” (9)
    Ensuring that all citizens have the right to vote is fundamental to a functioning democracy. This involves protecting against voter suppression, expanding access to voting, ending the practice of gerrymandering, and restoring voting rights to disenfranchised populations. Policy changes at local, state, and federal levels are necessary to address systemic inequities. This includes reforming the criminal justice system, ensuring access to affordable healthcare, and investing in education and infrastructure in communities that have been systematically excluded.
  • Holding onto the Vision of the “Land of the Free”
    Despite the United States’ historical failures to live up to its founding promise, it is this precise vision of equality and liberty that fuels the passion for a more inclusive, equitable, and just world. The ideals of freedom and liberty are not inherently flawed; rather, it is the implementation that has fallen short.

 

This Independence Day, we choose to hold onto the vision that all people are, indeed, created equal. We acknowledge the struggles and sacrifices of those who have fought for their freedom and recognize the work that still lies ahead. And, we commit to connecting more fully with all diverse communities across this land, to hear their stories, validate their realities, and commit to walking beside one another to dismantle the barriers of White supremacy and create new avenues of opportunity, access, liberation, and belonging.

The Fourth of July is an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of freedom and recommit to the ideals that inspired the birth of this nation. It is a reminder that the journey toward true freedom is an ongoing struggle that requires collective effort, intersectional coalitions, and unwavering dedication. By acknowledging the past, advocating for change, and celebrating diversity, we can move closer to an America where freedom and liberty are truly for all. This vision, rooted in the founding principles of equality and justice, continues to inspire and guide us toward becoming a more perfect union.

 

Resources:

  1. Historian: American Indian Boarding Schools and Their Impact | TIME
  2. Not All Women Gained the Vote in 1920 | American Experience | Official Site | PBS
  3. Trump says he’d bring back “travel ban” that’s “even bigger than before” – CBS News
  4. The Voting Rights Act is being attacked from ‘every possible angle,’ journalist says : NPR
  5. How a Hostile America Undermined Its Black World War II Veterans – Mother Jones
  6. The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America: Rothstein, Richard: 9781631494536: Amazon.com: Books
  7. Why Color Blindness Is a Counterproductive Ideology – The Atlantic
  8. Alabama’s DEI ban underscores need for anti-bias programs (splcenter.org)
  9. The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates – The Atlantic

 

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