By Kelsey Mercurio (Rated PG)
With everything going on lately, the 4th of July this year felt different. The murder of George Floyd, followed by widespread protests affirming that black lives matter, combined with being stuck at home and actually having time to talk and learn about these issues beyond the superficial level, has given me a wake-up call. The more I learn, the more I realize that systemic racism is not just a thing of the past. I knew that our country was founded on a contradiction, proclaiming freedom and equality while maintaining slavery, stealing land from indigenous peoples without their consent, and denying equal rights for women. I knew that when particular unjust practices were eradicated, other injustices often took their place. I knew that many people of color are still facing inequality leftover from hundreds of years of exploitation and discrimination. And yet, I thought we were mostly past direct acts of discrimination in the present.
But for just one example, the U.S., which has the highest incarceration rate in the world, imprisons a disproportionate number of young black & brown men for non-violent drug crimes, even though evidence shows that white people are just as likely if not more likely to use or sell drugs (from The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, 2012). I certainly don’t think that means that all police officers are racist (most aren’t!), or that policing itself is bad, but it does show there’s a problem with the way the criminal justice system operates. Meanwhile, other forms of injustice also detract from the ideals our nation was supposedly founded on. We have an immigration system that makes coming into the country legally often take years, which doesn’t help a family facing violence or drought (arguably worsened by climate change) whom we don’t count in our narrow definition of “refugees.” The law did not prevent the refusal of food and treatment to a man with COVID-19 due to his disabilities (read about it here). We buy many of our clothes from companies that mistreat their workers to keep costs down. And every day on average, thousands of unborn American children are intentionally killed, while their mothers are too often told that this is the best solution for the challenges they face.
We are not perfect. That has been the case from the start. We are messy, hypocritical, and too often silent or complicit when our fellow human beings are treated unjustly. And yet, I believe it is important to celebrate the 4th of July. Why? Because that day in 1776 represents a vision of hope. A small step towards building a society in which all people are free to seek what is good. A vision that extends beyond what the original signers of the Declaration of Independence imagined. We are not there yet, but we have the freedom to talk about the problems, to challenge each other in our thinking and actions, to assess what kind of society we want to build. Throwing around blame, remaining frozen in inaction, or letting rightful anger turn to bitterness or hate will not solve anything. But listening, talking, and seeking to truly understand each other, learning to look past our initial assumptions and move to action that upholds the dignity of every human being — that’s a start.
Despite our flaws, I am thankful to be an American. We have so many blessings, and we often take them for granted. We also each have a responsibility to keep striving in hope, to learn and participate in forming “a more perfect union,” no matter what our background, color, age, gender, beliefs, economic status, or state in life. While the founding fathers are important in the American story, they do not make the United States of America. You and I do.