“What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” Frederick Douglass asks in his essay on the topic. “The Fourth of July is yours, not mine,” he says. “You may rejoice, I must mourn…” As many of us fire up our grills and prepare the fireworks to celebrate our country’s freedom, liberty, and independence, this question remains as relevant as ever. Who is allowed to be free? Who gets to enjoy liberty and independence, and to what degree?
With the Fourth of July holiday right around the corner, these are questions I’ve been pondering myself lately. The education I received growing up in the rural Midwest has failed me in many respects. Like many young American schoolchildren, the textbooks and curriculum my teachers taught included misinformation and outright lies meant to shield us from the reality that our so-called “Great Nation” was built upon systemic racism, white supremacy, and oppression. It’s taken a lot of years for me to reconcile these facts, and to understand the horrible truths about how our country was formed, its past, and how that past shapes its present.
I learned that on July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence granted colonists their autonomy from Great Britain and established the United States of America. But here’s the rub: this land that colonists claimed as their own wasn’t theirs to begin with—they stole it from Native American tribes whose lands we continue to occupy to this day.
Equally confounding is that our forefathers deliberately did not include Black people in their declaration that “all men are created equal.” In my youth, I naively assumed this meant all people of all races and genders. But this isn’t true. When our founding fathers spoke of independence, it was only for those who looked like them: other white men, many of them slave owners. Thomas Jefferson, after all, owned more than 200 slaves, another fact conveniently suppressed throughout my formal education. Freedom most certainly did not include women either, who would not be allowed to vote for another 144 years—and even then, only white women’s votes were counted.
After the Declaration of Independence, a whole 86 years passed before President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation that officially abolished slavery on January 1, 1863. It took another two and a half years before this information reached its way to enslaved Black Americans in Texas on June 19, 1865, whose slaveholders refused to tell them they were free—a holiday we now refer to as “Juneteenth.” The version of this that I learned in school included no mention of Juneteenth. Slavery was bad, yes—but a good-natured, white president with a notable beard signed a piece of paper and made everything better.
An American system of racial segregation known as Jim Crow laws proclaimed Black people “separate but equal” by refusing to grant Black Americans the equal respect, dignity, or opportunity they deserved. I recall pictures of separate drinking fountains, separate restrooms, and of course that famous photograph of Rosa Parks sitting stoically on the bus. What I didn’t know was that during this time in the Jim Crow south, Black families were methodically attacked by white people, who raped, lynched, and tortured with impunity. Ms. Parks herself worked for the NAACP as an investigator of sexual violence against Black women, another little known fact that hardly anyone ever talks about even today.
The racism and white supremacy didn’t stop there, though. After the Great Depression, the federal government started a process known as “redlining” in many Black neighborhoods. Real estate agents and lenders determined these neighborhoods to be “less desirable” based on their racial and socioeconomic demographics. This made it difficult for people from these redlined districts to take out loans from banks to buy homes. This is mind-blowing to me, even more so because this form of housing discrimination still occurs in many urban neighborhoods. One of the American ideals we hear a lot of these days is that folks just have to pull themselves up “by the bootstraps”—the notion that anyone can improve their position in life if only they work hard enough. They just have to put in the blood, sweat, and tears. Yet the kind of government-sanctioned discrimination we see in redlining is intentionally designed to keep Black Americans pushed to the margins, and to not give them a chance in the first place.
Urban renewal gained popularity in 1954 with the passage of the Housing Act, as America began to “clean up” and “clear out” its inner cities to make them more attractive to developers. Sounds like a great idea, right? Not so much. This process of so-called renewal displaced more than 300,000 people between 1955 and 1966, disproportionately impacting Black people. I’ve learned a lot over the years about gentrification and its impact on people of color, but thought it only happened in bigger cities like New York or Los Angeles. Turns out I was wrong. In Des Moines, low-income families face a serious housing shortage due to gentrification. Our state capital has only 30 affordable housing units for every 100 families who need them. In fact, we have less affordable housing available than Brooklyn, Boston, or Omaha, and those who complain about shoddy living conditions run the risk of becoming homeless.
And then there’s the war on drugs. Throughout the late 1800s and the early 1900s, the government enacted laws specifically targeting communities of color, including Chinese immigrants (opium, 1875 - 1909), Black men (cocaine, 1914), and Mexican Americans (marijuana, 1916-1931). Then in 1971, President Richard Nixon aimed to reduce the illegal drug trade in the U.S through mass incarceration. The fervor for a “drug-free America” only got worse as time went on. I remember growing up thinking that this was a good thing. I think I still have my D.A.R.E. T-shirt in a closet somewhere. What I didn’t know was that as a result of this war on drugs, our government put thousands upon thousands of Black and Brown people behind bars. Turns out this was kind of the point. Nixon aide John Ehrlichman later admitted as much when he said that the Nixon White House considered Black people an enemy, and the easiest way to get rid of them was to associate Black people with drug use, and then heavily criminalize the drugs. “...We could disrupt those communities,” Ehrlichman explained. “We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” Yet despite this admission, we continue to lock up Black and Brown individuals at far higher rates, where many face institutionalized racism and exorbitant rates of sexual violence during their incarceration. Meanwhile, the rest of the world thinks “justice” is being served, and chooses to blithely look the other way.
The Fourth of July is meant to celebrate freedom. For me, I cannot in good conscience hold this holiday up as something to be revered and lauded, as so many seem to—certainly not when migrant children are detained at the border, locked up in cages, and left sick and hungry to fend for themselves. The sins of our forefathers, it seems, have come home to roost. In the twenty-first century, racism and white supremacy are alive and well, embedded within our government, our schools, and our criminal justice system. These systems willfully subject people of color to higher rates of discrimination, poverty, incarceration, and sexual violence. One can hardly call this “freedom.”
What I can do is speak the truth as I’ve come to know it, and to understand that—as a white person—I’m still learning, and I will surely make mistakes. I invite other white people to join me on this journey: to own our collective past, to learn from it, and to try to do better in the future.
The only way we can move forward as a society is to understand the horrors of our past. We must work together, under the leadership and guidance of people of color, to advocate for statewide and national policies that dismantle racism and white supremacy and that are inclusive, liberating, and equitable for all people. Only then can we achieve actual independence. Only then can we truly claim to be the Land of the Free.
Everything else, I’m afraid, is just pretense.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
As the coalition's communications specialist, Matty Smith develops and manages internal and external communications for the coalition and works to educate local media about issues of sexual violence. He has a degree in journalism from Drake University. He has worked at the coalition since 2015.
If you want to connect with Matty, you can email him at email@example.com.