Wednesday, July 4, 2012
REFLECTIONS ON THE 4TH OF JULY
Once again America is taking its annual day of self-congratulatory celebration and I must admit, I am feeling disappointed, disrespected, and a tad bit bitter on behalf of my Ancestors and the way in which their American stories are ignored.
Listening to the media programs of the day, you would think that the experiences of Africans and their descendants in this country -- federal and state sponsored and supported kidnappings, enslavement, torture, rape, Black Codes, Jim Crow, and the modern day James Crow Esq. (still!!), etc. -- never happened.
The fact is that on this day, African Americans are left out of the popular American Narrative. We do not fit into America's description of itself as ". . . land of the free" where ". . . all men are created equal".
We do not fit.
Our very presence is a "gotcha!" to America's sense of itself as a fair country; a meritocracy; a land of opportunity where ANYONE can get ahead if they only work hard enough.
Our history here -- despite President Obama and the myth of a "post-racial" society -- proves the lie of that.
And this is not to say that there haven't been opportunities for success at all points in American history for African Americans. However, what success has been achieved -- and there is more than plenty on which to brag --has been more as a result of the drive, perseverance, resilience, and heart of African American individuals, families, and communities than as a result of any inherent fairness and equity of America. We have had to shed massive amounts of blood and have had to swallow generations of American race-based injustice to advance this far.
In other words, African Americans have succeeded DESPITE American obstacles of structural racism and white supremacy, and policies that -- for the majority of its history -- advantaged whites.
For example, white Americans have always received that extra support and bounce from federal and state public policies that -- despite being seen as "race neutral" (even when, in reading the policy, you can see that it is not) -- have served to advance the hopes, aspirations, and economic interests of whites.
From the Homestead Act of 1862 to the Federal Home Loan Bank Act of 1932 to the Serviceman's Re-adjustment Act of 1944 (otherwise known as the GI Bill), this has been the case. When you look at the disparity in wealth between whites and African Americans, these public policies -- special gifts to generations of white Americans -- must be factored in.
The same can be said for "the new Jim Crow": the system of race-based drug prosecutions and incarcerations that has targeted and decimated African American families and communities. The Controlled Substances Act of the 1970s/80s -- the public policy responsible for the racialization of drug prosecution and sentencing, mandating that it takes 100 times the amount of cocaine (a drug used more often by whites) to generate the mandatory minimum sentencing time that users of crack cocaine (for which African Americans are more often convicted) receive. This year -- after millions of African American lives have been destroyed through incarcerations because of that policy -- the quantity disparity was reduced to 18:1 -- again, in favor of white usage.
Looking at the often dismal statistics of African Americans in all social indicators, including college completion, unemployment, and health, to name but a few, it is tempting -- as so many of our political candidates and others in society do -- to believe that there is something defective about African American culture, values, or intelligence. This lack of understanding about the continuing realities of African American experiences in a country where structural racism and implicit bias still reigns promotes this type of thinking.
On this "Independence Day" which celebrates American freedom, values, and culture, what
is so often left unspoken and ignored in the celebration is that only since 1965 has the government mandated that African Americans and (since 1967) women be afforded opportunities and access in employment, education, and contracting "equal" to those received by whites.
And for all the debates about whether President Lyndon Johnson's 1965 Executive Order 11246 -- popularly known as "Affirmative Action" -- violates America's mythology of a meritocracy while advancing swarms of supposedly "unqualified" African Americans, one never hears complaints about white women being primary beneficiaries of this policy. (The argument about supposed "preferential treatment" only seems to surface when people of color, specifically African Americans, are the subjects.)
Sooooooooo . . .
On this day, I will continue to look past the propaganda of "American history" that is being promoted on radio and television programs. I realize that what is really being discussed is how America WANTS to see itself, not the reality of how America was and -- too often -- still is. I realize that the story of my Ancestors is whitewashed and relegated to the sidelines on this day, especially. The American narrative cannot fit certain American truths in the story and still keep its popular mythological framing.
But I will look forward to the time -- in this country that is becoming increasingly Black and Brown -- when the 4th of July incorporates, at its core, the lenses of African Americans and others whose journeys and experiences here were different, and who have always formed much more of the backbone of America than for which we are ever given credit.
Until then, "Independence Day" -- in this America which is still held firmly in the grip of "whiteness" as a central concept and central framing of its story -- is as much a fiction as the myths it celebrates. And it enslaves white America in ignorance through its incomplete framing just as much as it continues to ignore the stories and realities of all Americans who are not white.
Happy . . . if you are satisfied with that . . . 4th of July. . .