Jul 3, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Americans reflect on Independence Day amid racism reckoning

The American flag next to a "Black Lives Matter" sign.

A Black Lives Matter banner and a United States flag on the facade of the U.S. embassy building in Seoul, South Korea. Photo: Simon Shin/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

America's leaders are rethinking how they view Independence Day, as the country reckons with the historic, unequal treatment of people of color during a pandemic which has disproportionately affected nonwhite Americans.

Why it matters: The country’s legacy of racism has come into sharp focus in the weeks of protests following the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody. From Confederate statues to Mount Rushmore, Americans are reexamining the symbols and traditions they elevate and the history behind them.

Flashback: "I am not included within the pale of glorious anniversary!" said abolitionist Frederick Douglass about Independence Day in a historic 1852 address.

  • "Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common," Douglass said.

Douglass reminded his audience that most Black people in the U.S. were still slaves when the country adopted the Declaration of Independence. Some people of color say it's still difficult to reconcile celebrating the country's independence while also acknowledging its past and current inequities.

  • Recognizing both of those ideas is something we must do, said Dolores Huerta, a longtime civil rights activist and the founder and president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation.

What they're saying: Huerta, born to Mexican immigrants, has had family members who fought in World War II and the Korean War. People of color have often fought for the United States in wars against ideas perceived as anti-American, like Nazism and fascism, Huerta points out.

Huerta said even those who participated in the recent wave of protests against racism and police brutality, at risk to their own health, deserve recognition. "All of these sacrifices cannot be discounted, they have got to be honored," Huerta said.

  • "When we talk about a celebration, I like to think of it as a commitment. We have to think of the Fourth of July as a celebration and a recommitment to the idea of a nation for the people and by the people."
  • "We have a lot of work to do to get to that 'more perfect union.' But seeing all the demonstrators and marchers — I think that is our redeeming grace," Huerta said.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot says she is commemorating the Fourth with "a day of reflection."

  • "Time and time again, the murders of innocent, unarmed Black people — Black Americans — remind us that much of our history is focused on the protection of unalienable rights for white people.

Lightfoot is Chicago's first Black female and openly gay mayor. She said increasing diversity among people who hold public office is a testament to how far the nation has come since its independence, which came at a time when only white men with property could participate in politics.

  • "When you look around the country, you see governance by the very individuals that weren’t even considered people at the time of the Declaration of Independence. Their ability to hold such positions is emblematic of the shared power of voting."
  • "I’m going to challenge myself to see this as an opportunity to do more and push the importance of voting, both as a mayor and as a leader."
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