As a child, I remember carrying the American flag for my Girl Scout troupe in a 4th of July parade, loving fireworks, and wanting to celebrate this country. After all, why wouldn’t I? I had all of the unearned advantages that came with my white, middle-class, suburban existence. And just like other white people, I was taught that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were available to everyone in the US.
Now, as an adult who identifies as a white anti-racist educator, it’s clear to me that there is a significant gap between what scholars who study race take for granted and what the public, especially white people, know about race and racism.
We approach this 4th of July with daily reports of family separation, immigrant detention, pervasive racism, mass shootings, diminishing union power, cuts to reproductive rights, a travel ban, voter suppression, a racial wealth gap, lessening workers’ rights, and the specter of a far right wing Supreme Court. Many white people who are disturbed or even horrified by these problems may be wondering: What exactly does the 4th of July mean? Should I celebrate it?
These are likely questions that people of color and other marginalized people are not suddenly asking themselves for the first time. After all, Frederick Douglass asked in 1852, “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?”
Most white people in the US have been taught that the principles of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” apply to everyone, at least in the years since the civil rights movement. They have been taught a narrative that depicts their European ancestors as immigrants who became successful because of their hard work. They are not taught that their success in the land of opportunity depended on their whiteness. So, it should not be a surprise that following this narrative, many white people, when confronted with examples of people of color not being economically successful, attribute it to laziness. “Just work hard,” like they did, and they’d be successful. Undocumented immigrants should just “get in line” like their ancestors did, and they’d be successful.
The narrative of the 4th of July is that we should be patriotic, that America is a place of freedom and opportunity. Believing all of that is reassuring. It feels good. It doesn’t disrupt. However, believing that continues to maintain the false narrative that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were and are meant for everyone when in fact these principles only apply to those seen as fully human. Through the invention of race, whiteness was created as a racial category and as the only one that was fully human. This racial ideology established a racial hierarchy that positioned white people at the top as superior, black people at the bottom as inferior and less than human, and indigenous peoples, Latinx people, and Asian Americans in various intermediary spots depending on the historical moment.
Many white people who were upset about Trump’s election and who have resisted his rhetoric and policies ever since support a narrative that our current administration is an aberration and that we just need to get back to the way things are supposed to be, believing that prior to Trump’s administration, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were generally available to everyone. We hear the phrase “This is not normal,” as if what came before was “normal.” In other words, what came before was ok. I would urge people to reconsider this mindset and think about how “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were never meant for everyone: injustice is the norm.
Our nation was founded on European imperial conquest for land, wealth, and resources, and that was made possible through land theft, genocide, and slavery. These are not a stain that can be washed away, leaving behind something pure and just. These oppressive actions and ideologies are built into our institutions, built into our very nationhood. (Please see my blog page “Resources on Race and Racism” for numerous examples.)
White people have a hard enough time reconciling the state of America today with what they imagine it to be in their mind. But to reconcile that America has never been what they imagine it to be is the real challenge. The Trump administration might seem different than what came before, and of course there are differences, but it is just an extreme example of an oppressive status quo we’ve always had.
Like many of you, I recently attended a Families Belong Together rally and march on June 30. That day and on many other days in recent weeks, I’ve heard white people say something like, “This is not the America that I know.” This is not the America that most white people know, but it is the America that people of color and other marginalized people have always known. That disconnect demands our attention. When we say, “This is not the America that I know,” it erases a history of African slavery, indigenous genocide, Chinese Exclusion, Jim Crow segregation, lynching, deportation of American citizens of Mexican descent, internment of Japanese Americans, and so much more.
So on the 4th of July, when we are asked to celebrate America, what if we finally start recognizing that the only way “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are available to everyone is if they are actually available to everyone? We will never get there if we remain indoctrinated to the myths we are so often taught, myths that might provide us with some privileges but are ultimately meant to control us by keeping us at the mercy of a system of white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy. (My book Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox explains these false ideologies that perpetuate racism through a divide-and-conquer strategy.)
To unquestionably celebrate the 4th of July means to perpetuate the lie, the myth that maintains the status quo of white supremacy. Confronting what America has always been does not mean I recommend leaving the US. My bags are not packed for Canada. I want to stay here and work for justice. To me, that means confronting the false ideologies we’ve been indoctrinated into, educating others, including white children, having difficult conversations with other white people, and taking action to support leadership from marginalized communities. I strongly believe that it is only when the most marginalized are free that we are all free.
Karen Gaffney, PhD is an English Professor at Raritan Valley Community College in NJ. Her recent book, Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox (Routledge, 2018), is an accessible introduction to race and racism with tools for action. Follow her blog with resources “Divided No Longer” (available at https://dividednolonger.com).