by Katarina Machmer, Special to El Popo News Online from Germany
Ms. Machmer was an exchange student from Germany who wrote for El Popo News Online.
What does the 4th of July mean for black people in the U.S.? Frederick Douglass, a former slave, abolitionist and author, asked this question in a speech he held in 1852.
On the national holiday, the U.S. celebrates the values trumpeted in the constitution – freedom, justice, and equality for all. In reality, however, the country was founded on something else. It was founded on the back of slaves whose labor let capitalism thrive and established the nation as we know it today. While they were exploited and plundered, white Americans proudly declared to live in the “land of the free and the brave.” For African Americans, the promises made in the constitution of the United States never came true. Nonetheless, they are still celebrated each and every year on July 4th.
So, what does this holiday mean for African Americans in 2020? What does it mean for other minorities in the U.S. who are also facing discrimination, exclusion, and injustices? What does it mean amid waves of demonstrations flooding the country and the whole world, with protestors fighting for the justice African Americans have never experienced but always especially deserved?
The death of the black man George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer has made people all over the globe go on the streets and demand an end to systemic racism. In Germany, where I live, media have even debated about whether the situation in the U.S., which served as a catalyst for all the activism worldwide, would end in a civil war-like scenario. America currently appears to be a volcano – one that has finally erupted after a period of subliminal simmering. Looking at it from the outside, the tumultuous sixties seem to be back, and with them the rebellion against racial oppression. In addition, the country fights another war. It fights against the coronavirus, which – here we go again – disproportionally affects African Americans. Black people are at a much higher risk to catch the virus than white Americans are, for example because they work jobs which can’t be done from home. The economic situation of African Americans, however, is only one of many examples that can be traced back to the results of plunder and oppression at the hands of white people.
That said, the 4th of July 2020 again reveals a hypocritical democracy, one that isn’t accessible to every U.S. citizen. The holiday means to live in a country infested with racism. In addition to the issues the coronavirus causes African Americans are continuously targeted and killed by the police. Police brutality has always been disproportionally exercised towards African Americans. Now, the demonstrations finally shed light on this injustice. But while many are in solidarity with the protestors, there are still a lot of people who do not see the systemic racism that African Americans are exposed to, or they entirely ignore it. Many even deliberately fight this problem’s recognition, advocating for racist campaigns hash tagged #Whitelivesmatter. Even posts like #Alllivesmatter are problematic in the context of the demonstrations. Yes, all lives matter, but Black Lives Matter protests are happening because it’s black people who are being targeted.
In 2020, the 4th of July is celebrated in a country whose president planned to hold his rally in the city of Tulsa where mobs massacred several hundred black people in 1921. The rally should take place shortly after George Floyd’s death. It should even take place on the black community’s actual, but unofficial and unfortunately widely unknown holiday: Juneteenth, the day to commemorate the end of slavery in the U.S. This day has not become a national holiday so far.
It must be acknowledged, though, that while the place selected for the Trump rally in June had the capacity to host 19000 people, only 6200 came. So maybe there is hope. America won’t suddenly, maybe not even eventually, live up to its ideals. The country still has a long way to go in this respect – and it will only have a chance to arrive if it reckons with its past, as the African American journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in his call for reparations black people should receive. But there is hope for an America which tries harder. The demonstrations have led politicians to think about and enact police reforms, although it is a slow process. The activism and the solidarity shown around the world are amazingly powerful. However, in Oakland, while there were still Black Lives Matter protestors in the streets, the 23-year old Latino Eric Salgado was shot for driving an allegedly stolen car. Most probably, the situation would have turned out differently would he have been white.
What is celebrated on July 4th is nothing but an image, because America is still far from providing justice and equality for all. But the country, and the world, is in a turmoil, and this is likely to bring about further significant changes.
In the 1960s, Joan Baez, covering Bob Dylan’s protest song “Blowin’ in the Wind”, sang:
years must some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
And how many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see?”
In the same decade, a period which in many respects closely resembles our modern times, Sam Cooke sang “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Let’s hope he is finally right.