Why, Exactly, Are We Celebrating?
by Will Smith
Ah! Independence Day. A day of remembrance, in recognition of independence from Great Britain, and the day this land became the United States. Our national birthday. There are the usual bar-be-ques, the flags which sport stars and stripes, and fireworks; images of fellow countrymen who have fought, some who are still fighting, and some who have died for this country; and a general good-will-feeling towards neighbors in lieu of celebrations.
Lately though, there hasn’t been much to celebrate in these United States. Records rates of unemployment, ridiculous levels of inflation, rampant poverty, and an economic recession on the brink of depression have taken a toll on American citizens – American citizens in general. The last thing some of them wanted to hear was anything that had to do with race.
On July 4, 2012, comedian Chris Rock sent out a tweet that stated, “Happy white peoples independence day the slaves weren’t free but I’m sure they enjoyed fireworks.”
His message infuriated a large portion of the American public, especially at a time when America has once again been divided, both politically and emotionally, by race. He got some hate mail about his comments, too. “Slavery existed for 2000yrs before America. We eradicated it in 100yrs. We now have a black POTUS. #Go (expletive) Yourself.”
So what does it all mean? And why are so many Americans upset?
Well, to begin with, most of the Americans who feel anger at such a statement from Rock are those white Americans who feel that there is only one America, those who claim that they don’t see color because we are too far past that, those who know that racism is dead, because – of course – we have a black POTUS…
I must interject for a moment, and address a very important matter. For those who do not know, POTUS is short for President of the United States. It’s funny but I don’t ever recall hearing this acronym used to describe any other president of the United States. I never saw the acronym before its reference to President Obama. Is it because certain people don’t want to openly acknowledge that this black man is the president of the United States, like a child who creates a secret, coded word, so not to invoke the presence of whatever it is that scares them? If anyone would like to believe that those who use the term, use it as an abbreviation in order to hurry along with what they are writing, I would say that I’ve seen the term used mostly in conservative articles where the authors are both long winded and heavy handed with the pen, and who are usually not given to any shortage of words… just a random thought.
Anyway, when a statement like Rock’s is floated out there, there is an unusual amount of hostility from respondents who say that they are not racists, or do not discriminate. These are the people who believe that we should stop talking about race, that it’s not important, that the people who talk about it use it as a crutch, and that those who talk about it are usually the ones playing the race card…
Did you see what I just did? I just passed off an optical illusion. In the last paragraph, I just explained something without a description of whom I was referring to, and even in doing so, most readers knew that I was referring to white people in one stanza and black people in another (and I say most because I know that there are those who will say that they really didn’t see it this in terms of color…). And such is the power of this racism.
These days, there are some white people who are a little (or a lot) agitated and hostile to issues dealing with race because, well, quite frankly, they’re tired of it. “Yeah, yeah… slavery. It ended over 200 years ago. Civil rights… yeah, yeah. That ended over 40 years ago. Why in the world do these people have to keep talking about it?”
Because it effects the people who keep talking about it, because it matters to them! That’s a prime example of the arrogance – and power – of racial superiority. Chris Rock, a comedian, was addressing the knowledgeable people who understood the message. Those who got the joke. But like most comedy, although the joke is often hilarious, the reality usually isn’t, as is the case here.
Independence Day was not a day of celebration – historically for blacks. Independence Day became a national holiday in 1941, three years prior to World War II, and 23 years after World War I. After fighting for their country, the “Harlem Hellfighters,” as the all-black 369th Infantry regiment was known, and who were awarded the Croix de Guerre – or the French Medal of Honor – for their bravery in combat, were not allowed to march in the war’s victory parade in New York City upon their return. It took an almost literal act from Congress to make it finally happen. After fighting in World War II, blacks were not allowed to use their veteran’s benefits to purchase homes as white veterans were allowed to do. In fact, it would take another 24 years and the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 before blacks would be able to collectively begin purchasing homes (which, of course, prompted the white flight – or the moving out of neighborhoods that blacks were moving into because of a loss of property value. This is the root cause of segregation between today’s urbanized cities and the suburbs).
But to these same white people who feel that everything is now equal between the races, the problem is not racism; it’s now classism. It is not a black and white issue; it’s an issue between the upper, middle and lower classes – and in this case, the middle class has moved way too close to the lower class, which of course amounts to the unthinkable, the unholiest of unholies – the inequitable “equality.” The dilemma here is that, for as long as there has been a middle class in America, whites have made up the majority of its membership. For as long as there has been a lower class in America, blacks have been beneath it – hence the underclass. Race cannot be discarded.
Race, you see, is not only the problem – it is the answer, for where would we be without the question of race? This question resolves another question – why is race still being discussed in terms of black and white, when there are other minorities? It is not to say that other minority groups have not experienced some of the same struggles, oppression, and discrimination suffered by blacks in a society built and maintained on male-based white supremacy.
But the simple truth of the matter is that, no matter how hard they try, blacks cannot assimilate. There has never been a one-drop rule for any other minority group. No matter the complexion of skin tone, every other minority group member, until very recently (the past twenty years), when born in this country, has White listed on their birth certificate, unless they are black, at which they are listed, depending on the decade, Negro, Colored, Black, or African-American. Without these Negroes, Coloreds, Blacks, or African-Americans, where would America be?
It can definitely be argued, but what is America without black slavery, Jim Crow Laws, lynchings and burnings, the trial of the The Scottsboro Boys, the Dred Scott and Plessey vs. Ferguson decision, Jackie Robinson’s desegregation of baseball, the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male experiment, the Pullman porters – who delivered hope of a new life in the north to southern blacks, the fight for equal education (e.g. Brown vs. the Board of Education, the Little Rock Nine, James Meredith), the deaths of Emmett Till and Medgar Evans, the Woolworth’s sit-ins, the Freedom Riders, the four little girls killed in Birmingham along with the other bombings in “Bombingham,” the beatings and gassing of the marchers in Selma, Alabama, the March on Washington, and Loving vs. Virginia decision (the challenge of miscegenation laws), not to mention the impact of Malcolm X, and Dr. Martin Luther King.
The actuality that these events did, in fact, happen, is paramount to events in America today. There have been laws and policies, of after another, that have come into existance, only because these struggles took place. There is a quiet, though ill-suppressed, growing tension mounting in our cities, although – like the discomfort from some as-of-yet-diagnosed disease – the pain is felt, the symptoms are known, but no one knows what to call it. It’s as if, like some childish game, if you peek your head from under the blankets, the monsters will get you, but as long as you remain under the blankets, you’ll be protected.
Unfortunately, no blanket can protect us from the ills of a negatively racialized America. Not talking about it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away. In fact, ignoring the problem, or continuing to try to suppress it, will only cause it to burst out in a massive eruption, and probably at an inconvenient point. So long as there is hostility in terms of racialized issues, we have not reached a post-racial America, and we should stop saying that we have.
But to get back to the original issue, it should be kind of obvious now why a lot of blacks don’t celebrate Independence Day. There is no connection, no reference point. Blacks didn’t even become citizens until July 9, 1868 when the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified, and even then, those rights weren’t legally adheard to until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. They weren’t allowed to vote in this country without being disenfranchised before the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The couldn’t purchase homes in urban cities without being discriminated against legally until 1968.
If what I have just discussed here is true, many blacks have not really considered themselves a part of this great nation. Blacks have been on the outside of America trying to get in, but they have been repeatedly turned away, but because a few have been able to make it to the white side of town, they have been used as an example to those who will never be allow to get in, as the reason the world looks on them as the failing aspect, the black eye if you will, of America. They have been expected to catch up to a population that has had at least a 192 year head start on success. Blacks have had a little more than 40 years to make up the difference, and the overwhelming view is that, if they can do that, poverty, prison, a lack of education, etc., it’s their own fault. C’est la vie…
But if it pleases these particular white Americans, I guess we should say to the much maligned, stigmatized, and marginalized black population, those who are unemployed, underemployed, undereducated, impoverished, and incarcerated, “Whew-hoo!!! Happy Independence Day!!!”