July 4 is here, and we have an opportunity to adopt a more truthful narrative about the celebration of our nation’s birth and the racism upon which it was formed. This year while we look back on the almost 250 years since Americans freed themselves from England’s oppression, we must acknowledge that our nation has maintained a fictional narrative of freedom for all by intentionally whitewashing its longstanding history of enslaving, repressing, and exploiting black Americans.
In January 2020, we taught a seminar about lynching and restorative justice at St. John’s School of Law and saw first-hand the power of truthful narratives about race and racism. Our students learned how false narratives obscured racism’s persistence and precluded meaningful enactment, interpretation, and implementation of the law. The modern-day relevance of this kind of seminar is painfully obvious in light of the string of incidents involving black individuals who died at the hands of police officers in the first few months of the year.
We also struggled in the seminar with how to define what lynching was in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and what it is in the twenty-first century. The torture and death of George Floyd clearly fit all of the definitions of lynching we considered. By the time another black man, Rayshard Brooks, was shot by police in Atlanta just three weeks later, Floyd’s death had ignited global protests and discourse about systemic anti-black racism in the US. As our students dismantled the falsehoods and replaced them with the truth about systemic violence against black Americans, our students began to understand what they, as aspiring lawyers, might realistically do to confront racism.
While our country reeled from George Floyd’s murder, we saw the emergence of false narratives that divert us from the reality of our country’s racism and stymie reform efforts for meaningful racial change. One frequently articulated narrative posits that police killings of black men and women are not the result of systemic racism. A related narrative is that the 2020 killings, and the thousands of police-related deaths of unarmed black men and women before them, were the work of just a few bad apples in police departments across the country. And then there is the narrative that trumpets diversity rather than focusing on racism. Racial diversity does little to change racist cultures. Only anti-racist efforts can address racially toxic organizations and institutions.
In the weeks after George Floyd’s death, some focused discourse about the protests against police violence on the looting and vandalism of those who hijacked the movement even though there is evidence that the property damage was committed by individuals who are completely unconcerned about the fact that black lives really do matter. These narratives are not just wrong, they perpetuate historical racism. Which narrative will survive when these current events become historical accounts?
How devastating it is to have to confront these issues at the same time we deal with the disproportionately high numbers of deaths in black communities as a result of COVID-19. There is insightful research about the negative impact of the stress of racism on physical health. Consider the connection between systemic racism and comorbidities such as heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension that make COVID-19 so deadly in Black communities. We need a more truthful narrative that names the sources of the disproportionately high numbers of serious health issues in black communities – a narrative that does not blame victims by pointing to lifestyle choices as the sole or primary cause of disease among Black Americans that makes them more vulnerable to Coronaviruses.
Inherent in these incomplete narratives is the notion that black Americans are in trouble because something is wrong with them. They are killed by police because they run from the police or they resist arrest. Black people are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 because they suffer from comorbidities that are connected to poor lifestyle choices. Denying systemic racism, as so many still do, allows for this type of victim-blaming. It eclipses the racially toxic culture of our criminal justice system that cultivates distrust of law enforcement, and the relationship between racism and poor health. There are many incomplete, false narratives regarding black Americans – too many to name at any one moment.
Historically, cries for more truthful narratives have been ignored. In his July 5, 1852 speech, Frederick Douglass challenged the perpetuation of the myth that the July 4th holiday is a celebration for all:
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.
His words still ring true today.
Do the crises we now face – a pandemic and anti-black police brutality – present an opportunity for our country to adopt a more truthful narrative about our country’s historic racism? Will the cries of the protesters create the tipping point that will effectuate racial change? Or, will the protests soon lose momentum and return the nation to a racist status quo?
Now is the time for our country to embrace a more truthful reframing of July 4th.
July 4th should be celebrated as an annual aspiration of what we want our country to become in order to move closer to achieving racial justice, and an annual benchmark of what still needs to be done. As part of this more truthful celebration, what a fitting time for our nation to also annually acknowledge those advancements that have been made to achieve racial equality. Perhaps, this more truthful reframing of July 4th will inspire us to create new chapters in our country’s history that chronicle our affirmative advancements to confront racism.
Cheryl L. Wade is the Harold McNiece Professor of Law at St. John’s Law School. Her forthcoming book, co-authored with Dr. Janis Sarra, Predatory Lending and The Destruction of The African-American Dream, will be published by Cambridge University Press in July 2020.
Elayne E. Greenberg is the Associate Dean of Dispute Resolution, Professor of Legal Practice and Faculty Director of the Hugh L. Carey Center at St. John’s Law School. Her article “Unshackling Plea Bargaining from Racial Bias” will be published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (December 2020).
Professors Wade and Greenberg co-teach the seminar “Lynching: Restorative Justice and the Law.”
Suggested citation: Cheryl L. Wade and Elayne E. Greenberg, July 4, 2020: How Will We Celebrate?, JURIST – Academic Commentary, July 4, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/07/wade-greenberg-systemic-racism-4th-of-july/.
This article was prepared for publication by Tim Zubizarreta, JURIST’s Managing Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to him at firstname.lastname@example.org