(Photo: Emilio Morenatti, AP)

This Fourth of July, the celebration of U.S. values—freedom, unity and democracy—felt very different. But not just because of COVID. It is hard to celebrate a country that feels so unsettled and divided. Every major city has experienced racial protests. Unemployment has soared. The economy is sputtering. And Americans don’t even agree about wearing face masks in the middle of a pandemic.

This Independence Day, the very rights highlighted in the Declaration of Independence are the same rights millions of Americans and their ancestors have not—and still are not—enjoying: 

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Preamble to the Declaration of Independence

What white people celebrate on the 4th of July does not apply for Black lives. For that perspective, watch this short video and consider how different this holiday is for them: “What to My People is the Fourth of July”

And yet, CNN wrote a piece claiming “It is a great time to be American,” highlighting that this chaos can also be considered an explosion of patriotism. That it’s the American way to rebel against oppressive forces and proclaim opposing opinions.  

As we listen and understand more about the Black experience in this country and take action to become more united, the beauty of democracy is that we can reimagine how we want our nation to be.

Does democracy mean individual freedom or shared community?

Our image of an American hero has expanded from military veterans . . . to hospital nurses, EMTs, bus drivers, grocery clerks and teachers.

The coronavirus pandemic has made us reassess the definition of democracy from one of seeking individual freedom at all costs to one of seeking a shared safe community.  Many of us now realize how dependent we are on essential services and health workers that risk their lives to keep the country running.

Our image of an American hero has expanded from military veterans . . . to hospital nurses, EMTs, bus drivers, grocery clerks and teachers.

“Our life and health depends on the behavior of other people,” said Podair, a Lawrence University historian. “We depend on our neighbor, sometimes to get us food or just to remain healthy—and they depend on us. Because of the pandemic, America is a more democratic nation today than it was in February.”

Black lives matter may be the largest movement in U.S. history

On June 6, half a million people turned out in nearly 550 places across the United States to protest racial injustice. That was a single day in what is now more than a month of continuing protests.

Four recent polls—including one released this week by Civis Analytics, a data science firm that works with businesses and Democratic campaigns—suggest that up to 26 million people in the United States have participated in demonstrations over the death of George Floyd and others in recent weeks.

Confederate symbols are being challenged, textbooks are being rewritten, and many companies are taking public stands against racial and social injustice.

These figures would make the recent protests the largest movement in the country’s history, according to scholars and crowd-counting experts. Unlike previous Black Lives Matter protests, nearly 95 percent of 1,360 counties with recent protests are majority white, and nearly three-quarters of those counties are more than 75 percent white. It’s considered to be one of the finest examples of patriotism in America today.

Our collective voice is spurring change. Americans are devouring books on racism, and words like racial injustice and white privilege are part of daily conversations.  Confederate symbols are being challenged, textbooks are being rewritten, and many companies are taking public stands against racial and social injustice.

We’re seeing signs of change

Mississippi lawmakers voted to retire the state flag, which is dominated by the Confederate battle emblem and has flown for 126 years. It’s been at the heart of a conflict Mississippi has grappled with for generations: how to view a legacy that traces to the Civil War.  

The flag, the only state banner left in the United States with the overt Confederate symbol, has served for many as an inescapable sign of Mississippi’s racial scars and has often defined perceptions of the state. While still proudly embraced by many white Mississippians to represent the Old South heritage, it has increasingly come to evoke segregation, racial violence and a war that had a primary goal of preserving slavery.

NASCAR bans confederate flags

Bubba Wallace, center, at the Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday, wants NASCAR to ban the Confederate battle flag at its races. “Get them out of here,” he told CNN. “They have no place for them.”
Bubba Wallace, center, at the Atlanta Motor Speedway 

Darrell Wallace Jr. (“Bubba”), the first black driver in 50 years to win one of NASCAR’s top three national touring series, called on NASCAR to ban all confederate flags outright, saying, “No one should feel uncomfortable when they come to a NASCAR race.” 

Two days later, NASCAR agreed, becoming the latest organization to reconsider the emblem’s place amid a national reckoning over racism and white supremacy.

“The presence of the Confederate flag at NASCAR events runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all fans, our competitors and our industry,” NASCAR said. “Bringing people together around a love for racing and the community that it creates is what makes our fans and sport special.”

The confederate flag ban is one sign of change. In states across the country, officials have faced growing pressure to take down confederate statues and other monuments that many consider symbols of racism.

Highlight of the Week: NASCAR’s moment of silence to address racial injustice

On June 7, at a race at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, NASCAR’s president, Steve Phelps, delivered a message over the loudspeaker in which he urged fans and drivers to recognize the pain black people and other people of color have suffered in our country. “It has taken too long for us to hear their demands for change,” he stated. “Our sport must do better. Our country must do better. The time is now to listen, to understand, and to stand against racism and racial injustice.”

It was a meaningful public moment of reflection and emotion.

Challenge of the Week

One thing democracy allows us to do is to continue to try to become better as a nation. 

It’s never too late to correct our ways and to fortify the strengths that have made America special. We can choose to build rather than destroy, support rather than criticize, smile instead of frown . . . and most of all, love instead of hate. Choosing  actions that bring us closer rather than more distanced from our fellow citizens. 

There are many ways to support the global struggle against racism, whether it’s by donating money, attending protests, educating yourself or amplifying the voices of underserved people. Wherever you are, and with whatever you have, there are things you can do to show solidarity and support equality. Here are eight ways to get started. 

Together, let’s be a force for change. And keep on listening, learning and helping.

– Kendall Webb, Executive Director

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