Monday, July 4, 2011

Whose Independence?

- by Stacey Prince

OK, I like the 4th of July as much as the next person - especially when Seattle breaks its multi-year streak of crummy weather and is actually sunny and warm for the holiday. Cook-outs, fireworks, a day off from work... what's not to like? But my relationship to the meaning and history of the day is much more ambivalent. It's difficult to wholeheartedly celebrate freedom and independence when so many in this country are neither. Here are just a few examples:

Immigration. It is believed that there are about 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. They deal with daily barriers to independence and security including language and cultural barriers, anti-immigrant hostility, being denied employment and housing, as well as pervasive fear of being discovered, detained and/or deported. Journalist Jose Antonio Vargas recently disclosed his undocumented status in a powerful story in the New York Times and is trying to bring increased attention and national debate to address our country's broken immigration system.

Transgender Rights. There are daily advances in the rights of lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals. It may feel like one step forward, one step back much of the time, and we still have a long, long way to go, but overall the trajectory is toward improved protections, freedom and equality. The civil rights struggle for transgender individuals however flags behind by about 2 to 3 decades. Transgender individuals are still some of the least protected and most discriminated against people in this country. They are regularly let go from jobs, evicted from housing, and denied medical treatment, as well as facing transphobia and violence, with little legal recourse. This article summarizes the ongoing struggle for transgender rights.

Racism in our country is still the most divisive of all the isms, with pervasive, systemic discrimination experienced by people of color in virtually every facet of life including employment, education, access to health and mental health care, financial security, and the criminal justice system. Further, there are not only stark between-groups but also within-groups differences in racially biased discrimination. For example, this recent study compared sentences and length served for over 12,000 light skinned versus dark skinned black women imprisoned in North Carolina between 1995 and 2009. The authors controlled for factors such as prior record, date of conviction, prison misconduct, and thinness, as well as whether the woman was convicted of homicide or robbery since these crimes usually carry longer sentences. Results indicated that women deemed to have light skin were sentenced to approximately 12% less time behind bars than their darker skinned counterparts, and that having light skin reduced actual time served by approximately 11%. The authors concluded that it is not sufficient to understand racial discrimination just in terms of relative advantages of whites versus to non-whites. Based on this study, characteristics associated with whiteness among Blacks also appear to have a significant impact on important life outcomes. These and other findings indicate that this subtle form of racism known as colorism (discrimination experienced within groups of color based on lightness or darkness of skin) is also a serious problem in our country.

Native Americans. European colonization of North America forever changed the lives, well-being, and cultures of the many indigenous peoples who lived here for thousands of years, long before the settlers who would later declare independence from Britain every arrived. The Native people whose land was taken and culture silenced by colonial settlers continue to experience disproportionately high rates of social, economic, and health inequities. The country's 2.1 million Native Americans have the highest rates of poverty, unemployment, and illness of any ethnic group. Interestingly, many Native American individuals and tribes have a complex and conflictual relationship with this holiday. Some tribes have decided to stop observing the holiday altogether, in recognition of the fact that so many tribal people were killed and villages destroyed as they were "in the way" of the new country that was being celebrated on this day. On many reservations it was one of the few holidays chosen by the government (but not meaningful to the tribe) when tribal people were allowed to perform traditional dances and drumming. This made it appear that Native Americans were celebrating Independence Day, when in fact they were not. Over time, however, some tribes have reclaimed the day and it has become one of cultural celebration (rather than a celebration of "independence" and patriotism) for many. This article explores the complex relationship to the holiday for some tribal reservation residents.

Economic Injustice. Where is the security and prosperity that were supposed to underlie our freedom and were spelled out in the Declaration of Independence, the document whose writing we commemorate on July 4th? It seems it has never been more true than now that as the rich get richer, the poor get poorer. Thirty-nine million people live in poverty in the United States, and as this article indicates, financial growth and job growth are no longer tied. What this means is that while corporate profits continue to accrue, more and more Americans are jobless, and employment lags behind growth during both economic boons and downturns. As the article so succinctly points out, given that those who benefit from corporate growth represent a tiny proportion of the population, "it's not economic growth most Americans are looking for -- it's jobs."

So, here we are celebrating Independence Day. Several recent newspaper articles including this one indicate that patriotism is at a new high this year, with some speculating that this might be related to the capture and death of Osama Bin Laden. Yet with almost 13% of our country's residents overall and 25% of the Native American population living in poverty, 11 million undocumented immigrants, nearly half of our population non-white and experiencing personal and systemic racism, mass incarceration of Black youth and adults, 8 million identifying openly as gay or lesbian, and 700,000 as transgender, whose life, liberty and pursuit of happiness are we celebrating anyway?

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