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Black Americans and the Fourth—and Fifth—of July

A great war was fought. Slavery was abolished. Still, on this fourth and fifth of July, 168 years after Frederick Douglass gave voice to feelings of alienation from white American pride and patriotism, recent events compel us to recognize that such feelings persist.

In 1852, fourteen years after his escape from slavery, Frederick Douglass was invited by abolitionists in his newly adopted home of Rochester, New York to deliver a public Fourth of July oration. Douglass accepted the invitation on the condition that his speech be delivered on the fifth rather than the fourth. This condition—both the fact that the abolitionists did not propose it themselves and its hint of the critical stance Douglass would go on to take in his famous speech—is highly significant as an indicator of how, then as well as now, white and black Americans (broadly speaking) have very different dispositions toward American patriotism and its expression. It remains a divide across which it is often difficult for each side to understand the sentiments of the other.

July 5, 1852 marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the day on which black New Yorkers celebrated the final abolition of legal slavery in that state. The state legislature had designated the symbolic date of July 4, 1827 for Governor Tompkins to sign the act of final emancipation into effect. A “meeting of the people of colour” in Albany unanimously agreed to postpone public celebrations until the day following. The consensus seems to have been that white Americans owned the Fourth of July—owned it as commemorating the great republic they had founded and ruled, but also owned the public space of popular festivity, and were prone to greet black intruders with violence. Thus, Douglass’s displacement of the date of his speech foreshadowed a pregnant question he would ask in it: “What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence?”

That word “your” reverberates through the speech: “your fathers” brought about “your great deliverance,” securing “your political freedom” and inaugurating “your national life.” One third of the way through the speech, Douglass brings the implication to a sharp point: “I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us…. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine.”

In spite of his sense of alienation, Douglass does have a high regard for the event commemorated and, especially, for the men who brought it about:

It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.

Douglass cannot, however, feel himself at one with the “pride and patriotism” he acknowledges as proper to his white fellow-citizens. He and those he represents are alienated from these feelings.

The reason, of course, is that slavery, in which over three million persons of African descent were bound, remained legally protected by the republic these great men founded. Although northern states had abolished it, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 pledged them, out of respect for the law, to acknowledge and cooperate to uphold the legitimacy of that bondage. Douglass himself, until his freedom was purchased by admirers in 1846, had to live in perpetual fear of being kidnapped by slave hunters and returned to a despotic bondage from which he had liberated himself but from which no law defended him.

A great war was fought. Slavery was abolished. Still, on this fourth and fifth of July, 168 years after Douglass gave voice to these feelings of alienation from white American pride and patriotism, recent events compel us to recognize that such feelings persist.

The Sources of American Patriotism

A contemporary of Douglass, Alexis de Tocqueville, can help us to understand why. Recognizing in Americans a love of country different from the instinctive old-world attachment to place, ancestry, and tradition, Tocqueville provides a lucid analysis of the foundations of American patriotism. The secret to this patriotism lies in the sense of participation, which has three distinct dimensions.

Americans understand, and can feel, that they participate in creating their own prosperity. Tocqueville argues: “A man understands the influence which his country’s well-being has on his own; he knows the law allows him to contribute to the production of this well-being, and he takes an interest in his country’s prosperity, first as a thing useful to him and then as something he has created.” As a result, each American “takes pride in the nation; the successes it gains seem his own work, and he becomes elated; he rejoices in the general prosperity from which he profits.”

This sense of participation in producing general and particular prosperity is reinforced by the practice of active participation in local administration of government. “In our day,” Tocqueville notes, “it seems to me that civic spirit is inseparable from the exercise of political rights.” By “exercise” he means that local self-government provides numerous offices and opportunities for citizens to take responsibility for the well-being of their own communities. Voluntary associations for all kinds of civil and social purposes provide further avenues for active self-governance. The many freedoms Americans enjoy for the management of their common affairs afford them pride in their communal achievements as well as in the system of laws that secures them such freedoms.

Finally, in the election of their representatives, Americans participate in the making of these laws that foster their freedom and prosperity. This participation, and the accompanying sense that the laws are of their own making and serve their own wellbeing, cultivates in the Americans an instinctive respect for the rule of law.

American patriotism then, as Douglass also suggests, is inseparable from a kind of pride—the pride that comes from the experience of having, and being enabled to have, an active hand in the thriving condition of one’s economic, social, and political life. Absent such participation, one ends up with Tocqueville’s nightmare vision of disengaged individuals pettily concerned with security and physical wellbeing, entirely lacking public spirit and initiative, and irritably critical of a bureaucratic regulation regime on which they are entirely dependent. But what if the promise of such participation is continually held out to a people and repeatedly frustrated? Such has been, in large measure, the black experience since Emancipation.

Promise and Disappointment

In the economic sphere, no event more powerfully symbolizes that promise and disappointment than the Tulsa riot whose centennial will be observed next year. In 1921, not quite sixty years after Emancipation, the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa (“Black Wall Street”) was one of the great success stories of American entrepreneurial freedom and initiative. It was one of the most prosperous black communities in the nation, outpacing the surrounding white communities in its economic development. Sparked by an ambiguous racial incident and inflammatory press, confrontation between black and white Tulsans spiraled out of control until white residents had burned this beacon of black prosperity to the ground.

Shortly thereafter, and with more pervasive effects, the mortgage lending and realty policies of the Federal Housing Authority and the Veterans’ Administration beginning from the 1930’s (aka “redlining”) drastically hampered efforts of black families to participate in the great home-owning boom following the Second World War. At a time when American patriotism was lit bright with the glow of victory over European totalitarianism, the 1.2 million black veterans of that war, whose love of their country should have been solidified by the benefits of the GI Bill, were largely left out in the cold. An opportunity to narrow the household income gap was squandered. The gap widened instead, striking a double blow to black American patriotic feeling, with lasting reverberations.

In the tension Tocqueville diagnosed between the civic spirit of local self-government and a tendency in democratic peoples toward administrative centralization, black Americans have occupied a kind of tragic position. Most notably in the period of Reconstruction and in the era of Civil Rights legislation, the just recognition of the rights of black citizens needed defending from local prejudice by appeal to more equitable federal authorities. This accelerated the centralization of the administrative state, ultimately diminishing the spirit of engaged citizenship in both black and white Americans. In the black population, however, the consequences once again tend toward keenly felt frustration. Electoral successes in non-local offices often result in disappointing outcomes, as representatives adopt priorities driven by party politics rather than responding effectively to felt local needs. The sense of participation is thus undermined on both the local and national levels.

Lack of confidence in representation undermines the sense of participation in the making of law and so weakens the respect for law grounded upon it. Black Americans, however, experience a more discordant sense of alienation from the law because of unfavorable biases in the whole system of its shaping and enforcement. The definition and categorization of crimes and penalties weighs unduly heavily upon them, such as in the well-known wide disparity between punishments for possession of crack cocaine (more common among black users) and of powder cocaine (more popular with whites). The felt hostility of law enforcement, though associated in the public mind with killings of black civilians, is more commonly experienced in the demonstrably disproportionate harassment for minor offenses or, very often, for unwarranted suspicion of committing or intending offenses. Inordinately long sentences of incarceration result in a sense of persecution and in dissolution of the social fabric of black communities and families.

One can, it is true, cite indicators that the condition of black Americans today is objectively not as awful as it is made out to be. Though well below US averages, black Americans’ household incomes are higher than median incomes in 70 percent of the nations on earth. Police killings of unarmed black men have actually declined steadily since 2014, though increased media coverage of them has created the opposite impression.

No accumulation of consoling data can, however, dispel the grating discord between promise and frustration that vitiates the black American experience of economic, social, and political participation, and the feelings of pride and patriotism real participation engenders.

Tocquevillian Solutions from Within the Black Community

There is strong impetus right now for further police reform and for drastically needed reform of mass incarceration. These would be helpful steps, and they should be embraced. But what more is to be done?

If we accept the Tocquevillian analysis of the problem, the most Tocquevillian solutions articulated from within the black community are those championed by Brown University economist Glenn Loury and like-minded figures associated with initiatives such as the Manhattan Institute and the 1776 Project. Loury calls explicitly for a renewed black American patriotism, emphasizing the sense of honor and dignity to be found in black agency devoted to the full development of human potential in black communities. Like Tocqueville, Loury and friends recognize an indispensable role for churches and stable and intact families in the self-regulation of civil society. They also call for the encouragement of black-owned local businesses, school choice (which is overwhelmingly favored by black parents), and greater responsiveness of black leaders to the concrete challenges and practical good sense of their constituents.

This robust Tocquevillian vision of participatory citizen spirit is deeply consonant as well with the wisdom of the American black tradition. It takes inspiration from the championing of American principles of equality and dignity by Douglass and King, the high vision of human development and education found in DuBois and Ellison, and the insistence on the moral integrity of family and the economic self-reliance and vitality of black communities central to the exhortations to black pride of Malcolm X, whose final vision was one of constructive coexistence. This tradition has always sought to somehow reconcile authentic difference with participatory belonging.

Douglass had good reason to protest, and his protest was not gentle. He challenged his audience to recognize and understand the true grounds for that protest and embrace what it required of them as citizens: a devotion, in full solidarity with his people, to what Tocqueville called the “legitimate passion for equality which rouses in all men a desire to be strong and respected.” Only thus could they be justly proud of the principles of democratic equality and republican liberty they rightly honored and celebrated.

 

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