To Breathe Free

To Breathe Free

Op-Ed, July 4, 2020

By Chargé d’affaires Robert Whitehead, U.S. Embassy Libreville

Today we celebrate an idea and a document created 244 years ago, in 1776.  When colonists in the 13 British colonies of North America realized their attempts to convince the English King to accept them as equals had failed, they declared their independence and, as President Abraham Lincoln said, created a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.  Eleven years and a war later, my country’s Founders wrote the Constitution we still use today, a Constitution that established governmental powers and ensured freedoms for the people, among them:    freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly.  Today, we celebrate these ideals and the proud and great history of U.S. accomplishments. And there have been many.

One of our accomplishments is something not possible in many nations:  our freedom to openly and honestly critique and analyze our culture and history, both the good and the bad.  Historians of tomorrow will find a trove of material in 2020.  This year – only half over – already has shown the heights of American ingenuity and the lows of social prejudice.  We witnessed a renewal of U.S. space exploration with the launching of the Space X rocket.  We saw people of different generations and backgrounds unite to protest racial injustice.  We came together – scientists, medical personal, and ordinary citizens – to fight COVID 19 in the U.S. and around the world.

We also faced the continuation of inequities present even before our country came into being – the debasing and devaluation of people based on the color of their skin.  The proud history of the United States is marred by its treatment of minorities.  We often denied rights to “the others,” conferring that status upon groups based on race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, or disability.

But our Constitution brings us together, and the rights that this document confers upon the nation gives us the tools to fight against inequality.  Freedom of speech permits people to speak out about wrongs. Freedom of the press allows people across the nation to learn about the wrongs and add their voice to the chorus demanding change.  Freedom of assembly makes it possible for people to peacefully protest in a quest for change.  These freedoms ensure that people can expose injustice and effect positive reforms.

This has not been easy, and it is not easy today.  Injustice has destroyed people’s lives and livelihoods. George Floyd is just the most recent addition to a lengthy list of victims of injustice that should have stopped expanding decades ago.  Throughout our history, protesters have faced angry mobs, attacks dogs, and bigots that implicitly condoned police brutality.  Yet, the protesters have persevered, based on the rights guaranteed by our constitutional cornerstone.

There is another important reason why those demanding reform have endured: the character of the American people.  Just as racism and sexism have been a part of America’s history, so has activism. From the moving words of former slave Frederick Douglass, to President Lincoln’s proclamation of freedom for slaves, to activist Alice Paul’s “Votes for Women” protests outside the White House, to the marches spurred by the shocking death of George Floyd, Americans have stood up and demanded reforms to advance human and equal rights for people regardless of their “otherness.”  Through it all, the principles upon which our country’s Founders made the foundation of their new national has endured:  liberty and justice for all.

As a white male, I benefited from the privilege that this ethnic and gender status has traditionally bestowed in the United States.  As the husband of an African wife and father of children that are African-American in every sense of that term, I also understand the burden that race places on nonwhite citizens, and the extra precautions they must take to ensure their well-being.  These are precautions that I never had to take, a weariness that, over time, can wear one down.

I am proud of my son, a federal law enforcement agent, and seeing the film clips of brutal behavior by officers and agents of the law, as witnessed in the death of George Floyd, disgusted and saddened me. However, I have also been heartened to see so many other local law enforcement officials working with protesters.  Police in Waukesha, Wisconsin kneeling with those who marched; the police chief of Grand Rapids, Michigan, my home town, requesting to meet with protest organizers to discuss how his department can change for the better; the Sherriff in Flint, Michigan walking with demonstrators.  Without such cooperation among people, without peaceful protests and discussions about race and privilege and unconscious bias, neither America nor the world can move forward.

I am distressed that, 400 years after the first slaves arrived in what is now the state of Virginia, 155 years since the end of the Civil War, and 58 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the tinge of racism still lingers in the United States.  But I am also proud that Americans still exercise the right to protest inequality and seek justice, that the press freely reports on these efforts, that activists can speak freely, and that our system holds accountable those who seek to stifle the rights of “the others.”

July 4 this year is especially poignant.  As a nation, we recall the great strides the United States has taken toward equality, but we must also reflect upon what remains to be done to ensure that the central tenet of 1776’s Declaration of Independence, that “all men (and women) are created equal,” rings true today.