As we mark Independence Day this year, we have an opportunity to reflect much more deeply on our nation than 4th of July parades, barbeques, and fireworks shows typically allow. Perhaps the fact that we cannot hold these types of superficial celebrations due to the COVID pandemic will create the space for more of us to acknowledge and begin to reckon with the ugly, shameful, and painful aspects of our history, rather than simply celebrating our triumphs and sweeping the rest under the rug.
As our diverse faith traditions teach us, it is only in confessing our sins and then in taking action to rectify them that we can truly reconcile with those we have harmed and redeem ourselves. And it is only in restoring justice with each other that we can restore our righteousness in the eyes of God.
So too, the US, Connecticut, and our communities in Fairfield & New Haven counties must acknowledge our transgressions and take meaningful action to restore fairness and justice. Only in doing so can we have any chance of someday living up to the audacious claim, so often made at this time of the year, that we are the greatest nation on earth. Truthfully, America has never really been great for Black, brown, indigenous, and poor people.
The US was founded with the virtuous ideals of liberty and justice for all and the stubborn realities of highly entrenched systems of white supremacy and economic exploitation. As a new nation, we counted Black people as only 3/5s of a person and restricted voting to landowning or wealthy men. We have been struggling with both of these flaws ever since — sometimes progressing, sometimes retrenching. At times, we have struggling with racial and economic injustice openly, but more often these tensions have been just below the surface. With the COVID pandemic and recession and the resurgent and broadened movement for Black Lives since the police murder of George Floyd a month ago, we are struggling with both more openly and head-on than at any time in at least a generation. This reckoning is long past due.
Yes, there has been important progress on racial justice at times in our history, but to dwell on the Civil Rights era only is to ignore or diminish the 400-year history of slavery, racial terrorism and violence, and systemic, institutionalized racism. We must avoid the temptation to reduce this legacy to Southern history, because this very much a part of Connecticut’s history and legacy too. On economic justice, upward economic mobility has been broadly accessible during some periods in our history, but since the 1970s we have seen income and wealth inequality increase dramatically to historic levels, making the American Dream more myth than reality.
Here in Connecticut, one of the wealthiest states in the US, racial and economic disparities remain eyepopping and obvious – this history is present with us:
- Connecticut is consistently ranked among the worst three states in the US for income inequality – in Fairfield County, the top 1% makes 62 times the income of the other 99%.
- Connecticut is among the most racially segregated states in the US – with little to no affordable or multifamily housing in many suburbs due to exclusionary zoning far worse the Silicon Valley;
- Because of our extreme housing segregation, Connecticut’s schools are funded at hugely different levels based on local property taxes (one of the worst opportunity gaps in the US), resulting in lower educational achievements of black and Latinx children, on average, than white children;
- Connecticut’s criminal justice system has among the worst disparities in the US. Though the state population is almost 70% white, the state’s prison population is over 70% people of color. Black people are incarcerated at rate more than 9.4 times that of white people and Hispanic people at 3.9 times that of white people.
The 2008 financial crisis and Great Recession only exacerbated these racial and economic divides – while banks were bailed out and corporate executives paid bonuses, millions of Americans lost their homes and their wealth. The current COVID pandemic and related recession seem to be following the same pattern — already reports indicate that the wealth of the nation’s billionaires is up 20% in the last three months, when 45 million Americans have been laid off.
In 1852, Frederick Douglass gave a speech entitled “What to the slave is the 4th of July?”, agitating for the end of slavery:
The time for such argument is passed… For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.
His words ring true today nearly 170 years later. This past month perhaps has felt like a storm and a whirlwind. But if this country and state are to redeem ourselves, we must embrace this 2020 thunder and be roused to bold action.
We believe it is an act of patriotism to acknowledge and confront these truths and to commit ourselves again to take action to reverse them in repentance for the full history of the country we have inherited. So, this July 4th, we recommit as an organization to:
- redouble our work internally to study, dialogue, and engage together on racism and white supremacy (especially our white members), confront our biases and blind-spots, and work to grow as an anti-racist organization;
- organize with people from all racial and ethnic roots, faith traditions, economic classes, and geographies;
- name, confront, and challenge systems of white supremacy and economic oppression;
- take action on issues of white supremacy, racial injustice, and economic exploitation and inequality wherever we find them locally, regionally, and nationally.
May we bless America for all by doing this hard work together across CONECT and with many partners whom we will both follow and lead. Though we may tire and lose hope at times, we will fight on until victory is won. We still believe, with persistent pressure from organized people, America’s founding ideals can extend to all of us.