This Independence Day, African-Americans are more disproportionately dependent on the government.
It might sound like a Republican talking point used to justify lower taxes, smaller government and the cutting of social programs, but it is a fact. And it stems from the unique history of black people in this country.
How ironic, one might think, given the significance and symbolism that the fourth of July represents. Or, maybe it is not so surprising if we dig a little deeper.
A nation founded on the backs of slaves
On July 4, 1776, here in Philadelphia, the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, and the 13 colonies established their official separation from the King of Great Britain. The national holiday always had a different meaning for black people, those who were held in bondage, as well as their descendants. As one black journalist described it, it was one group of barons declaring their independence from another group of barons, over the issue of who controlled the slaves.
Black people have been as patriotic as anyone because they have demanded the nation—the government—do more not only for themselves, but for all Americans.
“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim,” said Frederick Douglass, the noted statesman and abolitionist, in his historic 1852 speech ”The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro.”
He continued, “To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery….”
Douglass, who escaped to freedom and achieved his own independence from the plantation master, advocated for the emancipation of blacks, and for their suffrage as Freedmen. Indeed, African-Americans depended on government to take an active role in their lives after the Civil War, just as they fought and died by the thousands during the war.
For example, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments—also known as the Reconstruction Amendments— abolished slavery, granted citizenship to blacks, and gave them the right to vote, respectively. Under Reconstruction, federal troops were sent to the South to protect the newly-enfranchised blacks from unruly white supremacists. A federal agency known as the Freedmen’s Bureau assisted the newly emancipated African-Americans. Further, Congress enacted anti-discrimination laws, and blacks won elections for statewide office and Congressional seats.
Struggle for civil rights
When Jim Crow descended upon the South, it took the government—at the urging of black America and the civil rights movement—to lift the veil of segregation a century after emancipation. The Supreme Court ended racial segregation in the public schools through the Brown v. Board of Education decision. And when Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus defied a federal court order to comply, President Eisenhower enforced integration by sending federal troops to Arkansas to protect nine black students who attended Little Rock High School.
Despite the Reconstruction Amendments, blacks depended on government to restore—actually they demanded—their civil rights. Congress passed and President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin, and Voting Rights Act of 1965, which forbade racially discriminatory voting practices until much of the law was gutted by the Supreme Court just a few days ago.
With regard to affirmative action, Martin Luther King said “A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for the Negro.” Similarly, President Johnson, a champion of affirmative action, defended the policy in a speech at Howard University by saying, “You do not take a man who for years has been hobbled by chains, liberate him, bring him to the starting line of a race, saying, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe you have been completely fair…. We seek not just freedom but opportunity—not just legal equity but human ability—not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and as a result.”
Similarly, the black community has depended on government to protect them from employment discrimination and housing discrimination. And yet, discrimination still exists, leaving black people more vulnerable. African-Americans have relied on government as the employer of last resort when the private sector has failed to hire them, which explains why blacks were among the hardest hit during the public sector layoffs of the Great Recession. Typically, in good times and bad, black unemployment is double the rate of whites, and has been that way for 60 years.
The racial wealth gap is growing
In America, one third of African-American children and one quarter of Latino children live in poverty, twice the rate of white children.
Further, children of color are disproportionately represented in the child welfare system and foster care. Poor, black and brown people are experiencing more government intervention in their lives. Nevertheless, they have less access to social service programs, and state welfare programs tend to provide more generous programs to white recipients and more restrictive offerings for black recipients.
Moreover, African-Americans are overrepresented in the criminal justice system and under correctional supervision, due in no small measure to a war on drugs that fuels mass incarceration, and other policies such as Stop and Frisk targeting communities of color for inequitable treatment.
As a result, up to 23 percent of black men have a felony record, with collateral consequences such as disenfranchisement, bans on housing, jury service, federal loans and grants, and entering certain professions.
So on this Independence Day, everyone is dependent on the government, but African Americans are even more dependent, for good and for bad. That’s because they’re more vulnerable, as government will protect or ensnare those who can least defend themselves. This country still has much work to do when it comes to racial justice. Happy Fourth.
Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove