My relationship with America became strained at the fragile age of ten or eleven while riding my bike down Cambridge Street. A man likely three times my age hurled the N-Word from his driver’s seat, and I knew immediately it would be in my best interest to pedal faster towards a friendlier destination. It was my introduction to a difficult lesson; those black children aren’t granted the frivolity and free-spirited adolescence like many of their white counterparts. While the word, which I knew at that time was loaded with vitriol, bothered me it was the artifact that flew from the back of the car that perplexed me the most — The American Flag. A symbol of patriotism for some, but for my community a need to pause and proceed with caution because for fear flag owners pledge allegiance to the red, WHITE, and blue.
In my blind youth I operated with the self-perception that I was merely a child, however on that brisk fall day I was reminded that I was “othered” even in a community that touts its progressive and forward-thinking ethos. That day was likely the catalyst that led me to best understand that nothing could protect me from the harsh truth that my relationship with this nation would be and remains a startling conundrum wrapped in a fraught racial paradox. I have often found it difficult to operate under the guise of jubilee on this day, July 4th. The historical footnotes in the back of mind, legislative life lessons, exposure to structural disparities, and countless lived experience cause me to focus on this country’s degradation of my people and devaluing of me as a person. I have chosen to remove myself from the hoopla affiliated with this day as it is not meant to (explicitly) include celebrating black and brown folks, especially those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for this country despite this country choosing to make them the sacrificial lamb at all turns from Jim Crow, The GI Bill, Mass Incarceration, to a rapidly growing segregated school system. There will be those who choose to read this essay and to them I say thank you. I ask that in doing so you challenge yourself to view it through the lens of an outsider in a country off your birth and call home despite rarely feeling welcome, something many of my white sisters and brothers cannot imagine. How could the flag be flown as a gesture of solidarity, when our nation is so grossly divided? Cosmetic civility, much like gestures following George Floyd’s murder, used for corporate consumption to garner sales while elevating one’s solidarity to their country. But the George Floyd inspired Black Lives Matter movement has waned and being “woke” is under attack by corporate oligarchs and the right political factions hellbent on rewinding time and thwarting racial progress made over the last 70 years as America celebrates its 247th birthday. It’s been proven that Black pain only needs to be addressed when it can potentially upset the corporate structure which black and brown people so sheepishly indulge in.
I can’t remember attending a July 4th cookout and don’t bemoan anyone who chooses to do so. However, to that end, I am left wondering as to how black folks compartmentalize their relationship with a country that has shown through legalized terror that is vividly outlined by sheroes Ida B. Wells to Michelle Alexander, which can lead one to question even our good white friends and their intentions as Sojourner Truth, Mary Church Terrell, and W.E.B. Du Bois have. The furor over the Supreme Court’s most recent 6–3 decision is justified, while not surprising as America has often gone to great lengths to erase black people from its story while attempting to supplant the narrative of color blindness to assuage its dysfunctional moral imperative. Institutions at the heart of the affirmative action debate are also the academic birthplace to the quietly debunked concepts of eugenics. We wholeheartedly and rightfully denounce Hitler, but tiptoe around the truth about racial purists like Theodore Roosevelt, Alexander Graham Bell, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., David Starr Jordan, and Charles William Eliot. It’s not lost on me that I went to high school roughly a football field away from Harvard, and even as a younger person I was keenly aware that there was an important ingredient missing from the campus — Black people.
In 1992 at 15 years old, I was making my way home after eating a slice of pizza from Pinocchio’s Pizza in Harvard Square. A couple of friends had attended a high school basketball game, but the evening devolved into us being stopped, questioned, and then arrested by a Harvard Police officer for looking suspicious and appearing to investigate cars near The Kennedy School. This was particularly perplexing given the fact that none of us even knew how to drive at that time. Despite having identification that we lived in the home of the Ivy Tower, we were reminded of our outsider status. Looking back, it was our rite of passage to being black in America and a stark reminder that despite the trepid optimism that Frederick Douglass had for a younger America in his 1852 speech, “What To The Slave Is The Fourth Of July”, it is difficult to muster optimism with America’s older self today, July 4, 2023. The incident on Harvard’s campus, a mere 31 years ago, is a bleak reminder that independent of the progressive posture of both the university and the city, it sits amidst a large subset of constituency of black and brown folks who deeply understood that the most recent legal case involving the afore mentioned university and The University of North Carolina are precursors to take aim at the crown jewel of The American critique of the US and its inequities in education, Brown V. Board. Just as my faux arrest was thrown out after 72 hours by a judge who laid into the arresting officer. He cited that the officer made a biased assumption that four black youth had no right on the campus similarly to what the courts 6 Justices implicitly determined last week. The justices, which include a man who could pass as an estranged uncle, not only voted in a fashion that would exclude other black folks from experiencing the life he has had access to but acted as if he is an outlier. He would seek acknowledgment that he has ascended to the highest court because of his work ethic within a system that takes into consideration the moral imperative to provide a proverbial fair shake in our lopsided society. Conversely Black kids, just as I was that fall evening, are negatively affirmed that they aren’t welcomed while being enforced by an apparatus that has a history of marginalizing black people, the criminal justice system, the educational system, and a government that trounces on our equal rights. In an instant any thoughts of attending the university in my backyard, literally yards from my high school, vanished. Several days ago, another system, in fact the most powerful judicial system, reminded us of the ways in which black and brown people are to be systematically erased from the American psyche. All while ignoring the privilege the White and rich simultaneously benefit and ignore exists. I wanted no part of a place that didn’t see me as a human being and as fate coupled with a high penchant of stubbornness, I know that despite my optimism I will likely never see my country love me reciprocally. Its more comfortable keeping me just close and hopeful enough to exploit the contributions of those from my culture. July 4th if unpacked without fear, should be utilized as a day to unpack the harms committed in this country while being authentic enough to address the ways in which we can become a nation that is more inclusive.
The unconscionable and draconian decision of removing race conscious from admissions is yet another branch of a rotten tree; its gnarly fingers have sought to legitimize the rewriting of redlining, small business loans, and access to government-based capital programs siphoning opportunity for black folks to enter the economic arena in pursuit of sitting at the big table in America. In reading the amicus brief filed by The American Civil Liberties Unions of Massachusetts and North Carolina you are not only reminded why the high court’s 6–3 decision is so damning, but the dogmas that are followed by this decision to remove the black experience from the American Intellectual ideologue — a view that Du Bois warned us to prepare for in his study, The Philadelphia Negro.
Eugenics gave rise to white nationalists and a myopic view of black excellence existing only in the realm of physical prowess, not intellectual arenas. The SAT was born only to subject racial discriminatory metrics into the admissions matrix to gatekeep higher education. It’s well documented that standardized test are a poor measure of college readiness and intelligence, and its history is staunched in blatant racism. The SAT was first created in the early 1900s by Carl Brigham, an American Eugenics and psychologist who wrote “African-Americans were on the low end of the racial, ethnic, and/or cultural spectrum.” How sad that so little has changed. Students of color have proven this to be inaccurate yet are still blamed for the discomfort of white people. Under affirmative action doors were open, but few hands were extended. Despite acceptance many students have had their merit questioned, their resolve tested, and humanity disrespected, yet they have been resilient enough to be the firsts for those up next. Now many bright, talented Black and Brown students may determine it’s not even worth striving. They will not be the only ones to suffer, all our society will deny themselves a fresh wave of scientists, educators, innovators, etc.
On this day many will celebrate the freedoms of the country we call home. I ask that as we celebrate this day that we take time to fully understand that despite the great gains we have made throughout the country, and within our small communities, that our fight is not complete, and we must fight harder and organize better at all levels. If the Democratic Party is radically committed to work beyond the bullet point platitudes of black allyship, then they must work in both a pragmatic and strategic tandem that centers the humanity and dignity of black folks. This must include black elected officials who are more committed to the liberation of their fellow man and woman than a plum committee assignment that yields more Twitter followers but doesn’t further the emancipation of black people. From the federal to local level, it will take a mass wave of action to shift the tide in this country and to garner a proximity to justice that can’t be torn down by ceremonial DEI and DEIB initiatives. Within two years diversity actions have crumbled, appointments have been reversed. In Texas and Florida governors have launched an attack on these equity initiatives because honestly, they like similarly to black people, were never truly given support. America has disinvested in them as they are continuing to do in the black people.
A hero of mine, James Baldwin, once wrote, “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” Yet I write this for the love I have for my child, my community and for those who are moving toward a future that is truly taking us backwards.
Tony Clark is a Professor of African American Studies, Co-President of The MBK Task Force Cambridge, and Principal Consultant of The T.Clark Group