Written by Lauren Hogsett
It only takes a glance into the history of this country we call the United States of America, to see a track record of separating children and families. This has been used as a torture tactic to wield terroristic power over enslaved African families, Native Americans sent to boarding schools to assimilate, Japanese families in internment camps, and people who are incarcerated en masse–thousands only because they cannot afford bail or a traffic fine today. We may add immigrant and refugee children who are separated from their parents, put in cages, and spread out across to the United States with little care from the federal government to track where they go or with whom they live. We are living the ugly and tragic history of this country in the present day. Some have the privilege to turn their gaze away, but most do not.
As July 4 approaches, many people will celebrate the freedom afforded to them in this country and consider how “fortunate” they are to always be able to provide food on the table, to not be oppressed by the government, to worship who and when they want, and to be able to enjoy many comforts which are much harder to come by in other countries, or neighborhoods, or for those with a different skin color, or who do not speak English, or who do not worship the same god. This “freedom” is so prevalent in the US, that some of us forget how it came into existence. We easily believe it was our hard work; therefore, it is deserved and expected to always be a constant in life–at any cost. Some of our lives have been so defined by this freedom, we are like fish who never wonder how they got in the water. On July 5, 1852, freed slave Frederick Douglass spoke this to a group of white politicians in Rochester, New York about the day celebrating American “freedom”: “This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn…Fellow citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! Whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, today, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them…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.” (2)
“Freedom” and “independence” as we know them in the United States came into existence on the backs of slaves and through the systematic killing and removal of those native to this land. Sociologist Orlando Patterson says, “Before slavery people simply could not have conceived of the thing we call freedom.” (3)
Anti-Slavery Almanac, 1840, Published in Boston by Western & Southard
This country’s freedom is irrevocably based in power and white supremacy, in the lack of power of those who are nonwhite. Prior to the colonization of the “New World,” race did not even exist as a construct. The notion of the “Indian” was created by European settlers by lumping together all the native tribes who had separate customs, languages, and religious practices. “Black” was similarly created through blending those of various tribes on what today we know as the African continent. “White” was created by assembling those from various European countries with little in common. “Mexican” came into existence through the mixing of Spaniards, Africans, and Native Americans, who were only in the same geographical area because of colonization and slavery. These groups that before had few common representative traits, now became one racial group in order for Europeans to justify and maintain their power and order in this new land. As the Transatlantic Slave Trade fueled the slave economy in the Americas, those who could identify as white in order to gain freedom from indentured servitude–this includes the Irish who the English once regarded as savages. Instead of being separated by religion or customs, people in this new world were now separated by race. “Blackness became associated with bondage, inferiority, and social death; whiteness with freedom, superiority, and life.”(4)
As the Spaniards and English colonized the Americas and separated and subjugated people based on skin color, they paid no respect to land previously claimed. In 1830 President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, which allowed the forcible removal of Natives living in the fertile lands of Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama. They were forced into present-day Oklahoma, land that was thought to be a desert and worthless. From this law came the Trail of Tears, when 17,000 Cherokee were put in camps and marched on a 1,200-mile journey westward, on which a quarter to half of them perished. As the cotton kingdom grew and whites pushed westward, more laws, including the Indian Intercourse Act of 1834 and the Indian Allotment Act of 1887, took land that already belonged to natives and broke down tribal landholdings. White settlers moved onto the best agricultural and resource-rich land, while tribes dissolved as did the political and social structure in Native culture.
Top: A group of Chiricahua Apache students on their first day at Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pa.Bottom: The same students four months later. (1) John N. Choate/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Just as the US government did not honor Native American sovereignty, neither did they respect Spanish nor Mexican claims to land. The idea of Manifest Destiny emerged, with whites living in the United States claiming and believing that it was God’s will for them to take and own western and Mexican land. The Monroe Doctrine helped feed this ideology, which said that it was illegal for Europeans to colonize Latin America; the US did not want Europe to be a competing power in the west, but they did not want Latin America to have that land either. The United States wanted it and felt entitled to have it. In 1845, the US annexed Texas and a year later the Mexican-American War started and lasted until 1848 with Mexico’s defeat. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo gave the land of today’s New Mexico, California, Utah, Nevada, parts of Arizona and Texas to the United States. Promises of the treaty were not fulfilled, as Mexicans in a ceded land were never given full citizenship because of their lack of whiteness. The Homestead Act of 1862 then took this land from Mexicans and gave it to white settlers, making Mexican Americans foreigners on their own land. Mexicans who immigrated to the United States could not apply for citizenship until 1940, as that right was reserved for white immigrants.
The man-made political border between the US and Mexico is also a racial border. After the Mexican-American War, the US could have continued to expand south beyond Texas, but did not because they would have had to absorb into the population large numbers of Mexicans, i.e. nonwhite people. This border is now the place where we see border patrol agents dumping bottles of water left for those risking the dangerous trek across the desert; where we see children ripped from arms of their parents and placed in cages; where we see people seeking asylum, safety, reunification with their families, and a more hopeful life; where we see people of all ages being abused and dehumanized. Some will claim that these immigrants have no right to this land. White America must remember that we never had any right to this already inhabited and civilized land. Some will try to argue that these immigrants are a national security threat. Yet research shows that since 9/11, domestic far-right extremists have a two to one ratio to Islamic extremists in deadly terror attacks. (5) Regardless of the argument, what seems to lie behind it is a concern that the freedom white Americans know and love, may not feel as “free” if resources must be shared more equitably or if they have neighbors who do not share their language, skin tone, or culture. In his theory of social position, sociologist Herbert Blumer hypothesizes that interpersonal racism will be higher when one group feels threatened by another, in size or in competition for resources. We know that we would never see the images of white children separated from their parents and placed in cages cross our television screens. American freedom, built upon the suffering and oppression of people of color, has always been reserved for those with white skin.
In order to protect these racial boundaries and the American “freedom” Frederick Douglass knew nothing of, legal justification and an enforcement of laws must be enacted. But Christian freedom knows nothing of racial boundaries or political borders. A Christian’s freedom is in her faith–not in power, race, language, nationality, or money. True freedom comes when despite circumstances, we know we are citizens of heaven and the Lord loves us, and though our flesh may die, we cannot be killed. Perhaps more than anything else, Jesus preached against legalism and the fear that empowers it. He defied the laws and social customs that did not serve the hearts and souls of people when he healed the blind man on the Sabbath (Jn. 9) or spoke with a Samaritan woman at the well (Jn. 4). Jesus lived in protest to the laws, government, and fear that did not serve to love others. Christians also have this freedom to protest as an act of worship–to resist the supremacist structures that are woven into the fabric of this country. Living in holy protest in the US is living not for the American ideals of luxury, land, materialism, comfort, and leisure, but it is going to the least of these and fighting for and with them in their struggle for liberation from oppression and suffering.
In Galatians 5:13-14 Paul writes, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Freedom in Christ does not lead us to kill and cage strangers, oppress others, or protect our own perceived comfort at the cost of another. On July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was signed and declared that [white] men were created equally and had unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. White men in the new United States of America were free in their flesh, by law, to do as they pleased, even at the cost of another’s life. This is woven into the fabric of this country and its government. This ideology and dehumanization of others is being lived out at the US-Mexican border and across the country right now. This is not freedom in Christ as Paul speaks of it. With Christian freedom, we are free from the fear of death and can love the stranger and immigrant who come into our presence and need safety. To be free is to love with the assurance that we are loved by the Creator of the universe, and to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly (Mc. 6:8), at any cost to our circumstance.
Lauren Hogsett holds a Masters of Art in Counseling from Covenant Theological Seminary and a Bachelors of Art in Sociology from the University of Pittsburgh. She currently resides in St. Louis, MO.
- Charla Bear, “American Indian Boarding Schools Haunt Many,” NPR, May 12, 2008, accessed July 03, 2018, https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=16516865.
- Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? An Address Delivered in Rochester, New York, on July 5, 1852” In Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Nellie McKay, eds., The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, Second Edition, (New York: Norton, 2004), 462-473.
- Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), 340.
- Matthew Desmond and Mustafa Emirbayer, Racial Domination, Racial Progress: The Sociology of Race in America (New York: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2010), 97.
- Sarah Ruiz-Grossman, “Most Of America’s Terrorists Are White, And Not Muslim,” The Huffington Post, August 23, 2017, accessed July 03, 2018, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/domestic-terrorism-white-supremacists-islamist-extremists_us_594c46e4e4b0da2c731a84df.