In 1776, our Founding Fathers composed the Declaration of Independence and severed all diplomatic affiliation with Britain, therefore conceiving what would become a global political miracle—the miracle of America.
In America, we all come from desperately different cultures, faiths and worldviews, and nonetheless, we are expected to build a more perfect union in which these differences do not alienate us, but rather amplify what we are as Americans. This is a very unique political experiment, a remarkable one, in that we believe in a certain kind of universalism and, at once, recognize the value of communitarianism.
The Declaration of Independence reads, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness…Only the One who grants rights has the authority to take them away.” This self-evident truism has remained the powerful, philosophical, and moral foundation of successful foreign policies no less than it is the foundation of the United States itself.
We strengthen America when we celebrate cultural and religious particularism within the framework of American universalism. There is an interesting polarity in this, which is that we want an America which, on the one hand, subscribes to universalistic values when it comes to core civil rights, but on the other, recognizes particularism when it comes to cultural, racial, and religious affinities.
America is more of a singularity than just an ordinary happenstance. It is more of an idea than a geographical location. And ideas, they evolve—they don’t remain static, and they can be wrong. The people who live in the United States have an inherent responsibility to change the course of this evolution. We’re a part of an actual experiment with an amorphous outcome, one far from anything absolute.
Only in America would you come across such profuse patriotism and concurrent individualistic freedom. Only in America can ethical tensions be so high and there still be a sense of blanketing peace and amicability. If the following 250 years are anything similar to the past 250, the social and political composition of the United States will drastically change like never before.
Here, police officers, public figures of authority, wear their kippot, crosses and hijabs while patrolling, unafraid to exhibit that they’re different, and moreover, convey that any such difference doesn’t matter. This is an incredible rarity—it is the signature of America.
Everywhere else, there have been incessant disputes and decimating wars over whom a person loves, what gods they believe in, and the color of their skin. America is the only place where people from every corner of the world have come together and discovered middle ground noiselessly.
What the United States is striving to achieve, without a doubt, is a place where individuality reigns above all else, and yet also a place where all individuals can live together in harmony. However, in order for this American dream to actualize, we must come to a consensus that at this moment, our prized, precious country hangs on a loose string.
We can no longer assume that by declaring bridged independence and interdependence they’ll seamlessly converge. We can no longer assume that everything is fine. Stanley Cohen, the Nobel Prize-winning biochemist wrote, “Denial may be neither a matter of telling the truth nor intentionally telling a lie. We know and don’t know at the same time.”
All of us watched George Floyd lie on the ground for almost nine minutes, calling out to his dead mother, bellowing in anguish that he can’t breathe, and imploring for his life as a white police officer pressed his knee into his neck until the light left his eyes.
It is at the heart of most African-American families’ nightmares and what immigrants imagined they were leaving behind when they moved here.
We all knew it wasn’t an isolated incident. We knew truths about the experience of being black in America, but we opted to pretend we didn’t. We knew of Elijah McClain, Breonna Taylor, Justin Howell, Sean Monterrosa, Atatiana Jefferson, Aura Roser, Stephon Clark, Botham Jean, Tamir Rice, Philando Castille, Alton Sterling, Freddie Gray, and Eric Garner, amongst many other black lives lost. Only now are we saying their names. Why?
It appears we have finally caught a glimpse of our nation and ourselves in the mirror. It appears that one more fallen man will always be required to galvanize us into rising to the occasion, saying “no more,” and unabashedly loving our brothers and sisters.
To a great extent, the history of African-Americans in the United States has been a litany of lost opportunities, a mountain of vanishing promises, and a contagion effect of prejudices. The engrained image of George Floyd’s life being squeezed out of him metaphorizes how our nation, for generation upon generation, has greeted the countries where those with black skin came from—with invasions, occupations, plunderage, wars, and the foregrounding of brutality. This stands in stark contrast to America’s selflessness when extending its helping hand to the countries and people of Europe, for instance, in their hour of need.
We must come to terms with our racial history, and thereafter our racial present. George Floyd may not be dead if, following the Civil War, our nation had invested itself in reconciliation and atonement for the land and people that colonizers stole, sold, and stripped of humanity. Instead, what actually transpired was that white people who had owned slaves were awarded compensation for their agonizing loss of “property.” Meanwhile, those previously enslaved were given nothing. Again left in the lurch.
Between 1525 and 1866, 12.5 million people were kidnapped from Africa and shipped to the Americas in the most excruciating conditions during the transatlantic slave trade. Upon arriving in the New World, 3.9 million of the 10.7 who survived the harrowing two-month journey through the Middle Passage were condemned to slavery. On Jan. 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, but the decree wasn’t fully enacted for another two and a half years.
In the past, poll taxes have disenfranchised African American voters. Black soldiers who battled in the first and second World Wars were marginalized and treated as if second-class citizens. Black innovators were forbidden from filing patents for their inventions. White medical professionals exploited black women’s bodies. Richard and Mildred Loving needed to fight to legalize interracial marriage for a decade. During and ensuing the Jim Crow era, the government ordained the rigid segregation of cities, and within mixed cities, that in schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, markets, parks, airports, and elsewhere.
Between the conclusion of the Reconstruction and World War II, more than 4,400 lynchings took place in the United States. The Senate only passed legislation proclaiming lynching a federal crime in 2018. Two years ago.
As a young boy, in the late 1970s, Lebert F. Lester II was building a sandcastle on the Connecticut shore. A young white girl joined him until she was quickly dragged away by her father. She later returned to ask him, “Why don’t you just go in the water and wash it off?”
For the past century, the United States has been hemmed in a vicious cycle of intermittent racial progress punctured by movements and uprisings. But one reality has remained constant: an uncomfortable percentage of white people have ceaselessly denied the severity, some even the existence of racial injustice that many people of color undergo routinely.
Unfortunately, it’s not enough to trace the broad outlines of history. Being a good person is not sufficient, nor is not wishing black people any harm. We must pause to study the patterns of oppression and resistance and the indelible imprint they have left on our nation’s soul. A step-by-step enchiridion for a better tomorrow can be found in history, but only if we demand from one another that we are each better.
America is an individual voice speaking at a universal volume. Now we must decide what we’re going to say, and more importantly, what we will do. In recent days, we have seen what it looks like when we—people of all races, genders, ethnicities, and backgrounds—unite, stand in solidarity for justice, protest, march, and sing together. We have awoken to a bugle call to love thy neighbor as thyself and cherish every life of every creed. As such, we have seen America in a brighter light, its reflection in a clearer mirror. Let’s be better and recall Langston Hughes’ beautiful, hymnlike words…
“I, too, am America.”
Sarah Gorbatov is a junior at the IDEA School and Institute in New Jersey. She is a Staff Writer for Fresh Ink for Teens.