Nearly every week on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, a horrible news story emerges with evidence of systemic inequality in our country. Another citizenship revoked, another unarmed black man shot, another immigrant detained and deported. When these stories break, it’s easy to wonder how our country has gotten to this point, where immigrant families are separated and we threaten other countries with war at the first sign of trouble. It seems a far cry from the founding of the United States, when American people sought equality, freedom from tyranny, and a safe haven for people to be independent, with a say in their own government. So have we forgotten the ideals this country was founded on? Actually, the current state of our nation can be traced back to its beginnings in 1776.
The “freedom” our founding fathers espoused and wrote into the Constitution was far from all-inclusive. The pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness was granted to those at the top of the social hierarchy: white men. Women had very few rights. Black slaves had none. The Native Americans, whose land was stolen and developed by colonizing Europeans, were either killed or forced to adapt to a Western way of life, robbing them of their history and their culture. America was built on the subjugation of others, and while the outward appearance of social change may indicate that our current values are different, our fundamental ideals have not evolved much.
Take, for example, the treatment of black people in America. At the time of the nation’s founding, they were still subjects of slavery. Take a moment to think about that: the men who wrote our Constitution, which we uphold and read as law to this day in the Supreme Court, not only believed but participated in the practice of owning other humans and forcing them into slave labor. Even though the Constitution was amended in 1865 to outlaw slavery, it’s still more than likely that the creators of this country would not have approved of that amendment. Moreover, even after slavery was legally abolished, the 13th Amendment provided a loophole for slavery to continue under the guise of prison labor. To this day, in state prisons, black people are incarcerated at 5.1 times the rate of white people and exploited for labor. In our schools, we teach that the 13th Amendment ended slavery. The truth is that it continues every day in America in many different forms, from trafficking of third-country nationals to forcing migrant domestic workers into labor for extremely low pay.
Another example of stagnant American ideology can be seen in the way we treat Native Americans. When explorers discovered the Americas, they brought with them diseases from Europe that rapidly wiped out native populations, as well as forcing the natives into slave labor and often committing further atrocities like rape and murder. When Americans finally claimed the colonies for themselves and established this country, that pattern of violence remained. As Americans expanded West, it didn’t just happen that all the natives disappeared—with the Indian Removal Bill of 1830, President Andrew Jackson forcibly removed 60,000 Native Americans to make way for settlers to develop the frontier. American expansion came at the expense of the native peoples’ land and lives. In recent times, with the protests against building the Dakota Access Pipeline, the nation watched as police forces were dispatched to break up Native American protesters, hitting them with high pressure water cannons and forcing them back. Many Native Americans were arrested or detained, simply for protesting. Our treatment of Native Americans, and American disregard for their land and history, has not changed much over the centuries.
The one area in which America seems to have truly forgotten its history is the fact that in 1776, we were a small nation, not even our own people yet, who broke away from tyranny and sought to establish our own government. We had a revolution, fought back against oppressive English rule, and succeeded. We did so because we didn’t want an outside government and monarchy interfering in our lives. Yet throughout American history, the US has consistently interfered in other countries’ revolutions and wars, seeking to advance American interests, either in the name of economic growth or in supposed support of democracy, killing and bombing in the name of justice. This seems to be part of what our country stood for that we have completely abandoned.
It may be horrifying to turn on the news and see the systemic problems with American society that run deep, but we cannot pretend this is a new page in our history, or that we never saw this coming. The tense race relations in America today were not born overnight with the killing of Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin; they have been growing for years. Our fear of immigrants and change did not start with migrants from South America; the US has rejected and feared outsiders since the 1800s when the Irish immigrants coming to America were hated and rejected. Our history repeats itself over and over, and we cannot pretend that this is all new and shocking; we as a nation must accept and recognize the worst parts of our past before we can move forward.
Abigail is a rising sophomore at Emerson College studying for a BFA in creative writing. She spends most of her free time during the year working for her school newspaper, but also enjoys going to poetry readings, spending time with friends, and cheering for her hometown Philadelphia sports teams.