On Independence Day, Whose “Freedom” Do We Celebrate?

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In 1852, Frederick Douglass delivered an address in which he asked:

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.

Sadly, 245 years after the United States declared its independence, “freedom” remains inaccessible for many Black and brown people, including immigrants, in this country. This injustice—the facade of freedom for all—pervades our history, from the displacement and persecution of Indigenous people, to slavery, to Reconstruction Era laws that effectively continued to enslave Black people, to mass incarceration today. The Declaration of Independence was written by and for white men, actively excluding Black people, Indigenous people, women, and others. This nation’s founding fathers deprived others of the rights they bestowed on themselves.

The United States still restricts the freedom of millions. Today, nearly two million people are incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails, and thousands of immigrants are detained awaiting deportation. Black and brown people are disproportionately harmed by this overreach. They are far more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, convicted, harshly sentenced, and saddled with lifelong conviction records than white people. Black and Latinx people make up roughly 32 percent of the U.S. population, but represent 56 percent of the incarcerated population.

It’s not only people who are incarcerated in brick-and-mortar jails and prisons who aren’t “free.” A staggering 10.5 million arrests each year trap people experiencing poverty and homelessness, people with substance use and mental health conditions, people who cross the border seeking refuge, and others in criminal legal and immigration systems designed to punish them. More than 70 million people (one in three adults) have conviction histories, some for things as petty as loitering and disorderly conduct. Probation and parole upend the lives of 4.5 million people nationwide, imposing restrictions that make it harder for people to find and keep jobs, go to school, or access services they need to thrive. People who don’t meet the burdensome requirements of supervision can find themselves reincarcerated for something as minor as failing to report a new address.

This entanglement with the criminal legal system impacts every aspect of people’s lives. People with conviction histories have a harder time getting jobs due to legal barriers and outright discrimination, resulting in a lifetime of lower wages that serve as a perpetual drag on the earning potential of tens of millions of Americans. They also face obstacles securing housing, loans, public assistance, and even driver’s licenses. In all but two states and the District of Columbia, people who are incarcerated lose the right to vote, and in several states, they lose this right even after release.

This burdensome system has ravaged the lives of millions, stripping them of the ability to live freely while failing to make our communities any safer. In 1852, Douglass said that more still needed to be done so that all citizens can enjoy “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In 2021, the millions who are incarcerated, detained, or live with conviction histories—disproportionately people of color—have not been able to realize the freedom this country celebrates in name. It’s time to change that.