CHICAGO – The orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass once noted the disconnect between the words of our nation’s Founding Fathers and their deed of allowing, perpetuating and profiting from slavery in America.
“What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?” Douglass said at an Independence Day celebration in 1852.
He came to the conclusion that “I am not included within the pale of glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me.”
Douglass was not criticizing his homeland because he disdained it. He, in fact, believed in the promise of true democracy – one that made good on the declaration that “all men are created equal.”
His lament seemed topical as news reports spread last week that an 11-year-old boy in Florida was arrested after arguing with a substitute teacher who was incensed that the student declined to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.
The teacher allegedly told the sixth-grader, who is African-American, “Well, you can always go back, because I came here from Cuba, and the day I feel I’m not welcome here anymore, I would find another place to live.”
Let that sink in for a moment.
An adult – presumably vetted by the school and required by the Florida Department of Education to be certified to substitute teach – told an 11-year-old child that, basically, he should go “back” to … where, exactly? … if he didn’t like the way America was treating him.
Our children live in a country in which African-Americans die at the hands of police at the rate of 7.2 per million – whites’ rate, by comparison, was 2.9 per million – according to an analysis of data from 2015 and 2016.
An America in which the median earnings gap between white men and black men is as large as it was in 1950, over a decade before the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Even if the kid had the ability to simply decide to relocate to a friendlier country, his parents would hardly be expected to have the resources to pick up and move.
Plus, the fact that an immigrant from Cuba, with her privileged immigration status, said this to a child of color is beyond repugnant.
The worst of it is that the story is playing out like the student did something wrong. But court precedents give students the right to refuse to participate in reciting the pledge without fear of punishment or retaliation.
In fact, according to news reports, the substitute teacher was uninformed about the school district’s policy allowing students to take a pass on the pledge as long as they have written authorization from a parent, which the student had.
Yet, it was the 11-year-old who was treated like a criminal when he reacted poorly – you might even say he behaved childishly – to the violation of his school permissions and constitutional freedoms, and the unprofessional treatment by his teacher.
This arrest is a prime example of what is called the school-to-prison pipeline.
“The approach to highly publicized school shootings has been to put law enforcement who were not trained to work with children into schools,” said Beatriz Beckfords, campaign director at MomsRising, a national advocacy organization focused on women’s economic empowerment.
“This response is based in fear, and it doesn’t even work, according to school safety data,” she told me. “We should be having dynamic conversations about how school safety can and should be increased by providing teachers with resources to teach social-emotional learning, and providing schools with social workers, full-time nurses and other resources to achieve the overarching goal of keeping students in school instead of criminalizing them.”
For those whose ancestors were not brought to this country chained, to be bought and sold as chattel, or ripped from their land and families as Native Americans were, it’s inconceivable that someone would not want to honor our flag or our anthem.
But that’s easily remedied by a few history lessons. And a primer on what it means to exercise democracy by loving your country enough to criticize it and strive to make it better.
E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @estherjcepeda. © 2019, Washington Post Writers Group.