The fireworks have been lit. Picnics have been had. Another July 4th – Independence Day – has come and gone.
Nevertheless, as a response to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, there had been a lot of debate amongst those on social media as to whether or not to even celebrate Independence Day. I chose not to engage in this conversation because regardless of which side you fall on in the Roe v. Wade debate, the truth is that independence has not been experienced by everyone in the United States since the beginning of our country’s inception. And although the manifestation of this unequal distribution of freedom may look different today than we had previously experienced, the lack of liberty for minoritized groups continues to be the case.
The freedom won by our national ancestors was enshrined by a Constitution that measured enslaved laborers (African Americans) as 3/5th human for census purposes and 0/5th human for all other purposes (US Constitution). Our history, both during and after the enslavement of African Americans, has been ladened with the deprivation of basic rights for minoritized groups and women. Whether it be denying citizenship to Asian Americans, denying Native Americans the right to teach one’s children one’s own values and language, or denying African Americans the right to basic liberty, freedom in this country has historically not been for everybody.
And let’s be honest. The unequal distribution of freedom is not just historical. Freedom is still not for everybody. In fact, quite literally, in the United States, through a massive, for profit, incarceration system we deny more people freedom than any other developed country in the world. Statistics show that while the United States makes up only about 5% of the world’s population, we lock up about 25% of the world’s imprisoned population. This means that approximately 25% of the world’s population that is denied freedom due to imprisonment live in the United States. While the latter percentage may not fully reflect countries such as North Korea, which is suspected to underreport its imprisoned population, it does demonstrate that in comparison to other developed countries, we do in fact physically deny freedom to more individuals than any other country in the world. Our prison population is 4 times the prison population in China and is greater than the top 35 European countries combined.
Furthermore, digging deeply into these statistics, we can see that the prison population in the United States is determined largely by race. While African Americans make up only 13% of the US population, they make up 40% of the prison population, and while white Americans make up 64% of the US population, they make up only 39% of the prison population. Additionally, Blacks are incarcerated at 5 times the rate of Whites nationwide, and seven states incarcerate Blacks at rates greater than 9 times the rate of Whites. These states are California, Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Wisconsin. Finally, nationwide, Latines are incarcerated at rates that are an average of 1.3 times higher than the rate that Whites are incarcerated, with Massachusetts leading the charge by incarcerating Latines at a rate of 4.1 times that of its incarceration of Whites.
Our prison population did not always look like it does today. After the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, various laws were passed with the ostensible intention of decreasing crime. These laws instead ballooned our prison population. Many believe that just as Jim Crow was created to reinvent slavery within the confines of then new legislation, mass incarceration was a way in the 1970s-1990s to reinvent Jim Crow in spite of the new Civil Rights legislations (Alexander, 2020).
As a Dual Language educator, I am less concerned with whether or not we individually choose to celebrate Independence Day than with our and our students’ understanding of how freedom continues to be withheld from minoritized groups. Among the three pillars of Dual Language Education is Sociocultural Competence, which requires us to teach our students to recognize and fight against injustice. Therefore, whether or not you celebrated or plan to celebrate the 4th of July in the future, consider how you and your students can participate in bringing about greater liberty and freedom for all Americans.
Here are a few suggestions you may want to incorporate this upcoming school year:
- Teach students about our country’s uniquely large prison population and the disproportionate representation of minoritized individuals in our jails. Have students learn about historical patterns of reinventing slavery in the United States and how our system of mass incarceration is a part of this pattern.
- Have students write letters to their congressmen, urging them to support the Eliminating Quantifiable Unjust Application of the Law (EQUAL) Act.
- Have students research organizations such as The Sentencing Project and the Prison Policy Initiative. Have students raise money for these organizations.
- Explore other ways that independence may be denied to minority groups and women.
Our job as Dual Language Educators is to ensure that our students can fight for justice. Let’s use the 4th of July as a catalyst to help us prepare to teach our students just that.