For centuries, Black and Indigenous writers have established loud and clear the great paradox of the Fourth of July: the U.S.’ purported democracy was founded on slavery and genocide. We must also remember that since July 4, 1776, the U.S. has not only continued its settler-colonial project and its containment of Black people within U.S. borders, but it has also expanded its colonial aspirations across the globe. One only needs to recall that the turn of the 20th century “independence” entailed the colonization of Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Guam, Samoa, and Hawaii.
In recent years, from police killings of Black people to the deportation machine’s caging of children, it is more clear than ever that the idea that “all men are created equal” was meant only for some, not for all. Perhaps this explains why protesting U.S. state violence has been as much of a part of the Fourth of July as the fireworks and the cookouts all along — from Congolese Therese Patricia Okomou who scaled the Statue of Liberty to protest family separations in 2018 and continues to demand “Abolish ICE” to the 2020 protests against police violence or those who blocked the highway leading up to Mount Rushmore, reminding the world that this land, the Black Hills, belongs to the Lakota Sioux.
As an Arab American, I do not celebrate independence, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness on the Fourth of July when the very system claiming to hold these values is killing my people abroad and targeting us through counter-insurgency strategies as well as through surveillance and immigration bans within the U.S. I do celebrate similar principles on other days.
I’ll never forget hearing U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s voice blasting through my family’s TV screen in 1996 when she said the price of killing half of a million Iraqi children in Iraq was worth it. In my twenties, I realized that for those in power, the profit the 1% and oil industry gain from war is more important than the blood of my people. Arab children’s lives have no value to too many in the American political and economic system. My heart continued to bleed into my thirties when I watched Muhammad Al Durra on TV, picking it up from the French 2 station, killed by Israeli gunfire in his father’s arms in September 2000.
In May 2021, the hundreds of Palestinians killed and the 72,000 displaced joined in my heart the 1.6 million Iraqis who died during the decade-long U.S. occupation of Iraq. U.S.-made weapons killed them both as did the American-backed sanctions and embargoes. I see all too well how Republicans and most Democrats view my people. Newly arrived politicians such as Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, however, are voicing many of my concerns and being terribly misrepresented and vilified for doing so within the rampant anti-Muslim racism of Washington and the mainstream U.S. news media.
The elders of my family immigrated to the U.S. from Jordan in the 1950s and 60s. My father was a shopkeeper in San Francisco who changed his name from Suleiman to Sol out of fear that people would not visit his store if they knew he was an Arab. My uncle Raja went by Roger and my uncle Yacoub went by Jack at their stores. It’s painful to think back on the compromises with their identity they felt compelled to make in order to survive – in an ostensibly liberal community!
To be sure, while Israeli colonization has gravely impacted Jordan, we were not survivors of Israeli violence or a U.S.-led war. Yet I grew up in an Arab immigrant community surrounded by people I consider kin who were forced to leave their homes and lands in Iraq and Palestine only to relocate to the very nation responsible for their trauma. There were also many who came before the U.S. devastated Iraq and before the U.S. sided so overwhelmingly with Israel in its 1967 occupation of Palestinian territory. They were following previously arriving family members or came to the U.S. because they, like millions across the world, recognized the opportunities available in the world’s financial superpower, even as it took wealth and resources from some of the very places they were fleeing.
Today, in my capacity as interim director of the Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy at the University of Illinois, I am directing a study about Arab Americans and racial profiling. In a recent group interview with Arab immigrants and refugee women living in Chicagoland suburbs, I was reminded of how the racism of U.S. government policy can manifest itself in local form in everyday Arab American life. One mother said she cannot leave her children’s side inside her own apartment because her white supremacist neighbors consistently stand outside her children’s bedroom window and harass them, shouting that they are terrorists and demanding that they “go back home.”
So much for Ellis Island and founding myths. The reality and the mythology remain far apart. In the aftermath of the terrible four years of Donald Trump, the Biden administration is continuing programs rooted in anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism such Countering Violent Extremism, a community-driven program that expands the criminalization of Muslim Americans.
This Fourth of July, I will not be watching fireworks or joining a cookout. I will be holding my two Jordanian-Egyptian sons tightly in my arms. We will discuss the meaning of freedom when those of us who criticize Israeli state violence are punished for free speech. We will discuss the meaning of independence when the settler-colonial expansionist U.S. nation-state devastates the Middle East for profit, and we will reflect on the “liberty” of the federal government to spy on our community and entrap our youth with impunity.
Rather than celebrating the Fourth of July, we celebrated the abolitionist, anti-militarist, decolonial, and immigrant justice social movements and our many social justice-oriented communities where we find the interdependence we rely upon to survive and thrive, the liberty to exist as we are, a sense of home and belonging, and our freedom dreams.