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Emma Lazarus, a nineteenth-century American poet, gained notability after her death when her poem ‘The New Colossus’ was published. Her poem reads: …Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles. From her beacon hand Glows a worldwide welcome; her mild eyes command The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame. “Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” (Cite) If the image she paints as she describes a “mighty women with a torch” at the “sea-washed, sunset gates” wasn’t clear, Lazarus is talking about the Statue of Liberty. In fact, Lazarus’ very words are engraved into the block of copper in which the “Mother of Exiles” stands upon.
Nowadays, the Statue of Liberty is understood to represent a beacon of freedom and hope. However, “Lady Liberty’s” origins have a darker past linked to the racial injustices of African Americans, immigrants, and ethnic minorities, and she has not always been associated with the symbol of justice that she is so synonymous with today. From the shackles placed on the Statue’s feet as a symbol of slavery, to the lands on which the statue stands on being used as internment camps during World War II, the Statue of Liberty has been more of a symbol of injustice rather than justice.
How come much of these former truths of America’s most iconic emblem are hidden away in obscurity? Because America has repeatedly failed to acknowledge and address its injustices, and thus, has failed to recognize racial justice.
The Center for Racial Justice Innovation defines racial justice as “the systemic fair treatment of people of all races, resulting in equitable opportunities and outcomes for all”. Identifying the past and present racial injustices that are present in America is a reasonable initial step toward the realization of racial justice; however, one cannot disregard the equal importance for the need of infrastructure that places equity at the core of its ethos. Only then, can we become a more just society, and only then can we rightfully proclaim the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of freedom and hope. There exists a popular saying that goes, “The devil is in the details,” (Unkown). This is true regardless if one is looking at a piece of art, a scientific finding, or a legal document. For example, when looking at a photo of the Statue of Liberty National Monument, located on Liberty Island in New York, your eyes will immediately notice the statue’s defining features: a torch in the right hand, a book in the left, an elegantly-draped garment, and a piercing crown on top of her head. However, what you may not notice is the broken shackles on her feet. The National Parks Services (NPS) provides an interpretation of these shackles.
According to their website, Edouard de Laboulaye, a “French political thinker, U.S. Constitution expert, and abolitionist,” was an advocate for President Lincoln’s abolition movement against slavery and the man behind the idea for the statue. The Statue of Liberty, along with her broken shackles, “not only represented democracy but also symbolized American Independence and the end of all types of servitude and oppression,”. On October 28, 1886, the Statue of Liberty was unveiled by President Grover to the inhabitants of New York City. That day, the New York Times published an article that described the enthusiasm towards the unveiling event: “All day yesterday people came to the city in droves to participate in today’s celebration. Extra heavily loaded trains, much behind schedule time…Every hotel was crowded to its utmost capacity last night,” (CITE).
Perhaps, this was a moment that would mark an era of redemption for America after its tumultuous history. However, shortly after the statue’s reveal, it became clear that these celebratory sentiments were not shared by the African American population, as their communities still faced oppression. Just three years earlier, the Supreme Court ruled the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional. This meant that hotels, public transportation, and other public enterprises could deny service to customers based on race. Thus, the American Government, consisting of white men, voluntarily allowed the free expression of racial discrimination through government-sanctioned laws and regulations, which in turn would benefit those white people in managerial positions. Towards the late 19th-century, Jim Crow Laws were enacted throughout the South, which further led to government (both at the local and state level) sanctioned laws in support of widespread racial segregation. It is understandable that blacks than did not resonate with the idea that the Statue of Liberty meant the end of “servitude and oppression”.
However, even today, racial injustice has not gone away. From police brutality, hate crimes, and innocent lives lost, our modern world reveals that many of our communities are still chained down within this oppressive system that allows racism, or “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death” as Ruth Wilson Gilmore puts it, to exist and be practiced. Thanks to the advent of technology, it has made it exceedingly easy for radical sub-groups to assemble and grow. A 2017 study on murder and extremism in the United States conducted by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) suggests that, “A majority of the 2017 murders were committed by right-wing extremists, primarily white supremacists, as has typically been the case most years,” and that these alt-right movements have, “expanded its operation in 2017 from the internet into the physical world—raising the likely possibility of more such violent acts in the future,”.
Yet today, over a hundred years past the unveiling of the Statue of Liberty, the shackles of oppression and servitude still embrace America’s disadvantaged groups. Just as Christopher Columbus braved the Atlantic sea in 1492, so did many Europeans during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These immigrants, or “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” as Lazarus puts it, we're excited to receive the glowing “worldwide welcome” that America and its leading lady promised; however, this overly-romanticized portrayal of America discredits the intentional placement of racial barriers present within America and its borders. Only a decade earlier, Chinese women were banned from immigrating via the Page Act of 1875. Seven years later, the U.S. passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which made the immigration of Chinese laborers illegal. And in 1943, the immigration of Chinese people was restricted to less than 150 people per year by the Magnuson Act.
It wasn’t until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 that race-based immigration restrictions became illegal. This change came after the detainment of thousands of Italians, Japanese, and German citizens during the World War II era; similarly, on the Western coast, widespread paranoia led to the incarceration of over 100,000 Japanese-Americans into internment camps. This systemic unfair treatment and imprisonment of minority races within America is not the epitome of justice or freedom. Today, immigration remains a pressing topic of debate. President Donald Trump’s anti-immigration agenda has pushed for the construction of “The Wall”, a barricade that will block non-citizens from crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. This leads one to ask, how can a symbol of justice and freedom coexist with a symbol of exclusion and injustice? What is the cost one pays for protecting our borders? The answer to this question became evident earlier this week when seven-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin from Guatemala, died of dehydration in the custody of the U.S. Border Patrol.
And just earlier this year, the government came under fire for its mistreatment of immigrants by cramming them (with most being children) into old corporate warehouses. Thus, it has become evident that there is quite a disconnect between the mainstream “immigrant-loving” symbolism of the Statue of Liberty and the everyday realities of life as an immigrant in America. The American identity is one that prides itself deeply in representing the ideal society rooted in justice, objective truth, freedom, and purity. Since childhood, we’ve sung the phrase “with liberty and justice for all,” yet, when consuming the news, talking to community members or studying our country’s history, it becomes clear that justice has not been for all. There was no justice for all the blacks that were subject to mistreatment, abuse, racial segregation, violence, and prematurely killed. There was no justice for the Japanese that were held and tortured in internment camps during World War II.
There was no justice for Tamir Rice, who was innocently shot and killed, in late 2014 by a Cleveland police officer when he was just twelve years old. There was no justice for Jakelin Moquin who died in the hands of U.S. Border Protection after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. These are just a few instances, but they reveal the long road we as a country have to go in realizing racial justice. Recognizing and admitting our faults is the first place to start when trying to make a change. From there, we can proceed to determine the criteria in which one can properly enforce the idea of fairness within a governing society. In the debate regarding combatting racism, usually the term “equality” and “equal rights” is thrown around as the so-called ‘solution’. However, what one finds when promoting equality, or the equal treatment of everyone, is that certain needs of disadvantaged groups do not get met based on the standards on which equality operates.
I believe that equality could work under the condition that each person begins from the same starting point and their needs are equal and remain equal. In other words, a system in which all the variables are indistinguishable from each other. However, humans at an individual, biological, and molecular level are complex organisms. The complexity rises significantly when looking at human-human interactions and multi-human interactions. One can clearly see that this would lead to quiet a chaotic system. Therefore, the very nature of our existence makes the application of a general parameter such as ‘equality’ difficult to apply to the non-equilibrium system that is the collective human experience. Therefore, a better parameter needs to be put into place. One that accounts for disorganized systems and distinguishable variables. I firmly this parameter is ‘equity’, or “justice according to natural law or right.
I don’t have the answers as to how to implement equity, but I believe it is the direction we must go towards. Furthermore, a society that realizes racial justice and promotes racial equity is one where more ethnic minorities are recognized in positions of power, especially within a system that governs their livelihoods. That way, construction can begin on laws and systems that particularly target racial minorities and provide them with a structure that sustains equity. The reality of America is strongly disconnected from the mythos that America has given itself. How can the Statue rightfully be an icon of our nation when the very foundation and infrastructure in which America was built upon has historically benefitted from the systemic mistreatments of its people—particularly, its minorities—through the means of racial injustice? Proceeding with a deeper analysis of the Statue of Liberty, and its iconographies has reflected the long journey our society and institutions, alike, have to go before achieving racial equity and true justice. Only from examining our past mistakes can we begin to understand the necessary actions needed to take place to advance to a better world. Only then, can the Statue of Liberty truly represent liberty, freedom, and hope.
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