Harvard Educational Review
  1. Summer 2009 Issue »

    Youth Voices

    Is Racism Really Over in America?

    Sarah Prickett
    8th grade, Brookwood School, Massachusetts

    As part of our Civil War studies earlier this fall and winter, our eighth grade class has been reading Frederick Douglass’s famous speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” as well as his revolutionary Narrative. In comparing the two, the tone of voice he uses in his speech sounds more forceful in his arguments against slavery than in his Narrative, perhaps because in the speech he is clearly trying to change the ways of a much broader group of people: not just slave owners, but everyone in America. It is possible that he was concerned about those who were content with the fact that there existed a few free African Americans in the North, and therefore thought the fight for abolition was over. However, Douglass would not see his or any other colored person’s freedom as any confirmation of success and urged people to believe that the work was far from done. This same issue can be seen today with the election of President Barack Obama, America’s first African American president. After this huge milestone in America’s quest for racial equality, people may think racism is over. As Obama pointed out almost a year ago in his speech on race, the fight for equality is far from over and we have a long way to go even today.

    In his famous Fourth of July speech, Douglass’s main point was that black people throughout America, whether they were slaves or so-called “free,” could not celebrate the Fourth of July because it is a celebration of one’s freedom and independence from oppression, which no “colored people” had at the time. He argued that, “to drag a man in fetters onto the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony” (1852, p. 124). He was not only stating that black people cannot celebrate the Fourth of July, but also that it was horrible
    for America to expect slaves to pretend to be cheerful on a day that most prominently exhibits just how few freedoms they have.

    He cleverly went on to talk about how ironic it was that America, established with the claim of “freedom and liberty for all,” was full of slavery. In his closing statement, Douglass revealed just how strong his anger at America was for letting slavery take place day after day: “For revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without rival” (1852, p. 127). He ended by stressing just how important it was to him and the rest of the black population that people do not settle for a semi-equal America, but an America where all races can be truly free.

    Although America has achieved many, many great things since Douglass’s time, the same issue of whether or not racial equality has been reached recently came up again with the presidential campaign and election of Barack Obama. Once again, many people might claim that racism is over in the United States because the country now has its first African American president, but Obama would strongly disagree. As he said in his speech on race, made on March 18, 2008, “Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now.” He spoke about how a history of discrimination against blacks has made it extremely difficult for current generations to find the American dream and how racism “continue[s] to define [black people’s] worldview in fundamental ways.” He also said that it is simply not possible for racism to be abolished from American society in his time as president, but he still holds hope: “America can change. That is the true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope—the audacity to hope—for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.”

    Although Douglass’s strategy was to reject America in order to prove his point, the modern day strategy that Obama uses is that of unity. I think that the more negative angle Douglass used to spread awareness about racial discrimination was very effective for the purposes of his time, but I agree with Obama that today the people of America need to be united in order for the country to establish racial equality. Obama’s speech has made my study of Douglass and his views relevant to my life, and together they have reminded me that the fight for equality is not over. And yet, with his recent election, I am very optimistic about what President Obama will do to make America a better place than before. He has brought hope to people of every race all over this country, and I believe that although we have a long way to go before reaching racial equality, President Obama will continue to address the racial issues the U.S. still faces and will fight to improve them for the generations to come.

    Douglass, F. (1852, July). What to the slave is the Fourth of July? Speech presented at Corinthian Hall, Rochester, New York.

    Douglass, F. (1997). Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass: An American slave written by himself. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

    Obama, B. (2008, March). A more perfect union. Speech presented at Constitution Center, Philadelphia, PA. Retrieved February 19, 2009, from http://www.npr.org/ templates/ story/ story.php?storyId=88478467
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    Summer 2009 Issue


    Editors’ Introduction
    Note to Educators
    Hope Required When Growing Roses in Concrete
    Jeffrey M. R. Duncan-Andrade
    A Dialogue
    Our Selves, Our Students, and Obama
    Jennifer McLaughlin and Kim Kelly
    President Obama and Education
    The Possibility for Dramatic Improvements in Teaching and Learning
    Linda Darling-Hammond
    Promise and Peril
    Charter Schools, Urban School Reform, and the Obama Administration
    Charles Payne and Tim Knowles
    Reclaiming Our Freedom to Teach
    Education Reform in the Obama Era
    Megan Behrent
    Obama’s Dilemma
    Postpartisan Politics and the Crisis of American Education
    Henry A. Giroux
    Second-Class Integration
    A Historical Perspective for a Contemporary Agenda
    Vanessa Siddle Walker
    Equity and Empathy
    Toward Racial and Educational Achievement in the Obama Era
    Prudence L. Carter
    It Wasn’t Easy to Get Here
    Kathleen Mayse
    Obama, Where Art Thou?
    Hoping for Change in U.S. Education Policy
    Wayne Au
    Praise Song for Teachers
    A Call to Action
    Ariane White
    Educating Latino Immigrant Students in the Twenty-First Century
    Principles for the Obama Administration
    Carola Suárez-Orozco and Marcelo Suárez-Orozco
    Education for Everyday People
    Obstacles and Opportunities Facing the Obama Administration
    Gloria Ladson-Billings
    An Insurrectionary Generation
    Young People, Poverty, Education, and Obama
    Jay Gillen
    An Earned Insurgency
    Quality Education as a Constitutional Right
    Robert P. Moses
    Barack Obama and the Fight for Public Education
    William Ayers
    Coda: The Slow Fuse of Change
    Obama, the Schools, Imagination, and Convergence
    Maxine Greene
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