On the Fourth of July, many Americans celebrate the US Declaration of Independence. Yet there is no denying that it is fraught with tensions. By ignoring how white supremacy was the cultural ideology of the Colonies, most interpretations of the document twist the meaning of Thomas Jefferson’s famous words. It is impossible to separate the history of racism and white supremacy from the Declaration of Independence. Misunderstanding the Declaration of Independence makes these facts easy to ignore.
“We hold these words to be self-evident,” wrote Jefferson, “that all men are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights.” Jefferson meant every word. But no phrase has been more misunderstood, as the very humanity of Indians or Africans was never “self-evident” for our Founders. Jefferson’s words are tied to a long history of racial mythology designed to place the mask of egalitarianism on the face of white supremacy.
The West’s addiction to myths of human superiority and inferiority runs deep. The thinkers who shaped the Declaration of Independence radicalized these myths by racializing them.
No one undertook this work more explicitly than one of Jefferson’s favorite philosophers: John Locke. Locke acted as one of the main “idea” men behind much of the new American experiment. “No taxation without representation,” the “pursuit of life, liberty and happiness,” and “all men are created equal” are all drawn from John Locke’s writings.
In An Essay on Human Understanding, Locke explicitly teaches that though all men are created equal, we never know the “real essence” of humanity. Gold is Locke’s example. Mistaking everything as gold that looks like gold is to run the risk of mistaking fool’s gold as a precious metal. When it came to the humanity of Africans, Locke paints racist mythology as enlightened philosophy: “Take my word for it,” writes Locke, “there are creatures in the world that look human but have ‘hairy tails’ and women in West Africa who conceive the children of baboons.” For Locke, Africans are to white humanity what fool’s gold is to real gold—a lookalike that fails to meet the gold standard of full humanity. What exactly are Europeans to do with the discovery of Africans whose humanity was impossible to confirm? For Locke, this was a “new question.”
Locke’s question proved an ideal weapon for designing a nation that harmonized democratic liberty with the institution of slavery and the ideals of equality with the economics of inequality.
The Declaration of Independence intentionally left the question of the nature of Black humanity hanging in the air.
And after another few years, the US Constitution provided a specific estimate concerning the “new question.” The consensus the Founding Fathers reached was for the nation to count Black people as three-fifths human. Throughout America’s history, white supremacy rarely provided such “scientific” estimates. From Dred Scott to Trayvon Martin, simply questioning the nature and danger of Black humanity was all white supremacy needed to do its demonic work.
Rather than committing to pursue racial equity in our nation’s educational, economic, and political systems, too often America’s ideas about equality translated into holding African Americans individually responsible for racial inequalities. It has always been easier to call into question the quality of Black humanity than question our nation’s character.
Unsurprisingly, the most penetrating interpreters of the US Declaration of Independence often come through Black America. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, understood that the impact of racial theories are never theoretical for oppressed people. This is why King believed understanding “the ideational roots of race hate” was essential to the work of liberation.
In interpreting the US Declaration of Independence, King aimed at something much more radical than our country’s hardhearted nationalists or cynics were able to imagine. He aimed to rewrite the Declaration of Independence with its own words by imagining an America without racial and economic inequalities. King knew that until the Declaration’s famous phrase meant a nation committed to realizing racial and economic equality, its words rang hallow.
On this July Fourth, may we recognize that America’s addiction to white supremacy has yet to be broken. However, we should never underestimate King’s support of the “creatively maladjusted”–those who are equally addicted to love, humility, and justice and are ready to make the sacrifices that revolutionary justice always demands. Like King, may we engage in the project of rewriting of the US Declaration of Independence so that the nation truly reflects a vision of freedom and equality for all.
About the Author
Joel Edward Goza is a Contributing Writer for The North Star and the author of America’s Unholy Ghosts: The Racist Roots of Our Faith and Politics, which received a Starred Review from Publishers Weekly. Joel writes from Houston’s 5th Ward Community.