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Three approaches to Independence Day

Young girl holding a sparkler and wearing an American flag shirt
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Anderson edited "Leveraging: A Political, Economic and Societal Framework," has taught at five universities and ran for the Democratic nomination for a Maryland congressional seat in 2016.

July Fourth is not like Christmas or Rosh Hashanah, holidays that create a unified sense of celebration among celebrants. On Christmas, Christians throughout the world celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. On Rosh Hashanah, Jews throughout the world celebrate the Jewish New Year.

Yet on the Fourth of July, apart from the family gatherings, barbecues and drinking, we take different approaches. Some Americans celebrate the declaration of America's independence from Great Britain and especially the value of freedom. And some Americans reject the holiday, because they believe it highlights the self-contradiction of the United States, which created a nation in which some would be free and some would be enslaved. And other Americans are conflicted between these two points of view.

The people who go to the National Mall or the local park to watch fireworks and listen to musicians, many of whom sing songs about America's greatness, are in the first camp. They celebrate July Fourth as the birth of a great nation dedicated to the ideal of freedom. There are always many men and women from the military at such celebrations, including many disabled veterans.

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In the second camp are some Black Americans as well as others who have suffered discrimination and domination. This camp protests the pure celebration of a nation whose founding was built on the backs of Africans who were ripped out of their homes and their descendants, people who were enslaved to pick cotton, raise and slaughter farm animals, take care of white children, endure poor living conditions, and be subjected to beatings and hangings.

The third camp is the cohort of conflicted Americans: They are grateful for the heroism, the vision and the determination of our founding fathers and founding mothers, yet they are mindful of the brutality, the economic and political injustices, and the disgrace of the institution of slavery that was integral to the economy in the Southern states and built into the U.S. Constitution via the three-fifths rule.

The third camp of conflicted Americans is the most reasonable. Members of the other two fail to understand that our history is a mosaic of greatness and disgrace intertwined into our soul.

Politicians and candidates for office can help us to address this situation. Great presidents, it is often said, must be great educators. Through their speeches, actions and now social media, presidents — as Teddy Roosevelt pointed out — have a bully pulpit. July Fourth during a presidential election year is an opportunity for all candidates, from the major parties to third-party nominees to independents, to tell their story about Independence Day and what it means for America today.

The conflicted perspective is not the perspective of the American who says, "It is true that Jefferson and Washington had slaves, but they were essentially heroes and in their own time slavery was a commonplace." This common perspective gives our founders a pass. The descendants of slaves deserve more than that.

While we cannot give the founding fathers a pass, we should not exclude them from America's Hall of Fame of Heroes.

There is a middle ground. What the founding fathers did was manifestly unjust and shameful. At the same time, we must insist that their efforts to free the 13 colonies from brutal, unjust British rule and create a democratic nation that divided power in a unique way were heroic, brilliant, and of lasting value. What we have is a conflict between injustice on one issue and justice on another issue, a clear wrong and a clear right.

Nearly 250 years later political leaders must feel the pain, feel the injustice and be open to listening to those African Americans who believe that they still suffer from this original injustice. There must be a space for debate about race and racism today that is not biased in any direction.

Although it would be best if our schools taught students about the three camps, this is unlikely because each state, each locality, controls its own education. Therefore, it is up to federal politicians, especially the president, to educate our children and our adults as best they can.

In the days leading up to July Fourth, here is your chance, candidates.

Let's see what you've got.

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