The Fourth of July is a complicated holiday for African-Americans. We love the food, family and even the fireworks, but the actual history and rationale behind the holiday have never sat well with us. It’s why Frederick Douglass, on July 5, 1852, gave the rousing speech in which he questioned the very soul of a nation willing to celebrate independence while simultaneously enslaving millions. Douglass declared,
“I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you this day rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today? What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?”
When Douglass gave this speech, the United States had been celebrating its so-called freedom for 76 years — all while forcing millions of human beings into a permanent life of slavery. Now, 165 years after Douglass delivered this speech, it rings as true today as it did then.
This Fourth of July, I saw many of my closest friends, everyday people and celebrities alike, echoing Douglass — either by quoting him directly or by sharing their own versions of the exact same sentiments. Perhaps none were as succinct and to the point as those from my friend Blake, who tweeted “F–k the 4th. F–k the flag. F–k the national anthem.”
I see very little difference between what Blake said and what Douglass said. Mind you, neither said that they hate America — but they both have serious problems with a nation willing to gleefully tout symbols of freedom while it denies full, unfettered access to those freedoms to so many that call this land home.
It’s why, in 1972, in his final days on this earth, baseball legend, civil rights pioneer and World War II veteran Jackie Robinson wrote in his autobiography, “I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot stand and salute the flag.” Few people had seen America overpromise and under-deliver as up close and personal as Robinson. My guess is that most of his white fans would have assumed that he would’ve looked back on his years as an American with a big, grateful toothy grin. He did not. This nation wears out even its brightest stars.
It’s why a young Cassius Clay would return to the United States from Rome in 1960 and throw his Olympic Gold Medal into the Ohio River. It’s why that same man changed his name to Muhammad Ali. It’s why Muhammad Ali sacrificed his career and was banned from boxing for years when he refused to fight in the Vietnam War.
Douglass, Robinson and Ali are all celebrated today as the best this nation has to offer, but they were the staunchest possible critics of the United States. Tuesday on Twitter, I shared Blake’s tweet with the comment that what he said about the Fourth well-represented how so many of friends feel about the holiday. The backlash was severe — ranging from obscene bigotry to thousands of calls for he and I to find another country to live in. To be black in America, and criticize this country with confidence, seems to make one a traitor with conservative white America. To be white in America, and criticize this country with confidence, got Donald Trump elected President of the United States. His entire campaign was staked on the idea that America had tanked in every essential way and that he alone could make it great again.
The United States of America is not the best country in the world. I say that without emotion like I can tell you that the Brooklyn Nets are not the best team in the NBA. Saying as much doesn’t mean I hate the Nets or hate Brooklyn or hate the NBA. The Brooklyn Nets may actually be the worst team in the NBA. They should’ve received the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft, but they traded it away years ago for old veterans. They’ll lose this year’s pick, too. The men they have on the team are great guys. I’ve come to know several of them. I’ve also come to know many employees there — great people — all of them. But the team is still in rough shape.
To call the Brooklyn Nets the best team in the NBA tells me a lot about the person making the claim. First off, they clearly don’t understand the metrics of greatness. Greatness can be measured in the NBA. The Nets didn’t win the championship. The Nets didn’t even make the playoffs. The Nets don’t have any all-stars. The Nets aren’t seen as a remotely decent destination for top free agents. The Nets don’t have any league leaders in a single quantifiable category.
I’m not even sure a true fan of the Brooklyn Nets — that is, someone who values and loves the team and wants what’s best for them, would ever call them the best team in the NBA. If you truly love the Brooklyn Nets and want to see them grow and improve, calling them the best team in the NBA, is not just delusional, it’s dishonest. Teams cannot improve with honest assessments of where they are and how they got there.
The United States of America is the Brooklyn Nets. We are not the best country in the world. This is not my opinion. These are the facts. What makes a country great is measurable. And in every demonstrable category, our country is coming up very, very short. If it is your opinion is that the United States is the greatest nation in the world, your definition of greatness is likely skewed by blind patriotism, greed or white supremacy. Either way, you are wrong, and claiming that the United States is the best nation on earth, when we are far from it, is a peculiar lie to hold on to — a contradiction that exposes the hypocrisy of Trump’s most devoted supporters perhaps more than any other claim. Is it not weird to claim that Obama took the country to hell in a handbasket while also claiming it’s the best country in the world? You can’t claim both and mean it. Choose one.
Here I will press my case with facts and evidence.
America’s criminal justice nightmare
The United States has more black men either in prison or under the thumb of the criminal justice system than were enslaved in 1850. This is ugly. The United States locks up more people at a higher rate than any country in the world. It’s not even close. We are the incarceration nation. It is indeed true that we have just 5% of the world’s population but more than 25% of the world’s prisoners. Indeed, it appears that the United States not only incarcerates more of its citizens than any country in the world, but more of our people are locked behind bars than any country in the entire history of the world.
What that means is that the United States incarcerates about 700 out of every 100,000 citizens. Of the 222 nations with accurate data, more than half of them, lock up less than 150 people per 100,000 citizens. When race is considered, the numbers skyrocket with African-Americans being incarcerated an average of 500% more than their white counterparts — and as much as 1000% more in states like Oklahoma and New Jersey. The United States imprisons a higher percentage of African-Americans than South Africa did during apartheid.
I could stop right there. For me, the country that sets records with the number of people it incarcerates cannot be the best country in the world. Period. These abominable facts preclude our nation from such a position, but the nightmare of our justice system does not end there.
No country with a remotely respected record on human rights even maintains the death penalty. In fact, only a few dozen countries in the world executed people in recent years, including Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen and, of course, the United States. These are our peer countries when it comes to the death penalty. Canada to the north and Mexico to the South have banned executions. The entire European Union banned executions — and actually requires the ban of all of its member states.
And of course, no developed country in the world has more of its people killed by police officers than the United States — including more than 600 so far this year — compared with two for the United Kingdom. Police in Iceland went 71 years between police killings.
This year is on pace to be the deadliest year ever measured for the number of people killed by American police, since the national stats were tracked in 2013. If not for the crisis of Trump’s presidency, the worsening problem of police brutality in this country would likely be dominating headlines. Pregnant women, children, and the elderly are among the hundreds of people killed by American police this year. The deaths are so commonplace now, and receive so little coverage, that I struggle to name more than five of the 600-plus victims by name off the top of my head. Even in the most egregious cases, where the evidence is overwhelming, seemingly no cops are being held accountable for this crisis — which is only deepening a real sense of hopelessness on the issue among millions of Americans.
I could go on and on here — describing gruesome details of some of the worst human rights abuses and crimes against humanity that I’ve heard of the world over — all done by law enforcement officers in America. These abuses, and the absolute refusal of our nation to do anything substantive about them, make it such that calling this nation the greatest nation on earth is a slap in the face of the thousands of victims who’ve been unjustly mowed down, chewed up, and spit out by America’s justice system.
Our health care crisis
To be clear, health care and health insurance are not in the same. Our nation is at a crossroads on both issues and, like we do most of our biggest problems, we appear to be far more interested in talking big and doing nothing — or worse — deepening the crisis on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens. Tens of millions of people in the United States have no health insurance coverage whatsoever right now. Now, Donald Trump and the Republican Party are proposing new legislation that could add an astounding 22 million more Americans to the rolls of the uninsured — which could push the total number of uninsured American men, women and children past 50 million.
To put those horrendous numbers in context, 100% of Canadian citizens have health insurance, 100% of British citizens have health insurance, 99.9% of the French have health insurance and 99.8% of Germans have health insurance. In the United States, before Trumpcare has even hit, at least 11% of Americans are currently uninsured. Our small states have more uninsured people than entire nations around the world.
And we claim that our health insurance costs so much because the care is so great, but this just isn’t the case. Our health insurance costs so much because for-profit health insurance companies and ultra-rich drug companies are reaping billions of dollars of profits from the system.
Did you know that the United States has the worst rate of maternal deaths of any developed country in the world? In fact, of every developed country in the world, except for the United States, the maternal death rate is plummeting, while ours rises higher and higher. A full 300% more American women die during childbirth than our nearest peer nation. Again, these aren’t opinions. These aren’t liberal daydreams from a crazy socialist. These are facts. An outrageous number of American women are dying during childbirth at a time where they shouldn’t be.
I had always assumed that the United States had more hospitals and hospital beds than other countries. This, too, is a lie. In the United States we have just 2.9 beds available per 1,000 people. France has more than double that at 6.2 beds per 1,000 people, according to the CIA World Factbook. Germany has nearly triple the number of beds per 1,000 people at 8.2 beds. I found this out the hard way earlier this year when I went to the ER after fracturing my shoulder. Alongside dozens of other sick or injured people, I was placed on a stretcher and rolled into a crowded hallway, not for a few hours, but for over a day, even waiting to see a specialist. Last month, one of our kids was hospitalized and we waited for seven outrageous days for a proper room to come available for her. And I pay an outrageous amount of money every month for the best insurance money can buy.
A recent study of 11 of the health care systems in world’s wealthiest nations, the United States ranked dead last. Again, these rankings aren’t based on opinions, but a complex set of 12 very real metrics, including quality, efficiency, safety, cost, timeliness, health, and more and our nation came in last place — not first, not second, not in the top five or even in the top 10, but last.
If the quality of a nation cannot be measured on issues of justice and health, maybe we can agree on education. How much a nation values the education of its children should not be a partisan issue.
Education in America is no longer our bread and butter
The U.S. News and World Report ranks the United States seventh for best education. Canada, the United Kingdom and Germany now make up the top three education systems in the world. A study from the World Economic Forum evaluated the top education systems in the world. In their list of the top 11, released in November, the United States didn’t even make the list.
When evaluating the math and science education received by American students, the numbers are dismal. Out of 71 countries evaluated for their math education, the United States placed 38th. For science education the United States only improved to 24th place in the world. You should look at this data for yourself. It’s terrible.
Some of this is specifically about education and how outdated and outmatched our systems are, but this is also a conversation about poverty. Child poverty in America is an abomination. According to a UNICEF evaluation, of the 41 wealthiest nations in the world, the United States is ranked 36th in their child poverty measurement — with an astounding 32% of American children living below the poverty line. That’s nearly a third of the kids in our country that are living in poverty. That’s fundamentally outrageous — particularly in light of the fact that many like to brag about how wealthy this country is. While numerous countries during the past decade reduced the number of children living in poverty, the United States’ child poverty population increased by millions. It’s gross and it’s no wonder our education systems are struggling when roughly 1 in 3 children are also fighting through the effects of poverty.
Income inequality in America
In 1980, the bottom 50% of all Americans had an average income of about $16,000. Nearly 40 years later, the average income for the bottom 50% of all Americans has hardly budged. If a minimum wage worker making $9.25 per hour, which is what most make around the country, worked 40 hours per week, for 52 straight weeks, without taking a day off, they’d earn just $19,240 in yearly salary. Who can live off of that? While the cost of living has skyrocketed these past four decades, the average income for over 100 million Americans has been virtually stagnant for generations. The tiny increase in income from 1980 until now hardly even covers the increase in health insurance costs during that time. Do the math yourself and try to cover rent, utilities, insurance, automobile costs, food, childcare, clothing, and more with what a minimum-wage worker makes in this country. Mind you, now-departed Congressman Jason Chaffetz proposed last week that members of Congress be given a $30,000 annual housing allowance on top of their minimum salary of $174,000 per year because they simply couldn’t get by without it. Yet our nation has tens of millions of people who make less in a full year of hard work than he makes in two months.
While the rich are getting richer and richer, everyday people are fighting tooth and nail all over this country to increase the minimum wage to something they can actually live off of. It’s not just lack of work, which is a problem all by itself, but the unlivable wages made by the working poor, that have caused a third of all American children to live in poverty.
What good does it do to brag about how much wealth this nation has, if the overwhelming majority of Americans have absolutely nothing to show for it? The United States as a nation is not wealthy — the 1% of the top 1% are wealthy. They don’t represent everyday Americans.
The quality of life in the United States sucks
Before Donald Trump was ever elected President of the United States, a powerful study was done to determine the happiness of the people in each country of the world. I say before Trump was elected because my best guess is that the score for the United States will plummet in the years to come. Anyway, I doubt it comes as a surprise to you that the United States wasn’t listed as the happiest place on earth. That’s Norway. Again, just like the measurements for the best healthcare systems, the United States didn’t come in a close second, or third, or place in the top five or even in the top 10. No, from 2014-2016, our nation was evaluated to be the 14th happiest country on Earth. Before you blast the study as some esoteric evaluation of emotion, it’s much deeper than that. The score is based on six key variables, including GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, social freedom, generosity and absence of corruption. If our nation was an NFL team, at 14th place, we wouldn’t even make the playoffs when evaluated on those six factors. Forgive my sports metaphors, but in a country obsessed with sports that also claims it’s the greatest nation in the world, these studies help illustrate that we simply aren’t winning the way we say we are.
Another study evaluated 14 different metrics from the world’s top 136 economies to determine which countries are the best for travel and tourism. Again, this study from the World Economic Forum was conducted before the election of Donald Trump. I sincerely expect these numbers will get worse in light of our nation’s travel ban for majority-Muslim countries and horrific demonization of immigrants. Before Trump, the United States didn’t even crack the top five nations in the world for travel and tourism.
That same study from the World Economic Forum evaluated the safety and security of travelers visiting each nation. Where the United States ranked is so humiliating and ridiculous that it should be a national crisis. Of course it isn’t, though. The United States is ranked the 84th safest place to visit for foreign travelers out of 136 countries that were evaluated — lagging behind Gabon, Algeria, and Benin. Eighty-three other countries in the world have been deemed safer for foreign travelers than the United States. And it’s not just about crime, but about the treatment of foreigners in general as well as the reliability of police forces to assist in times of need.
We have a horrible human being as President
I didn’t lead with Donald Trump in rationale behind stating that the United States is not the greatest country in the world because Trump is simply a terrible symptom of all that’s wrong with this nation — not the cause of it. The deep systemic problems of our justice system, healthcare system and education systems existed long before he came to power. Trump, however, is the perfect symbol of just how deeply problematic our nation is.
More than a dozen different women accused the man of sexual assault or harassment before he became President of the United States. Over the course of his life he has been so profoundly insulting to so many different people and groups — particularly women — that the notion of someone with such a known history of insults becoming President once seemed like a cruel joke. He openly admitted to cheating on his previous wives. He has lied more than any politician ever measured in the history of Politifact — the Pulitzer Prize winning fact-checking organization. He has used the Office of the President to target, harass and humiliate whoever is in his crosshairs at the moment. His signature policies, ranging from the Muslim ban to his recent voter suppression efforts, have been widely criticized. His healthcare plan would boot 22 million more people off of insurance and raises rates for the most vulnerable among us. He shoved a Prime Minister to get in the front of a picture. He refused to shake hands with German Prime Minister Angela Merkel. He made the bigoted head of Breitbart his Chief Strategist and another bigot his Chief Policy Advisor. He proposed a budget that slashed meals to the elderly and cut funding for PBS. Over dinner during his first week in office he approved a disastrous airstrike in Yemen that not only got a Navy Seal killed, but slaughtered scores of men, women and children.
Donald Trump is a nightmare. More people in this country are now calling for his impeachment than actually approve of the job he’s doing. Every single day that he tweets or opens his mouth to speak, he causes turmoil and stress where none was needed. Sincere people question his mental health. His own peers in the Republican Party have now been forced to ask him to stop his offensive rhetoric.
Donald Trump is not the lone reason why our nation fails to be the greatest nation in the world, but as long as he’s President, this much I know: we will never be great. He doesn’t have the capacity for greatness. He’s a privileged, entitled 71-year-old longtime misogynist who has never really been held accountable for his sins his entire life. Outside of his kids, who are his protégés? Who has he taught, built, mentored or grown into something of note? Before he became President, what changes in society had he fought for and won that made our country into a better place? Name one.
A few people in our country may have a lot of money and our military may have a lot of guns, but we’re not the greatest nation in the world. We could sit here all day and debate who’s better, but I know it’s not us. Not with Trump and not with all of our core systems struggling in the most basic ways to be fair and just to everyday Americans who deserve so much better.
Like Jackie Robinson or Colin Kaepernick, I don’t beam with pride when I see the American flag or hear the National Anthem because I don’t believe the promises those things claim to represent are true. They were never true. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and most of America’s laws were never written with most of the country in mind.
Now, the lazy retort I see most often is that I have freedoms that people don’t have in Afghanistan or North Korea and that I wouldn’t last a day talking like I talk in those countries. That may be true, but if that’s the best you can do, you’ve already proven my point. Those places aren’t my barometer. They aren’t the pace cars for how well or how poorly our nation is doing. Instead, I’m looking at the countries that are running circles around us in every key metric available.
I have fought for my entire life to make this country a better place. I’ve mentored, taught, preached, counseled, advised, protested, marched and written in every way I know how to leave a mark that will make this nation live up just a little bit more to its ideals. For generations my family has fought for this country in military service. My mother labored for 45 years in a light bulb factory in pursuit of the American dream. I am here by choice. I could leave, but I criticize this nation out of a place of love and longsuffering — not hate. I have poured too much into this land to give up on it. I have also seen far too much of our ugliness to bring myself to lie about who and what this nation really is.