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To the World, We’re Now America the Racist and Pitiful

Historians in the News
tags: racism, international relations, Fourth of July



The real saga of the Statue of Liberty—the symbolic face of America around the world, and the backdrop of New York’s dazzling Fourth of July fireworks show—is an obscure piece of U.S. history. It had nothing to do with immigration. The telltale clue is the chain under Lady Liberty’s feet: she is stomping on it. “In the early sketches, she was also holding chains in her hand,” Edward Berenson, a professor of history at New York University, told me last week. The shackles were later replaced with a tablet noting the date of America’s independence. But the shattered chain under her feet remained.

The statue was the brainchild of Edouard de Laboulaye, a prominent French expert on the U.S. Constitution who also headed the French Anti-Slavery Society. After the Civil War, in 1865, he wanted to commemorate the end of slavery in the U.S., enshrined in the new Thirteenth Amendment, which, in theory, reaffirmed the ideals of freedom—this time for all people—first embodied in the Declaration of Independence. The now famous line “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” from a poem by Emma Lazarus, wasn’t added until 1903, Berenson noted. The poem had been donated as part of a literary auction to raise funds for the statue’s pedestal. France donated the statue; the Americans had to raise the funds to pay for its pedestal. Long after Lazarus’s death, a friend lobbied to have the poem engraved on a plaque and added to the base. It has since associated the Statue of Liberty with a meaning that Laboulaye never intended.

One has to wonder what Laboulaye would think of America today, amid one of the country’s gravest periods of racial turmoil since the Civil War. Last month, a poll by Ipsos found that an overwhelming majority of people in fourteen countries, on six continents, support the protests that erupted across the United States after the murder of George Floyd. Russia, the fifteenth country in the survey, was the only place where a minority—about a third—backed the demonstrators.

On the eve of America’s anniversary—our two hundred and forty-fourth—much of the world believes that the country is racist, battered, and bruised. “Europe has long been suspicious—even jealous—of the way America has been able to pursue national wealth and power despite its deep social inequities,” Robin Niblett, the director of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, also known as Chatham House, in London, told me. “When you take the Acela and pass through the poorest areas of Baltimore, you can’t believe you’re looking at part of the United States. There’s always been this sense of an underlying flaw in the U.S. system that it was getting away with—that somehow America was keeping just one step ahead of the Grim Reaper.”

The flaw, he said, is reflected in the American obsession with the stock market as the barometer of national health—economically, politically, socially. The reaction to Floyd’s murder exposed the deep injustices in the American economic model, as well as in the police and judicial systems, Niblett said. Europeans, he added, are no longer so envious.

Read entire article at The New Yorker

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