On Wednesday, February 3, members of Congress paid tribute to murdered Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick.  

If you did not see the ceremony, it is available online. Officer Sicknick’s remains had been brought to the Capitol Rotunda to Lie in Honor. (1) It was an appropriate and moving tribute. He is only the 5th person in our history to Lie in Honor in the Capitol Rotunda, and clearly deservedly so. The ceremony was sad, solemn, but beautiful.

The official chorus, “The Singing Sergeants”, of the U.S. Air Force sang “America the Beautiful”. The music, the lyrics were haunting. Reflective.

U.S. Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick

When you were in school, did you sing “America the Beautiful”? How many times have you sung or heard that song? Do the words mean anything to you? Have you reflected on them?

“America the Beautiful” embodies the best of who we are, and what we should aspire to as a people. But, today, brotherhood and sisterhood are in short supply. What do brotherhood and sisterhood actually mean? Does it mean we should love our neighbor as we love ourselves? That we should treat others as we want to be treated by them? That we recognize the fundamental humanity and equality of all persons?

In the final analysis, aren’t we all basically the same? Irrespective of whatever characteristic you want to identify—ethnicity, religion, gender, socio-economic status—don’t we all have essentially the same hopes and desires, the same fundamental objectives in our lives?

Don’t we all want to live fruitful, fulfilling lives? To be able to provide food, clothing, shelter, medical care, education for our families? To live in a peaceful society, and to be safe and secure in our homes, our places of work, and our places of entertainment and recreation? To be free; to be able to pursue our interests and live our lives as we see fit so long as we respect the rights of others to do the same?  To improve the circumstances of our lives, and the lives of our loved ones and friends? To enable our children to have better lives than we did; to have lives full of hope, love and joy, achievement and fulfillment? What people anywhere on earth do not want these things for themselves, their family, their friends?

Of course, the U.S. never has come close to achieving our ideals. To our great shame, too many people have too little actual commitment to them.

We are a nation founded in racism, and racism is chiseled deeply into the core of the nation. It is not just slavery, but the genocide of Native Americans. Hitler’s ideas for his concentration camps and his extermination of Jews were grounded in the genocide of Native Americans and confining those who survived on reservations.

Historically, there has been profound bigotry toward numerous ethnic groups. Of course, here in the Rio Grande Valley, we are (or we should be) very knowledgable about the historical discrimination against Mexican Americans and Latinos, particularly by the Texas Rangers; but also by local police as demonstrated by the 1971 “Pharr Riots”. (2)  

Asian immigrants, historically, also have been badly treated from the Chinese “coolies” who built our western railroads, to today, with Chinese Americans and Chinese immigrants being perceived by some as somehow guilty of transmitting COVID, what some derisively call the “Chinese flu”.  

Japanese Americans were treated horribly during World War II, incarcerated in concentration camps and sometimes murdered in cold blood.  For decades afterwards, there was a pervasive resentment against Japanese Americans, a resentment doubtlessly still harbored by some.  

Europeans have not been immune to bigoted ethnocentrism—Italians, Poles, peoples from Eastern Europe in general.

Why? If we look into any of these groups, we will find many people who have made great, magnificent contributions to our nation, our history, our culture. Do you like peanut butter?  Thank an African American. Are you taking the COVID vaccine?  Thank an Eastern European. Do you like Chinese or Japanese food? Would we have it were it not for the Chinese and Japanese among us? Do you drive a Japanese or South Korean car?

The list of contributions large and small by non-“Anglo” immigrants, by Native Americans, by all ethnic and religious groups are infinite.

And yet, many refuse to accept people of other ethnicity; much less see them as our brothers and sisters. If we reflect on it, surely we realize this bigotry, this refusal to accept the obvious, does not make sense. Any society will accomplish much more when people work together cooperatively rather than expend their energies attacking one another and trying to pull the society apart.

So, why do racism, ethnocentrism and nativism exist? There are many reasons. The overriding reason is bigotry is learned behavior. Children are not born racists, or sexist, or religiously intolerant. They are taught bigotry by their parents, by their peers, by society. The tragic events of 6 January are telling us we are a nation tearing ourselves apart because of fear, hatred and bigotry.

We should not fear our brothers and sisters. We should love them as we love ourselves, treat them as we want them to treat us.  Our children should sing “American the Beautiful” in our schools. And our schools must do much, much more to teach our children we are a nation of brothers and sisters. The bigots will teach their children to be bigots. We must work through all of the institutions of our society to end all forms of bigotry, intolerance, and hatred.

We will not live to see the day when the words of “America the Beautiful” ring true, but if our children do not, our grandchildren can provided we make the commitment today to change the way we look at our brothers and sisters. Then and only then will we truly fulfill The American Dream.

We owe this to Officer Sicknick, and all of those like him who have sacrificed their lives for us, for America the Beautiful.

(1) To clarify, to Lie in State is reserved for Presidents (automatic), and members of Congress and generals whom Congress decides to award the distinction.  The coffin is guarded by five guards, one from each of the five military services.  Others, who are not public officials, are said to Lie in Honor.  There are a few differences in the two designations, but the primary one is those who Lie in Honor are not guarded by the military, but by the Capitol Police, extremely fitting for Officer Sicknick.

(2)  This past Saturday, the City of Pharr held a virtual ceremony to unveil a historical marker in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Pharr riots in 1971 when a group of as many as 3,000 protestors gathered in front of the Pharr police station to protest racism, police abuse of authority, and segregation in Pharr.  The result was a police riot in which a bystander, Alfonso Flores was shot and killed by a Deputy Sheriff.

Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned by retired educator and writer Samuel Freeman. The column appears in The Rio Grande Guardian with the permission of the author. Freeman can be reached by email at: [email protected].

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