A pair of hands, black and covered with soot, bound together with rusty iron chains and chiseled by decades of inhumane treatment, represents the injustice of racism in our nation. Sadly, the remnants of the chains remain to this day.
In some African American communities, a feeling of hopelessness endures because there seems to be no way out of the cycle of generational poverty that has existed since slavery was abolished. Many see gangs, violence, drugs, and crime as the only escape route.
According to the NAACP, “African-Americans and Hispanics comprised 58 percent of all prisoners in 2008, even though African-Americans and Hispanics make up approximately one quarter of the US population.” Such a high incarceration rate leads to prejudgments and mistrust and continues the pattern of racism. To move forward, we, as individuals and as a nation, must have the courage to stand up for what is right. On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln took courageous action when he signed his Emancipation Proclamation, freeing more than three million slaves in the South.
In my own experience, I have seen the impact that one person’s courage can have in middle school, where peer pressure and the desire for acceptance often take precedence over respect for and tolerance of others. When I see some eighth graders using their power to put down another student, I know that, like Lincoln, I need to be brave enough to stand up for that student.
It is not sufficient, however, to stand alone in the fight against hatred. Just as Rosa Parks’s decision to sit in the white section of the bus led others to join the cause for equal rights, my choice to stand up for someone else has a ripple effect. If, as middle school students and as Americans, we unite against bullying and bigotry, we can establish a more tolerant and peaceful world.
Our nation has made progress in breaking the chains of racism. By first eliminating slavery, then removing segregation, and now educating children to appreciate the differences among all people, brave Americans have fought against racial injustice. As a result, those hands, once tightly constrained by the chains of discrimination, are free to join others in creating a more perfect union.
With respect and acceptance for all, we must continue to unite and move past any barrier in order to end racism and build a world beyond color lines.
Editor's note: This commentary was adapted from the second place winner in the 2016 Hildene Lincoln Essay Competition for Vermont eighth graders. It was selected from a total of 237 entries from 39 Vermont schools, as far north as St. Albans and as far south as Bennington. This text was condensed and revised slightly for broadcast. You can find the original text and more information about the competition at Hildene.org or on the Hildene facebook page.