Making Juneteenth a Holiday Was the Easy Part—Will Real Justice Follow?
By Sonali Kolhatkar* –
Independent Media Institute
The horrors of slavery and the harms from
subsequent racial injustices cannot be met with symbolic gestures like
holidays. Real restitution must come in the form of reparations—which neither
party seems interested in.
United States Senate and House in quick succession passed a federal bill to make “Juneteenth” a federal
holiday to commemorate the end of slavery, President Joe Biden wasted no time
in signing the bill into law. “Making Juneteenth a federal
holiday is a major step forward to recognize the wrongs of the past,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer,
expressing what has come to be his party’s standard performative gesturing
toward historic racial injustices by a party that likes to set itself apart
from Republicans via lip service to liberal ideals.
credit, Schumer added, “But we must continue to work to ensure equal justice
and fulfill the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation and our Constitution.”
Ensuring “equal justice” is precisely the step that would carry real meaning
and add teeth to the very short, one-page Juneteenth bill. So why is that critical aspect
missing from the bill?
many historical accounts of how Juneteenth came about,
but the most widely accepted one is that enslaved Black people in Texas were
the last in the U.S. to know that they had the legal right to be free—two and a
half years after the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863. The
revelation that freedom was at hand came from General Gordon Granger in
Galveston on June 19, 1865, and if ever there was a declaration of American
independence that carried any moral weight, it is the day that came to be known
as Juneteenth—rather than the Fourth of July and the syrupy and blind
patriotism that accompanies it.
a wave of mass protests against racist police
brutality swept the United States last summer after George Floyd’s
killing, corporate America began to acknowledge
Juneteenth as an important day, “discovering” what many Black communities had
commemorated for years. Then-President Donald Trump also took credit for
publicizing it, saying with his usual audacious ignorance, “I did something
good: I made Juneteenth very famous. It’s actually an important event, an
important time. But nobody had ever heard of it.” Since most white Americans
had likely not heard of Juneteenth, in the 45th president’s mind, that meant nobody
had. Trump made the comments in the context of a controversial political rally that his reelection campaign
scheduled for June 19, 2020, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the historical site of some of
the nation’s bloodiest racial violence.
later, Democrats, with their newfound political power, are trying to set
themselves apart from Trump and the GOP. Rather than making aggressive efforts
to pass a hefty infrastructure bill, a minimum wage increase, or important voting rights reform—all of which would more
substantially benefit Black Americans—the party is now expecting credit for
recognizing Juneteenth as a federal holiday that all Americans can mark.
Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas who sponsored the Juneteenth holiday legislation
went as far saying, “what I see here today is racial divide
crumbling, being crushed this day under a momentous vote that brings together
people who understand the value of freedom.” These words are as hollow as the
declarations of a “post-racial” era when Barack Obama was elected
to the presidency in 2008.
Democrats are utterly failing to acknowledge is that when enslaved people were
declared free, that freedom meant an abrupt end to the horrific injustices
wreaked upon generations of Black Americans, but it also meant almost no
accountability or justice to compensate for what was done to them, no payment
for the centuries of stolen labor, no redress for the violence, terror, family
separations, sexual assaults, grinding servitude, and other hard-to-imagine
Democrats to make a symbolic gesture toward racial justice without the
financial redress that could actualize such justice is mere posturing. Melina Abdullah, a leader in the Los Angeles chapter of Black
Lives Matter and a professor in Pan-African studies at California State
University of Los Angeles, made a statement that cuts to the heart of what
lawmakers need to hear, saying about Juneteenth, “White folks need to sit this
one out. It’s not yours. Your acknowledgment should come in the form of
#reparations.” She added, “And by ‘white folks’ I mean government,
corporations, and the individual white families whose wealth is built on the
stolen labor of Black folks.” Her sentiments were widely echoed by other Black Americans on
party appears to have the political courage to truly respect the idea of racial
justice for Black Americans. Democrats, who take great pride in the symbolism
of their history-making half Black, half Indian Vice President Kamala Harris,
are also going out of their way to censure and silence Somali American Congresswoman Ilhan Omar of Minnesota for speaking
uncomfortable truths. The liberal party excels in performance over substance
and in celebrating Black Americans as long as they help meet diversity quotas
but remain subservient to the establishment.
contrast, Republicans have brushed aside all pretense toward respecting racial
equality altogether. The rabidly racist Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI)
almost objected to the Juneteenth bill, saying, “it still seems strange that having taxpayers
provide federal employees paid time off is now required to celebrate the end of
slavery.” (One wonders what the senator would deem acceptable instead.) And in
Texas, where the original Juneteenth celebrations began and where the day
was declared a state holiday earlier this year, Gov. Greg
Abbott signed a bill championed by Texas Republicans to bar the teaching of critical race
in state schools. It is precisely the academic framework of CRT that has helped
to create a broad understanding of why Juneteenth is important, and it is also
what can help make the case for why reparations must be central to racial justice.
and conservatives have fought hard to ensure that injustices arising from
slavery remain the past and that there must be no accounting for it in the
present day. (These are often the same people who righteously insist on preserving Confederate-era statues for the sake of history.) If
only it were true that racial injustices ended when slavery ended. But American
society has remained hostile to Black communities through persistent, ongoing,
debilitating racial discrimination and injustices even today. There has been no
serious federal acknowledgment in the form of accountability and compensation
either of historic injustices or present-day discrimination. Neither Democrats
nor Republicans are bold enough to embark on a project of reparations, and
instead the two major parties remain emotionally invested in the myth of
Juneteenth as a federal holiday is only the first step toward financial
redress, not the last. The small town of Asheville, North Carolina, last year launched a program
targeting Black residents for housing and business opportunities without
actually dispensing what matters—money. The city of Evanston, Illinois, earlier this year went a bit
further and began issuing $25,000 housing grants to Black residents to
compensate for systematic housing discrimination along racial lines. Amherst, Massachusetts, is exploring pathways to
reparations, and even states like California are considering steps for
efforts indicate that the countless Black academics, leaders, journalists and activists who have
painstakingly made the case for reparations for decades might be seeing some
vindication. Now if only federal lawmakers like Schumer, Ed Markey (D-MA), and
Lee would use their political clout to move beyond performative gestures, we
might believe they truly care about righting historical injustices in the
service of full equality.
This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
* Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and
executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and
Pacifica stations. She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute.
Clint Smith on Juneteenth & Reckoning with
the History of Slavery Across America
On Thursday, President Biden signed legislation
to create a new federal holiday to commemorate Juneteenth, which marks the end
of slavery in the United States. The Juneteenth celebration dates back to the
last days of the Civil War, when Union soldiers landed in Galveston, Texas, on
June 19th, 1865, with news that the war had ended, and enslaved people learned
they were freed two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
Juneteenth is the first new federal holiday since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Day was created nearly 40 years ago.