Juneteenth as a national holiday is symbolism without progress (Opinion): NPR

President Joe Biden is joined by Vice President Kamala Harris and members of Congress during the signing of the June 19 National Independence Day Act in the East Room of the White House on June 17, 2021.

Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post via Getty Images


hide caption

toggle caption

Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post via Getty Images


President Joe Biden is joined by Vice President Kamala Harris and members of Congress during the signing of the June 19 National Independence Day Act in the East Room of the White House on June 17, 2021.

Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post via Getty Images

This week, President Biden signed into law Juneteenth National Independence Day.

It honors the work of black Americans, including people such as 94-year-old civil rights activist Opal Lee, who had long advocated for the celebration that began in Galveston to become a federal holiday.

June 19 celebrates the date Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865, bringing news that the Emancipation Proclamation had freed the enslaved population living in the Confederacy, although two years previously.

Robert A. Brown of Morehouse College

Robert Brown


hide caption

toggle caption

Robert Brown


Robert A. Brown of Morehouse College

Robert Brown

Yet the backlash among many African Americans, myself included, was muted.

There is growing discontent in the African-American community over token gestures presented as progress without any accompanying economic or structural change.

Remnants of a shameful past linger

Although Juneteenth is a celebration of the people who endured slavery, the remnants of slavery and the Jim Crow segregation designed to preserve it continue to this day.

As law professor Michelle Alexander notes, “there are more African American men in prison or prison, on probation or on parole than there were enslaved in 1850.”

The average white household holds nearly 7 times more wealth than a black household. Perhaps more worryingly, education does little to close the wealth gap between blacks and whites, as white families headed by people without college degrees have more wealth than black families headed by people with a university or professional degree.

A Pan-African flag is draped over speakers during a Juneteenth press conference hosted by DaVante Goins outside City Hall in Columbus, Ohio on June 17, 2021.

SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images


hide caption

toggle caption

SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images


A Pan-African flag is draped over speakers during a Juneteenth press conference hosted by DaVante Goins outside City Hall in Columbus, Ohio on June 17, 2021.

SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

And yet, in the face of these stark disparities, legislators have been more willing to engage in performative symbolism than to pass laws to effect substantive change.

We’ve seen federal lawmakers take to their knees, draped in kente fabric, but we’ve seen no substantial change in the police brutality reform that inspired Colin Kaepernick’s initial protest.

“Lift Every Voice and Sing” is sung across the country, as reparations legislation for the horrors of slavery languishes. Sports arenas and streets are emblazoned with the words “Black Lives Matter” for all to see, yet the police reform and anti-lynching laws that were some of the original goals of the Black Lives Matter movement remain unpassed. .

What is needed are substantive measures

There are important steps federal lawmakers could take to honor the historic debt owed to the descendants of slaves in addition to a federal holiday.

House Resolution 40 called for a committee to study reparations. If advanced, it could ultimately start a national discussion on cash reparations at the federal level.

Substantial reform to end the immunity policing that brutalizes our citizens should be enacted, along with a reversal of the decades-long militarization of the police.

Historically, black colleges and universities, most of which were founded near the end of slavery, should receive substantial increases in federal funding.

In many ways, the story of June 19 and the end of American slavery reflects the uneven pace of progress for African Americans over the next 150 years.

I celebrated June 19 at festivals that honor the culture and community of the descendants of those who were enslaved. These celebrations always featured a community singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, just as members of Congress did when signing the June 19 holiday.

This year, while I sing to be”full of the faith that the dark past has taught us“like many African Americans, I will keep in mind that, as the song says, we must keep fighting”until victory is won.”

Robert A. Brown teaches mass media and social justice at Morehouse College in Atlanta.

Comments are closed.