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.
By Sonali Kolhatkar
After the 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.
To his 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?
There are 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.
When 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.
A year 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.
Congresswoman 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.
What 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 harms.
For 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 social media.
Neither 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.
In 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 theory (CRT) 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.
Republicans 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 American exceptionalism.
Marking 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 financial restitution.
Such 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 Allproject at the Independent Media Institute.