Juneteenth Isn't Enough

June 19, or Juneteenth, officially became a federal holiday on Thursday, June 17, 2021, as President Joe Biden signed into law the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act. It becomes one of 12 federally recognized holidays, and the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established in 1983.

On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger, supported by his regiment of Union soldiers, landed in Galveston, Texas with the news that the Civil War was over and all enslaved people were to be freed. President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation went into effect January 1, 1863, two and a half years earlier. But it wasn’t until the surrender of General Lee in April 1865, and the arrival of General Granger’s regiment, where forces were strong enough to enforce the proclamation in Texas. Even so, slavery existed in parts of the country until Congress passed the the 13th Amendment, which was ratified in Dec. 1865, ostensibly abolishing slavery in the United States.

The act first passed unanimously in the Senate, and in the House with an overwhelming majority (415-14). This demonstrates that Congress can actually legislate when there is the political will to do so.

While federally recognizing Juneteenth was decades in the making thanks to the work of grassroots activists, the catalyst came in the wake of a national reckoning after the murder of George Floyd. And while it is an achievement that “oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States” is at last formally acknowledged by the U.S. federal government, it simply too little too late. It doesn’t do enough to address the legacy of slavery and its lasting impacts today, or provide any sort of reparations.

Some have pointed out the hypocrisy of honoring Juneteenth while several local entities continue to take measures to ban so-called critical race theory. Critical race theory is a lens to examine how race and racism affect political and social structures. The term however acts as a catch-all for over 165 local and national groups that take issue with any conversations of racial equity and white privilege. Thanks to this effort, legislation has been proposed (and passed) in several states to restrict how educators discuss and teach about issues like racism, sexism and other systems of oppression.

Though the irony lies in the fact that critical race theory, in and of itself, is mostly used as a scholarly tool at an academic level, and barely taught in K-12 schools in the U.S. today. Yet at its core, critical race theory “is a way of examining history without pretending that racism doesn’t exist… It gives us the tools to examine our history in an open and honest way. And to fix the parts of our educational system that aren’t doing that.” Efforts like the 1619 project are already doing this important work to incorporate discussions of racism, patriarchy, and colonization into curriculum so that we can recognize how systems of the past still implicate us, today and into the future.

In addition to debates on critical race theory, the past six months have seen several state legislatures propose and pass laws that restrict access to vote, fueled by former President Donald Trump’s false claim that his defeat last November was a result of a fraudulent election. The federal government is taking some stand in some ways, for example the U.S. Department of Justice is challenging a Georgia law that infringes upon the rights of Black voters.

However, no real change can be done to expand voting rights without Congress stepping up. All 50 Senate Republicans refuse to even engage in discussing voting rights legislation; the For the People Act and other measures like the John Lewis Voting Rights Act have little hope to pass so long as the filibuster is still in effect.

While we still have quite a ways to go, the official recognition of Juneteenth as a federal holiday is at least a start to acknowledging how this country was built, and why it matters that we celebrate our liberation today.

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