Juneteenth: What It Is and What It Isn’t

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By Quentin Choy

June 18, 2021

Before I discuss Juneteenth and what it is and isn’t, let me preface by saying that while the creation of the new holiday is good, it doesn’t do enough to materially improve the lives of African-Americans. Some legislation and policy changes that would tangibly improve the lives of African-Americans rather than being purely symbolic include legalizing marijuana at the federal level, ending the War on Drugs connected to marijuana legalization which disproportionally arrests African-Americans, increasing the minimum wage, protecting the rights of workers, and enacting laws to reduce police brutality including the increased usage of body cameras on officers.

That was all that needed to be said before actually discussing Juneteenth, so here we go!

What Juneteenth Is:

  • A new federal holiday commemorating the liberation of slaves in Texas.

President Biden signed a law establishing Juneteenth as a federal holiday. The bill passed through the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate to the president’s desk. Juneteenth commemorates the day in 1865 in which federal troops arrived to ensure that slavery truly ended in Texas despite slavery having ended years before. With Texas having ended slavery following the arrival of federal troops, African-Americans were indeed truly freed from the horrors of slavery at last.

Juneteenth marks the end of slavery in Texas with the arrival of federal troops. Courtesy of JSTOR.
  • A day of celebration.

Historically, African-Americans have celebrated Juneteenth as “Emancipation Day,” clearly recognizing the end of slavery in the United States as a cause for celebration. Emancipation Day saw celebrations of African-American achievements in the arts, culture, business, and politics with singing of traditional songs, reading of works by African-Americans, sports, and eating of comfort foods. As Juneteenth became more widespread throughout the public conscience, celebration expanded to include voter registrations, traditional African dance, as well as barbecues.

Courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives.
  • An acknowledgment of America’s past.

Despite being a day of celebration for African-Americans, Juneteenth is also a day of reckoning and acknowledging America’s dark past of slavery. It is meant to celebrate the achievements of African-Americans despite the awful conditions in which they were forced to live and to commit to avoiding those types of atrocities again. The day is perfect to look back at how far African-Americans have come since the days of slavery but also at what is left ahead in terms of challenges for the community.

Juneteenth is a day to acknowledge the past of slavery in American history and to build a better society with that experience in mind. Courtesy of History.com.
  • A symbol – not change.

While the establishment of Juneteenth as a federal holiday is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, it’s important to remember that Juneteenth is a symbol of progress and not actual progress for African-Americans. The same U.S. House of Representatives, Senate, and President that collaborated to establish Juneteenth is the same House of Representatives, Senate, and President that can work to pass meaningful change for the African-American community including a raised minimum wage, ending wars abroad to bring veterans home, passing police reforms to limit police brutality, and ending the War on Drugs which targets African-Americans disproportionately.

While symbols are good, meaningful policy by those in power is better. Courtesy of TRT World.

What Juneteenth Isn’t:

  • Black Independence Day.

While Juneteenth is described as “Black Independence Day,” it is not meant to be a separate independence day like July 4th simply for African-Americans. The independence celebrated by African-Americans on Juneteenth is an independence from the horrors of slavery – not the independence of African-Americans from other races in the country. Some dishonest actors on the right like Candace Owens have tried to convince conservatives that Juneteenth is a holiday of racial separation of African-Americans propagated by the likes of Black Lives Matter to divide the country along racial lines. Juneteenth is a day that can be celebrated by all Americans, rejoicing at how far the country has come since slavery.

Owens’ tweets are frankly, just plain stupid, and the tags of a dishonest partisan clown are showing.

  • A cleansing of Joe Biden’s record on race.

Despite being the president who signed Juneteenth into law, Joe Biden has a pretty bad record when it comes to race throughout his political career. Recent accounts of Biden’s record on race include him telling Black voters that they “ain’t Black” if they don’t vote for him and his condescending Zoom call scolding civil rights leaders. Biden’s continued drug warrior attitude against federal marijuana legalization hurts African-Americans and many others as well.

Prior to his presidency, Biden’s race record included working with segregationists like Strom Thurmond as well as being a key architect of the 1994 crime bill which saw increased incarceration of African-Americans as a result. His pick of Kamala Harris as vice president was a symbolic bandage on his tattered race record, which is insufficient especially since he has the political power to improve African-Americans’ lives by increasing the minimum wage and legalizing marijuana at the federal level and expunging the records of non-violent drug offenders in prison.

Courtesy of ABC News.
  • An elevation of Kamala Harris’ record on race.

Despite being African-American herself and the vice president to the president who established Juneteenth as a federal holiday, Kamala Harris has an imperfect record on race as well.

While not as bad as Biden’s direct record on race, Harris’ record is more indirect with her time as District Attorney of San Francisco and Attorney General of California being marked by opposition to marijuana. As U.S. Senator, Harris was able to more directly take on issues of race at a national level, although she was hesitant to enact economic reforms that would help African-Americans, and she was more comfortable sticking to legislation aimed at symbolic or social change rather than material change.

Harris running for District Attorney of San Francisco. Courtesy of Time.
  • A solution to problems facing African-Americans.

As I’ve mentioned several times throughout this post, Juneteenth is a symbolic change and not a material one, a distinction that needs to be remembered. Juneteenth should be a day where social and political change for African-Americans is acknowledged, but also a day where African-Americans should advocate for material changes for their community and communities across America.

Ending the War on Drugs, enacting police reform, and federal marijuana legalization are goals that the community can start with to begin seeing material change.

Advocating for material change. Courtesy of New York ACLU.
Quentin Choy, creator of <em>WeTheCommoners Blog</em>
Quentin Choy, creator of WeTheCommoners Blog

Quentin is a student of Political Science. He became interested in history and politics in 2015 watching the Republican and Democratic primaries as well as the 2016 General Election.

He is from Hawaii and currently attends school in Colorado.

Image Courtesy of Anchorage Daily News.

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