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Opinion: Juneteenth As A National Holiday Is Symbolism Without Progress

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

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

It is honoring 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 started in Galveston to be made a federal holiday.

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

Robert A. Brown of Morehouse College
/ Robert Brown
Robert A. Brown of Morehouse College

Yet the reaction amongst many African Americans, myself included, has been muted.

There is a growing discontent in the African American community with symbolic gestures that are presented as progress without any accompanying economic or structural change.

There is a growing discontent in the African American community with symbolic gestures that are presented as progress without any accompanying economic or structural change.

The vestiges of a shameful past continue

Though Juneteenth is a celebration of the people who endured slavery, the vestiges 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 jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850."

The average white household holds almost 7 times more than the wealth of a Black household. Perhaps more concerning, education does little to close the Black-white wealth gap as white families headed by those without a college degree have more wealth than Black families headed by those with a graduate or professional degree.

A Pan-African flag is draped over speakers at a press conference about Juneteenth held by DaVante Goins in front of the Columbus, Ohio city hall on June 17, 2021.
/ SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
A Pan-African flag is draped over speakers at a press conference about Juneteenth held by DaVante Goins in front of the Columbus, Ohio city hall on June 17, 2021.

And yet, in the face of these stark disparities, lawmakers have been more willing to engage in performative symbolism than passing laws to make substantive change.

We have seen federal lawmakers take a knee, draped in kente cloth, but we have seen no substantive change about reforming police brutality that inspired Colin Kaepernick's initial protest.

"Lift Every Voice and Sing" is sung across the country, while legislation for reparations for the horrors of slavery languish. Sports arenas and streets have the words "Black Lives Matter" emblazoned for all to see, and yet police reform and anti-lynching laws that were some of the initial goals of the Black Lives Matter movement remain unpassed.

What is needed are substantive steps

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

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

Lawmakers have been more willing to engage in performative symbolism than passing laws to make substantive change.

Substantive reform to end the immunity police who brutalize our citizens should be enacted, as well as a reversal of the decades-long militarization of the police.

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

In many ways, the history of Juneteenth and the end of U.S. slavery mirrors the uneven pace of progress for African Americans during the following 150 years.

I have celebrated Juneteenth at festivals that honor the culture and community of the descendants of those who had been enslaved. Those celebrations always featured a community singing of "Lift Every Voice and Sing," just like members of Congress did upon the signing of the Juneteenth holiday into law.

This year, while I'll sing about being "full of the faith that the dark past has taught us," like many African Americans, I'll be mindful that, as the song says, we must continue to fight on "till victory is won."

Robert A. Brown teaches Mass Media & Social Justice at Morehouse College in Atlanta.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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