• Sophia Scott

Juneteenth and Racial Hypocrisy

Establishing Juneteenth as a new federal holiday marks a significant national achievement, but make no mistake: officially recognizing Juneteenth will not abolish systemic racism.

The streets of Richmond, Virginia crowd for an Emancipation Day celebration in 1905 (Library of Congress).

On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas on horseback to deliver transformational news: President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation more than two years earlier, thereby prohibiting slavery in Confederate states. Today, this decree informing the last enslaved Americans of their freedom is memorialized by Juneteenth, an event (named as a portmanteau of “June” and “nineteenth”) that, until recently, was largely forgotten except by African-American communities. Nonetheless, while Congress’s recent recognition of Juneteenth as a federal holiday may appear to be a step towards racial progress, in reality, it remains a brazen display of performative activism, as Republican lawmakers who voted in favor of the holiday simultaneously spearhead a coordinated effort to further and sustain institutionalized racial oppression nationwide.

In a ceremony celebrating the congressional passage of a bill that established Juneteenth as a federal holiday, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and several prominent Black lawmakers joined together to sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a ballad colloquially known as the “Black National Anthem.” But meanwhile, another, much more private celebration took place. Opal Lee, a 94-year-old civil rights activist, finally participated in a long-awaited holy dance — one that she and generations of Black Americans have longed for for over 155 years.

For decades, Lee has organized and fought to raise awareness about Juneteenth in hopes of earning it the designation of a federal holiday. She decided to travel from her hometown of Fort Worth, Texas to Washington, D.C., speaking in various cities along her route. Throughout her journey, she walked two and a half miles on foot to signify the two and a half years between the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and enslaved people in Texas learning that they had gained their freedom. As Texas Representative Sheila Jackson Lee once reflected, “Two years and [enslaved Texans] did not know. How many lives were lost? What kind of brutality did they face in that period of time?”

Opal Lee's decades of advocacy for federal recognition of Juneteenth finally came to fruition this week (Variety).

When President Biden signed the bill into law on Thursday, Opal Lee proudly stood alongside him. Lee, whose paternal great-grandmother was born into slavery in Louisiana, feels that this Juneteenth “is like a dream.” Despite the US Senate voting unanimously to designate Juneteenth as a national holiday, fourteen Republican members of the House of Representatives voted against the bill. Most of these dissenters referenced their qualms regarding the holiday’s name and its conflation with Independence Day on July 4th. South Carolina Representative Ralph Norman wrote, “If you want to call Juneteenth, for example, Freedom Day or Emancipation Day then fine – that’s certainly worth considering. But calling it Independence Day is WHOLLY INAPPROPIATE [sic].”

What Norman failed to consider, however, is that millions of Americans gaining independence from generational enslavement is a far more all-encompassing national celebration than that of America’s white citizens gaining independence via political self-determination.

As Frederick Douglass noted in his famed "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?" speech, “[Independence Day is] a day that reveals to [Black Americans], more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless…mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.”

Today, Douglass’s centuries-old speech remains startlingly relevant, as Congress declaring Juneteenth a federal holiday remains flagrantly performative, especially for Republican lawmakers that are simultaneously working to further racial oppression at the state and federal levels.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signs the state's 98-page voting restrictions bill in front of a plantation painting (GPB).

For example, in the wake of a tempestuous election cycle intensified by unsubstantiated voter fraud allegations, Republican lawmakers nationwide worked at the state level to establish new voting laws that restrict African American access to the polls. On March 25, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed SB 202, a bill that empowers state-level officials to control elections instead of local county election boards. In turn, this law allows the Republican-controlled Georgia state legislature to gain authority over local election operations, replace election board members with partisan appointees, and disqualify ballots in precincts statewide.

Since Georgia Republicans have long perpetuated baseless voter fraud accusations in majority-Black districts, many Georgian voting rights activists like Stacey Abrams, who called the law a “respon[se] to an increase in voting by people of color by constricting, removing or otherwise harming their ability to access [the polls],” worry that this law could jeopardize Americans’ voting rights, particularly in regions like Fulton County that have a disproportionately Black citizenry. The law also outlaws providing food and water to those in voting lines, which will likely contribute to reduced voter turnout among historically nonwhite precincts, as voters there have experienced infamously long waiting times due to a shortage of polling places assigned to majority-Black counties.

Furthermore, although Juneteenth is now a federal holiday, teachers in states like Texas and Florida will not even be able to explain the legacy of Juneteenth to their students with proper context due to their statewide bans on teaching critical race theory. Critical race theory is an academic discipline that many prominent conservatives have recently transformed into a catchall term to suppress any discussion of America’s history with race and racism. By making Juneteenth a federal holiday while outlawing the teaching of critical race theory in schools, actively suppressing Black voting rights, blocking bills to address police brutality, and obstructing reparations efforts, congressional Republicans attempt to present themselves as supporters of racial justice while actively facilitating modern-day racial oppression.

Street performers dance during the 48th Annual Juneteenth Day Festival in Milwaukee, WI on June 19th, 2019 (Getty).

For instance, although Republican Senator Rand Paul voted to make Juneteenth a national holiday, just one year ago, he also single-handedly blocked the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, which aimed to establish new criminal civil rights violations for lynchings and related hate crimes. Republican Minority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell also voted to make Juneteenth a national holiday, yet he remains one of the Senate’s fiercest and most vocal opponents of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would bolster parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that the United States Supreme Court struck down in Shelby County v. Holder (2013).

As a result of hypocritical actions like these, the recent overwhelming congressional vote to designate Juneteenth as a federal holiday remains glaringly hollow. While the efforts and achievements of numerous dedicated lawmakers like Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee are admirable, especially considering the intense gridlock and polarization plaguing Congress in recent months, voting in favor of the Juneteenth holiday is an empty virtue signal that enables Republicans to pass themselves off as champions for racial equality while failing to substantively reckon with the country’s painful history with slavery and its generational effects.

Establishing Juneteenth as a new federal holiday marks a significant national achievement after decades of debate and inaction, but make no mistake: officially recognizing Juneteenth will not abolish the systemic racism that legislators on both sides of the aisle decried in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Over one year later, Democrats still struggle to muster enough Senate votes to advance a voting rights bill (which would ban partisan gerrymandering and make voter registration automatic) and a police reform bill (including measures like a federal ban on chokeholds and “no-knock” search warrants). Therefore, if Republicans truly wish to demonstrate their earnest desire to commemorate the legacy of Juneteenth, they should not only vote in favor of symbolic gestures like this: they must also commit to supporting transformative voting-rights and police accountability legislation efforts currently underway in the House and the Senate.

Sophia Scott is a rising freshman at Harvard College planning on studying Human Evolutionary Biology. She writes about policing, justice reform, and current events.

This piece was edited by Alex Benoit, a freshman at Harvard College studying Human Evolutionary Biology and global health.

Cover: Getty, Hip hop artist Trey Songz addresses the crowd of Juneteenth protesters at the Robert E. Lee monument on June 19, 2020 in Richmond, Virginia.

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