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The meaning of Juneteenth

Commentary Juneteenth celebration, Eugene, Oregon, 2020. Photo by David Geitgey Sierralupe, www.flickr.com/photos/sierralupe/

Juneteenth celebration, Eugene, Oregon, 2020. Photo by David Geitgey Sierralupe, www.flickr.com/photos/sierralupe/

June 18, 2021

The protests for Black lives that gripped our nation last summer, even as the pandemic raged, gave us an opportunity to reflect on the reality and the history of this country. The protests made it impossible to ignore the experience of Black Americans today — discrimination, prejudice, violence — at the hands of the state and other institutions. With that comes a reckoning with our history.

As a policy think tank, data analysis allows us to make the case for advancing policy solutions that dismantle systems that perpetuate economic oppression. But we know that data alone does not capture the full lived experiences of people. To truly understand a social and economic issue, we must listen to those who bear the brunt of oppression.

Juneteenth is now a federal holiday and will be a state holiday starting next year. This offers an opportunity to reflect on the history that began in 1619 and that continues to this day. It is an opportunity to honor the on-going fight for Black liberation and social justice — a struggle that has advanced freedom for all Americans.

In this spirit, we asked two Black members of our Board to share what Juneteenth means to them. We hope this will give you pause to reflect on the importance of this holiday.

— Alejandro Queral

Deborah Riddick: Our bodies are the only property we have been afforded

As we commemorate Juneteenth 2021, it’s clear that we have yet to extinguish the economic power and control of white supremacy. Juneteenth recognizes the date on which Major General Gordon Granger, a Union officer, proclaimed freedom for the enslaved people of Texas. This was nearly two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Structural racism enabled slavery to continue after its legal dissolution. Today, the legal oppression of Black Americans should be a thing of the past, yet structural practices continue to shackle economic prosperity for Black Americans.

Although it is clear that Black Americans have made societal gains since the end of slavery, structural practices and policies have stood in the way of Black Americans accumulating wealth or earnings to the same degree as white Americans. This is true regardless of education or experience. It is true for those in entry level positions and high-level positions. When you overlay disparities in initial hiring offers, wages, education debt, and other financial anchors, legal equality remains at odds with economic reality.

Long after slavery, the familiar tool of violence has been used to suppress the economic mobility of Black Americans. At the beginning of this month we marked the 100th anniversary of the destruction of Oklahoma’s Black Wall Street, an example of Black communal prosperity being punishable by death. Today, police violence traumatizes a new generation of Black Americans.

In the protests against the ongoing trauma of police violence, sparked by the murder of George Floyd, some observers chose to overlook the destruction of Black lives, and instead emphasize the destruction of property. Their focus became the loss of physical property.

Here is an alternate framing: Black bodies are the only property we have been afforded. With every death, every incarceration, every transference of material wealth that our ancestors created, our property is continually destroyed.

Ultimately, the path toward justice runs through the dismantling of structural racism, the adoption of policies that disrupt discriminatory practices and lead to economic equity for Black Americans.

Iden Campbell: Ease the pain through shared joy

Juneteenth, short for June 19th, has been a long-celebrated holiday in my maternal family. My mother's parents are descendants of former enslaved Africans in South Carolina. After slavery, they walked to the closest North Carolina border towns and settled there as farmers, ministers, school teachers, and many other occupations. Freedom from slavery meant that my ancestors were now free in a land that was not truly their home. A land that they had been enslaved in for economic gain. They were now free with not a dime in their pockets, a pair of shoes, and no home to go to. Imagine the strength it took to move in a world that had tried to beat every ounce of self-respect out of you through enslavement, terrorism, and sexual violence.

Creating holidays to share their mutual joy, such as Decoration Day, which is now known as Memorial Day, and Jubilee Day, now known as Juneteenth, helped ease the pain through shared joy. For my family, Juneteenth was always a bigger celebration than the Fourth of July.

Juneteenth was first celebrated in 1865, the year enslaved people gained their freedom in Texas. Thanks to migration, Juneteenth spread to Black communities across the nation.

Juneteenth not only recognizes our ancestor's freedom from slavery, but honors their economic contributions to this country, both before and after 1865. Slaves and their descendants propelled this country into a world power. Cotton, the South's King Crop, helped extend slavery well past 1865 through indentured servitude, stolen wages, and stolen land. As Karl Marx stated, "without slavery, you have no cotton." Cotton made the U.S. and Europe the financial powerhouses they are today. An entire industry was built on the backs of slaves who never reaped the financial gain of their forced labor. Juneteenth connects the past to the financial stress endured by the Black community today.

As Juneteenth rolls out as a statewide holiday and we celebrate the triumphs of our ancestors and our modern-day triumphs, we must remember that in America, Black Americans are still at the bottom rung of society. Even though we now have a Black billionaire Hip Hop entrepreneur and Black NFL and NBA superstars, we as a community are still denied fair housing loans, Small Business Administration loans, and opportunities at safe housing and medical care.

This is the lasting legacy of slavery; this is why we celebrate Juneteenth. On one side of the coin, you have the tarnished image of America, with its exploitation of African slaves and their descendants; on the other side, you have hope for the future and what can be. Making Juneteenth a state holiday is a start but, nowhere near the reparations we are owed as a people.