Juneteenth - Why Millions See No Reason to Celebrate
Kylie Patterson &LillianSingh
To be clear, millions of Black people will not celebrate Juneteenth this year. We will not celebrate because we do not want to mark the end of a terrible moment in American history that made way for our persistent economic exclusion. We won’t celebrate because in spite of demonstrations, statements, and new policies, our reality has not changed. Racial inequality and in particular, racial wealth inequality, still reigns.
Perhaps, it is better to start at the beginning: What is Juneteenth? It is not the day Black slaves were emancipated. The Emancipation Proclamation preceded Juneteenth by almost two and half years. It is a holiday where we recognize the day union soldiers reached Galveston, Texas and told the last slaves of their freedom on June 19, 1865. The 13th amendment which officially abolished slavery would follow on December 18, 1865.
Over a hundred and fifty years later, Black people are still experiencing an all too familiar injustice where the color of our skin dictates our economic reality.
Today, while Blacks account for just under 13% of the nation’s population, we own less than 3% of the nation’s total wealth. The Black unemployment rate has stubbornly been two times that of the White unemployment rate for more than 20 years. Slavery ushered in the economic divide we see today, beginning with Black slaves working their entire lives without earning a wage. Following Emancipation, black codes, sharecropping and Jim Crow laws were quickly instituted to halt Black economic progress – laws and practices that economically oppressed, excluded and preyed upon Black people. Federal laws and investments continue to ensure the advancement and creation of the White middle class – while simultaneously the poll tax, racial covenants, redlining, segregated schools, prejudiced lending, and outright terrorism continue to block economic mobility pathways for Blacks.
And if you believe that these examples are old, it was less than 10 years ago, when we thought policies were in place to protect all consumers regardless of race, class or creed that we found Blacks were again the target of economic terrorism: we were five times more likely to be sold a subprime mortgage, even when qualified for a prime mortgage, and risk foreclosure.
So tell us again, why should we celebrate?
Perhaps people will celebrate because they finally have the day off. Juneteenth is being recognized by some of the largest corporate employers in America including Nike, Twitter and Target. We are seeing non-corporate organizations, and even state governments, declaring Juneteenth a holiday for state employees. This is progress. However, a day off and the many statements denouncing anti-blackness are but a drop in the bucket. If these corporations, foundations, universities and associations alike want to address the root cause of white supremacy it starts with ensuring everyone has an equal economic footing.
We implore those making investments to invest in Black people. For those who thirst, a cup of water is a blessing, for those in the desert a cup of water is an insult. During enslavement, water and songs such as “Wade in the Water,” represented a path toward freedom. We challenge you to go farther into the deep so that we can all experience real freedom.
Now is the time to use your privilege, power, influence and voice to eradicate the institutional policies that suppressed Black people in America for centuries. We challenge you to develop and deploy new models that decouple benefits from working hours because families need health insurance, life insurance and paid leave benefits regardless of hours worked. In addition, you can create mortgage down payment assistance programs to support your low-income employees in realizing the American Dream of homeownership and might even consider providing student loan repayment programs. We can all work to reform an unjust federal tax code that provides billions in benefits to wealthy, mostly white families, but leaves Black workers and families behind. Finally, once and for all, lets deeply invest in black owned banks and Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI’s) that are best able to deploy capital to support small and minority businesses.
Many will use Juneteenth to reflect. In our reflection, we thought about those who will not see America’s awakening around the terrible truths of police brutality, white supremacy and anti-black racism. These are their names.
Trayvon Martin. Ahmed Arbrey. Rekia Boyd. Eric Garner. Margaret LaVerne Mitchell. George Floyd.
The tie that binds these names and the men and women behind them, is the link between racial injustice and economic inequality - the foundation of America.
So, this Juneteenth let us do more than enjoy a day off. The liberation we seek is one where race and economics are no longer bound tightly together. Let us make America a place where Black men and women can live and experience the promised emancipation, finally.
Lillian Singh is the Vice President Racial Wealth Equity & Programs at Prosperity Now, a research and policy nonprofit in Washington, D.C, Kylie Patterson is a Principal & Founder of Equity Vision Consulting, a firm focused on supporting organizations, teams, and communities in advancing racial and economic equity.
Photo credits: @paintsinstitute @downtowndcbid @denversmithfoundation @monicaglover - 2 photos from a collection of murals in Beautifying Downtown through BLM Art Project Chinatown-Gallery Place Washington DC on June 7, 2020