Juneteenth: a national holiday for national reflection

It is a milestone for the integration of the African-American experience into the American narrative

Houston resident Prescylia Mae sings during a re-enactment march of the emancipation proclamation celebrations outside of Reedy Chapel in Galveston, Texas, U.S., June 19, 2021. The United States marked Juneteenth for the first time as a federal holiday commemorating the end of the legal enslavement of Black Americans. REUTERS/Adrees Latif
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Federal holidays in the US are few and far between. It has been almost 40 years since a new one, Martin Luther King Jr Day (MLK Day), was adopted in 1983. So when US President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act last week, it was, as he might have said: “a big… deal”.

Juneteenth is not widely known outside the US, and only recently gaining widespread recognition outside the Black community. Last year, when former president Donald Trump was considering holding a rally in Tulsa, the site of a heinous massacre of African-Americans, on Juneteenth he reportedly declared: "no one's ever heard of it”.

In fact, Juneteenth has long served as a de facto African-American Independence Day, commemorating the long-delayed enforcement in June 1865 in Texas of the Emancipation Proclamation issued by Abraham Lincoln that ended slavery in the rebellious states during the Civil War.

It effectively stands in for the comprehensive national abolition of slavery, which technically occurred with the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in December 1865.

The point is not the date, but that the whole country should officially celebrate the abolition of slavery as a second national Independence Day, along with the traditional Independence Day on the fourth of July.

Some on the conservative far right complained that this will somehow undermine the unifying effect of the July 4 celebrations. Indeed, all limited opposition in Congress came from right-wing Republicans.

Yet the passage was swift enough, just two days before its first implementation, to take many Americans by surprise, as some were delighted by a sudden day off and others had to scramble to figure out what to do with their school-age children.

Systematic discrimination continues to define much of American life

This is certainly another milestone for the integration of the African-American experience into the national narrative.

Some dismiss the new holiday as purely symbolic. Critics say so many Republicans were happy to vote for a representational gesture as a cover for the attack against voting access, and consistent opposition to other measures that would materially improve rights and conditions for minority communities.

Over time, clearly, national symbolism and stories have a profound effect. That is why they matter so much. So, a new federal holiday cannot seriously be dismissed as irrelevant.

The question is what shapes the broader national narrative into which it will fit. A profound struggle is engaged over how to define racism and how to understand its role in US history.

This year the Republicans embraced as a major theme a passionate assault on "Critical Race Theory," which, strictly speaking, is a legal studies methodology that examines the impact and legacy of white supremacy in laws and regulations, and that critiques traditional liberal approaches.

CRT is now employed as a catchall by Republicans to condemn virtually all educational programmes to seriously examine the legacy and ongoing functioning of racism.

It is easy to understand why the white far-right seized on this heretofore obscure academic terminology. “Critical” sounds like criticism. “Race” itself sounds accusatory to many white Americans. And “Theory” sounds like some academic gibberish.

Whenever there is any consideration of structural or systemic racism, the far-right now identifies the evil hand of CRT. And they rush to claim it condemns the US as inherently racist, irredeemable or evil.

That is a platform for anti-anti-racism, the rejection of any notion that racism remains a deep-seated, systemic problem that must be urgently addressed.

Republican state legislatures around the country are busy banning the teaching of CRT in schools, a basically nonexistent phenomenon.

A new Florida political-correctness law prohibits teaching “that racism is embedded in American society and its legal systems in order to uphold the supremacy of white persons.” Apparently, any such observation is considered ridiculous or very dangerous.

Schools now “may not define American history as something other than the creation of a new nation based largely on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.”

TOPSHOT - Prescylia Mae (C) raises her fist in the air during a Juneteenth re-enactment celebration in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 2021. The US on June 17 designated Juneteenth a federal holiday with President Joe Biden urging Americans "to learn from our history." The Juneteenth National Independence Day national holiday marks the day in Galveston in 1865 when the last enslaved African Americans learned that they were free. - 
 / AFP / Mark Felix

That cannot be honestly asserted because the founding document of the new nation, the Constitution, included several passages acknowledging the legitimacy of chattel slavery, including defining slaves as three-fifths of a person for political representation.

As American society sails into the dangerous waters of a long-overdue racial reckoning, it badly lacks a shared definition of what racism is, both in theory and in practice.

On the right, racism is almost always conceptualised as an expression of a person's overt, personal biases or at most long-resolved and repudiated errors of the past.

By decontextualising the problem, this sets up the now-familiar claim that anti-racists are "the real racists," because they are accused of casting collective blame against white people or suggesting Black Americans simply cannot thrive.

Some leading scholars and practitioners of antiracism on the left have reinforced these attacks by crafting a reductive binary whereby every entity, process or individual is either actively and programmatically anti-racist, as they define it, or is instead, ipso facto, racist. There is no middle ground. There is antiracism, of its own variety, and everything else is essentially racism.

That destructive discourse, especially when fully unpacked, begins to feel exceedingly accusatory to many well-meaning white Americans.

Many are required by their employers to attend anti-bias training seminars. These seminars can sometimes do more harm than good by making reasonable people feel ideologically browbeaten or accused merely on the basis of their white identity.

Anything that hints of an ideological struggle session is more likely to promote than combat racial bias and resentment.

Yet obviously centuries of slavery and decades of segregation and systematic discrimination continue to define much of American life.

Some “errors of the past” are very much realities of the present.

The impact of segregation was not magically evaporated by MLK Day. The haunting legacy of slavery won’t be exorcised by Juneteenth.

Simply passing laws to prohibit forms of discrimination that had been legally mandated and culturally enforced for hundreds of years cannot suddenly eradicate all of their functions and consequences.

They remain pervasive and resonate throughout American society to this day, particularly regarding essential social services like education and healthcare, not to mention policing.

Yet as suggested by the passionate battle over historical narratives – given their indisputable power to shape perceptions over many generations – if Republicans approved the Juneteenth holiday as a cover for opposition to voting rights and other crucial tools to combat ongoing racism, they probably only exchanged short-term victory for long-term defeat.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute and a US affairs columnist for The National