June 19, 2023

Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day, is a holiday that celebrates the emancipation of enslaved Africans in the U.S. on June 19, 1865. It is on this day that Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas to inform the people that all slaves had been freed. The day occurred almost two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln freed enslaved Africans with the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. This was because the Emancipation Proclamation could not be implemented in places still under Confederate control, like Texas, until after the Civil War ended in 1865.

Originally a Texas-based celebration, the holiday slowly spread throughout the nation after African American families migrated to other parts of the country. Early celebrations involved prayer and family gatherings and later included annual pilgrimages to Galveston by formerly enslaved people and their families. These celebrations were often a place for friends, families and communities to come together to both proclaim their freedom and honor the ongoing struggles they faced. Juneteenth was recognized as the 11th federal holiday when President Joe Biden signed the bill into law on June 17, 2021. It is celebrated today with barbeques, picnics, music, dancing, and games. Red drinks are traditionally served, as they symbolize perseverance and the blood that was shed in the fight for freedom.

As a federal holiday, Juneteenth is not just a historical day of remembrance, but also a reminder to continue the fight for equality, to dismiss discrimination and embrace inclusion. Even after the emancipation of slaves, laws and policy legalizing racism and discrimination remained in place long after Juneteenth. Widespread efforts to educate formerly enslaved people and legal decisions to solidify equity were easily frustrated by local political maneuvering that enacted atrocities like Jim Crow laws, redlining, and assigned bathrooms and seating that inhibited civil rights for African Americans. Juneteenth is such a special and significant holiday because it actively reminds us to reflect on how far we have come as a nation, and how much farther we need to go. It inspires us to be better than past generations and to cultivate a nation where discrimination is not just frowned upon, but is eradicated altogether.

With the celebration of Juneteenth, it is time to look back and take stock of our nation’s progress. It is important to understand that an honest evaluation of our successes and failures is imperative to making enlightened change. Here are just a few facts to keep in mind:

  • In 2021 the national median household income of black households was $48,297, while the median household income for white households was $77,999.
  • Black loan applicants are turned away by banks at three times the rate of white applicants.
  • Black communities are more likely to be located in “fence-line communities” defined as areas adjacent to facilities that create hazardous waste, exposing African Americans to air that is 38% more polluted when compared to communities that are largely white.
  • Black Americans are incarcerated close to five times the rate that white Americans are incarcerated. Those imprisoned are repressed from society in ways that prevent them from attaining wealth and voting power, further enabling the economic, political, and social disparities between Black and white Americans.

Each of these points is fairly nuanced, but the first step in initiating any debate is stating the facts outright. This is the nature of democratic society: to persuade, and not coerce. Being aware of and understanding the struggles that inform the everyday lives of American minorities will hopefully kindle widespread empathy which can lead to positive, long-term changes.

Understanding the inequalities that occur in our society today helps mark how far we are from ideas of equivalence and impartial processes, equal representation before the Constitution, which can unite our nation, and celebrate our differences, not purge them. What makes systemic discrimination viable in today’s society? What are the roots of systemic racism; economic, societal, geographic and otherwise? How can we abolish it? Can we abolish it?

Juneteenth is a holiday that prompts us to answer these questions and push for change. It’s a day that inspires us to never settle for anything less than equality and equal opportunity for all. Despite the presence of discrimination today, there is hope for future generations to one day live in a world where everyone is treated equally. Until then, what can we do today to ensure a more equal future for tomorrow?