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Honoring Juneteenth

Acknowledging the End of Slavery – and the Ongoing Struggle of Black Americans

As we move into mid-year 2024 and celebrate Juneteenth, remaining mindful of what this holiday represents is as complex as what brought us to this point in history.

President Abraham Lincoln may have announced the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, but freedom from slavery didn’t happen overnight. Only after the Union victory in April 1865, and after federal soldiers marched into Texas two months later, on June 19, 1865, were African Americans in Texas told that they were free. Slavery was finally outlawed in December 1865 with the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Yet, nearly 160 years later, systemic barriers continue to persist, hampering economic opportunities and cultural equity that the descendants of enslaved Americans still grapple with today.

While Juneteenth has been celebrated by African Americans since the late 1800s, it was only after years of racial discrimination, global protests, and the loss of countless innocent lives that the U.S. government established a federal holiday.

The killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd ultimately shifted public discourse. In the end, it took a viral video of an innocent man’s death and the largest protests in U.S. history to spur a federal holiday acknowledging the end of slavery – over a century after it was outlawed.

So, as we take a moment to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States after the Civil War, we must also recognize that Black Americans and laws to protect racial and economic equity are still under attack. The backlash that has emerged from the 2020 protests has been sharp and vocal.

Active lobbying, voter restrictions, and education and election interference are all part of the efforts to institute state-level policies to “undermine African Americans’ advancement toward their citizenship rights,” effectively wielding political tactics to hinder opportunities and safety for African Americans throughout the U.S.

These deeper issues festering within the U.S. openly play out in policy changes. A recent paper for the NYU Law Review by University of Chicago law professor Nicholas Stephanopoulos documented how race, gender, and income level affect their influence on policy. The result: Not surprisingly, policy changes are mostly dictated by whites. Where there’s a big gap between white and black support for a policy, the chances of it taking effect increase with white support.

In an astonishing twist, Stephanopoulos also found that women have the least influence on policy at both the state and federal level, a gap larger than those between black and white or rich and poor Americans. Taken together, this intersection of race and gender adversely impacts the health care of Black women. Combined with the systemic dismantling of Affirmative Action and the blocking of reparations efforts, it is clear that the ramifications of slavery and discrimination across the board are persistent and active.

Simply acknowledging the end of slavery is something that states and corporations are gently tiptoeing into. In California, where Juneteenth is an official holiday for state employees, it’s still unpaid. And in many businesses, employees are forced to choose to give up another holiday if they opt to celebrate Juneteenth. All of this illustrates the deep-seated racism still alive in our country and smoldering in various corners, where the same jurisdictions that celebrate the holiday provide safe havens for those actively denying that slavery even existed.

This statement of recognition by itself – celebrating Juneteenth – is emblematic of where we are today culturally and systemically. Until we are all truly free in substance, not in words alone, we will all need to carry the burden to liberate each other. This is the work we do at the Western Center on Law & Poverty.

As we as a community continue to do the dogged work of chipping away at injustice, we celebrate Juneteenth with you, and honor the work that has come before ours to fight the good fight.

Director of Policy Advocacy