Juneteenth, or June 19, 2022, was marked with fireworks and concerts, parades and proclamations, a big difference from Juneteenth a year ago when President Biden signed the executive order making Juneteenth a federal holiday just two days before its actual occurrence. Last year’s hastily implemented plans were replaced by well-orchestrated programs this year. Last year’s celebration merited brief chats; this year, there was a nationally televised concert. This year, the media has gone to great lengths to explain Juneteenth, perhaps doubling their coverage from a year ago.
Corporations and other organizations are observing or commemorating Juneteenth. I was surprised, for example, by receiving notices of Juneteenth observations from not one but two of the financial services organizations I deal with. A white man at the airport wished me a “Happy Juneteenth,” and while I somewhat appreciated his greeting, it didn’t make me happy, mainly because I don’t think the word “Happy” should be applied to Juneteenth.
Big Dot of Happiness, a company out of Wisconsin, has produced cringe-worthy “Happy Juneteenth” greeting cards. An online search will yield all kinds of products, many presumably not owned by Black people, commercializing Juneteenth with T-shirts, stickers, stationery and more. Commercialization is the way of predatory capitalism, so I’m not surprised at those who hope to extract surplus profits from the people who want to observe the day when formerly enslaved people were reminded that their enslavement was over. Many who heard the announcement in Galveston back in 1865 were elated, some were angry at being exploited, and some understood that the quality of their lives was not to change immediately or soon. Jim Crow laws, peonage and the sharecropping system, and economic lynching emerged immediately after the passage of the 13th Amendment.
The holiday observation of Juneteenth is a vital way to inject the issue of enslavement into the popular lexicon, if only once a year. But the holiday transcends symbolism only if coupled with decisive action to combat contemporary economic exploitation and virulent racism. President Biden set the right tone when he issued a proclamation a few days before Juneteenth.
He described the day as “a chance to celebrate human freedom, reflect on the grievous and ongoing legacy of slavery, and rededicate ourselves to rooting out the systemic racism that continues to plague our society as we strive to deliver the full promise of America to every American. This Juneteenth, we are freshly reminded that the poisonous ideology of racism has not yet been defeated — it only hides.”
Now that the fireworks have faded, the barbecue has been digested, and the red soda water has been consumed, President Biden might do more to attack the hidden — and not-so-hidden — ideology of racism. Has his administration sufficiently tackled pay disparities in federal employment? On Equal Pay Day 2022, the Biden-Harris administration issued a forceful pay equity statement. Yet, gaps remain, and many are the result of the hidden racism that Biden referred to in his Juneteenth statement. African Americans are more likely than others to work for the federal government and experience smaller pay gaps with the federal government than in the private sector. At the same time, pay gaps remain, and Black employees are more likely to be clerical workers in the federal government than employed in the Senior Executive Service (SES). Connecting the Juneteenth proclamation to a strong statement about economic equity in federal government employment would have been impactful.
There are still opportunities for this focus, perhaps incorporating a statement about workers’ rights with a strong message about Black federal workers. HR 40, the legislation to study reparations and offer remedies for economic discrimination against Black people, has enough votes to pass the House of Representatives. Still, it cannot pass the Senate, given its current composition. President Biden has been urged to, through an executive order, establish an HR 40 Commission to examine the reparations issue thoroughly. He could do this with the simple stroke of a pen, putting action behind the strong words he issued on Juneteenth. By embracing reparations to remedy historic racial economic exploitation, President Biden puts teeth behind his lofty sentiments about hidden racism.
The federal observation of Juneteenth is an important step forward in our nation’s recognition of enslavement and its foundational contribution to the wealth of this country. Reparations are the necessary next step. We must move from recognition to remedy.
Malveaux is an economist, author and dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at California State University, Los Angeles.