Editor’s Note: For another viewpoint, see Counterpoint: Better Things to Fight for Than Juneteenth.
On Juneteenth, June 19, we celebrate Union Army General Gordon Granger’s order to free the people still enslaved in Texas. The holiday marks the effective end of slavery in the United States.
Although President Lincoln, in his Emancipation Proclamation, banned slavery in all Confederate states two and a half years earlier, it took enforcement by Union troops to actually uproot the practice.?As one of the most remote slave states at the time, Texas was in the last wave of enforcement.
Now, over 150 years later, Juneteenth reminds us to be critical of how progress is measured.
In the last month alone, we had two national remembrances of racial injustice: The anniversary of the? murder of George Floyd and the 100-year anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre. Floyd’s murderer, police officer Derek Chauvin, was found guilty this year. And this spring, President Joe Biden became the first president to visit Tulsa and commemorate the massacre.
Both events have been celebrated as turning points in popular American public opinion toward racial justice, yet there is still little evidence of meaningful systemic reforms. A year after Floyd’s murder, Congress still hasn’t passed the?George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020. And the few remaining survivors of the Tulsa massacre have yet to receive reparations from their federal, state or local governments.
In his Tulsa speech, Biden did recognize that addressing the racial wealth divide was essential to bridging racial inequality. He?outlined commitments?to build Black wealth by removing discrimination in home equity appraisals and increasing funding for socially disadvantaged businesses.
These measures are welcome but hardly sufficient.
Eliminating racial discrimination in housing assessments is important, but it will do little to address the homeownership divide.?In 2018, just 42 percent of Black households owned their homes, compared to 73 percent of White households.?Actually increasing homeownership — for Black families and all low-wealth households — will require mortgage products that require little to no down payments, since most Black households are liquid asset poor.
Biden’s proposal also doesn’t tackle the lack of affordable housing stock. Bold proposals like the?21st Century Homestead Act, which focuses on revitalizing large clusters of abandoned properties as affordable housing, could make a huge impact here.
Biden?also proposed?to spend $100 billion on minority-owned businesses over five years. That’s a substantive and welcome increase, but it’s not clear how much of that $20 billion a year will make its way to African-American businesses. Considering about?95 percent of Black businesses have no employees, procurement dollars are likely to affect a small share of them.
If you’re talking about supporting Black entrepreneurs, two things would make a huge difference: universal health care and unemployment insurance for business owners. These would allow for more Americans of any race to pursue the entrepreneurial vision without risking their lives or livelihoods.
Meanwhile, Black Americans have consistently seen unemployment and underemployment rates running double what they are for White Americans. Closing this gap — through robust job and anti-discrimination programs, for example — is equally important to wealth-building as entrepreneurship.
As history shows, words were not enough to end slavery. It took a massive expenditure of national resources — in the form of federal troops — to end the enslavement of Black people.
History also shows that without a sustained deployment of federal resources, the promise of Black freedom and opportunity were quickly dashed against the rocks of racially concentrated power and wealth, leaving African-Americans vulnerable in a racially segregated society. And today, like then, there’s huge division among states when it comes to racial justice.
Real equality, in short, requires a sustained federal response.
A year since the nation’s “racial reckoning” following the death of George Floyd, and 100 years since the massacre in Tulsa, our nation has still failed to even promise the type of repair — much less deliver the investments necessary — to bridge the centuries-old racial inequality that’s maintained through economic inequality.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t.
As we celebrate Juneteenth this year, the promise of freedom alone isn’t enough to move us forward. Instead, we need to celebrate it every year with sustained action and investment to repair the inequality that even a general and his troops 150 years ago were not able to deliver.