How Juneteenth Becoming A Federal Holiday Exploits Black History Without Addressing Black Needs

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Juneteenth

Today, President Joe Biden signed into law the bill that has now passed Congress establishing June 19, known as Juneteenth, as a federal holiday.

The bill, which establishes June 19 as Juneteenth National Independence Day, officially commemorating the date that marks the end of slavery in the United States as a national holiday, unanimously passed in the Senate on Tuesday, June 15, and passed in the House 415-14 on Wednesday, June 16.

But many feel the performative action leaves much to be desired in terms of correcting systematic racism.

The passing of this bill has shed light on what people see as lawmakers’ continued unwillingness to make actionable changes that would address the impacts of both historical and present-day racism.

Making Juneteenth a federal holiday has exposed the hypocrisy in a government willing to exploit Black history without effectively addressing Black needs.

Juneteenth will be celebrated, but learning about it is not.

The bill coincides with a movement to ban Critical Race Theory and materials from the 1619 Project from schools across the US.

Texas has become the latest state to ban the teaching of the history of slavery and systemic racism in the US.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis this week defended his decision to impose a similar ban saying CRT is "Not worth any taxpayer dollars."

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These states join Idaho, which passed a ban on Critical Race Theory in May 2021, and could be followed up by states like Alabama and Tennesse which have growing movements to suppress teaching racial injustice in schools.

The bans do a profound disservice to the entire history of Juneteenth and what it means to be Black in American.

Many pointed to the irony of making Juneteenth a federal holiday but never actually teaching children about the history behind the holiday.

Juneteenth marks the anniversary of June 19, 1865, when enslaved Black people in Texas learned they had been freed under President Abraham Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation.

Since the 1980s, every state across the US, apart from South Dakota, has made moves to officially commemorate the day but very few recognize it as a paid holiday.

Despite increased coverage of Juneteenth, many Americans remain oblivious to the significance of this date.

In a May 2021 survey, almost two-thirds of Americans said they knew nothing or only a little about the date, while only 12% said they knew a lot.

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The Senate is divided on vital Black issues.

There is also something to be said about the fact that the Senate could unanimously agree to give themselves another day off work, but can’t seem to settle on what to do with bills meant to protect Black lives or prevent racist voter suppression.

Despite nearly 200 attempts by lawmakers, lynching is still not a federal crime in the US, leaving Black people vulnerable to vicious, racially motivated violence.

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Republican lawmakers have also continued to push back against the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would require jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination in voting receive federal clearance before making changes to voting rules.

Making Juneteenth a holiday is performative activism.

The movement to make Juneteenth a national holiday picked up steam last June after the high-profile murder of George Floyd by a police officer.

But, of all the important suggestions made to improve Black rights, it seems insulting that one of the few changes to be made is a bill giving people a day off work.

If anything, making the day a federal holiday threatens its cultural significance.

With little acknowledgment of the long, painful history of slavery that preceded Juneteenth, the day becomes little more than a Hallmark holiday.

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Alice Kelly is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. Catch her covering all things social justice, news, and entertainment. Keep up with her on Twitter for more.