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OPINION: Now that Juneteenth is a US holiday, the next step is reparations

by Rashawn Ray and Andre Perry | Brookings Institution
Friday, 18 June 2021 15:04 GMT

A woman celebrates Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery in Texas, two years after the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves elsewhere in the United States, in New York City, New York, U.S., June 18, 2021. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Only reparations can repair the stain of slavery and its remnants. This should be the next focus at the federal level, particularly by a Biden administration and a Democratic-led Congress.

By Rashawn Ray and Andre Perry

“In accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free,” as stated by Union Army Major General Gordon Granger on June 19, 1865 in Galveston, Texas.

On June 17, 2021, Juneteenth officially became the 11th federal holiday. This is great news and Americans should embrace and celebrate it. General Order No. 3, represented by Juneteenth, along with the 13th amendment helped mark the end to the slave era in the United States. 

The Juneteenth holiday is part of the beginning of a true reconciliation period for the United States to make up for the failed Reconstruction Era.

Juneteenth in 1865 did not eliminate racism, much like how simply creating a federal holiday will not alter the racial wealth gap in 2021.

Once the dust settled on the Civil War, racism became packaged in a different wrapper of convict leasing, Jim Crow segregation, redlining, and white-exclusive New Deal policies that excluded Black workers and military veterans. 

The “absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves” outlined in General Order No. 3 did not occur. The 40 acres and a mule promised to Black Americans as part of General William Sherman’s Field Order 15 did not occur.

Instead, slave owners got to keep their land and some even were given reparations in the form of lost wages; those lost wages being newly freed Black Americans.

For Black Americans, slavery was deadly and costly but so was much of the twentieth century. Only reparations can repair the stain of slavery and its remnants. This should be the next focus at the federal level, particularly by a Biden administration and a Democratic-led Congress who have majority because Black people, particularly in battleground states, voted in the 2020 election.

So, this gesture by the federal government for Juneteenth to become a federal holiday is primarily symbolic. It carries with it no form of restitution for the centuries of bodily, property, and financial harms inflicted upon Black Americans.

Other groups including American Indians and Japanese Americans have received some form of reparations from the federal government. And, the U.S. government has worked over time to ensure that Jewish Americans and even their descendants receive reparations for the Holocaust. Yet, none of this has occurred for Black Americans.

Imagine if Germany only created a federal holiday 156 years after the Holocaust. People would be livid. But, for some reason, this impertinent treatment is bestowed onto Black Americans.  

The bottom line is by not advancing reparations at the federal level, the United States has aligned more with the failed confederacy than the Union on the topic of slavery. Many in leadership vehemently understand that without labor of enslaved Black Americans, the United States would be a vastly different country; maybe even an equitable one. This is one reason some people are fighting tooth and nail to prevent their school-aged children from learning the unadulterated truth of the United States. 

Nonetheless, there is notable momentum for reparations. At the local level, cities like Evanston and universities like Georgetown have passed reparations plans. At the state level, California and Virginia have passed legislation for commissions. At the federal level, H.R. 40, which aims to create a federal commission on reparations, passed a House of Representatives subcommittee. A truth and reconciliation bill is gaining momentum in the House.

One big issue is that many people cannot process how reparations would be financed. We do. Federal land is the answer. Roughly 25% of land in the United States is owned by the federal government. This land can be sold or leased to cover reparations. As we have written, reparations should include direct payments as well as wealth building opportunities for Black Americans. 

The United States is in a twenty-first century racial awakening and reconstruction. People are starting to recognize the complex ways that systemic racism permeates our social institutions and how negative responses to truth, justice, and reconciliation dilute progress.

It is time to finally reconstruct a more perfect and equitable union by implementing a culture of reparations vis-à-vis a truth and reconciliation process.

Dr. Rashawn Ray is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at the Brookings Institution and a Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland. He is on Twitter @SociologistRay.

Andre M. Perry is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities. He is on Twitter @andreperryedu.


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