Juneteenth: The good, the bad, and the ugly

In principle, a holiday dedicated to honoring America’s long march to freedom is an unequivocally good thing, but in practice progressives and Democrat lawmakers twist it for their present political purposes, haranguing the country and proposing radical policies.

At the risk of sounding somewhat retrograde and out of step with the times, I have mixed feelings about Juneteenth.  On one hand, I welcome and support any holiday that commemorates America’s long march to freedom and the significant strides we have made as a country since our Founding, strides that have enabled us to more fully realize the dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all citizens.  I believe it is an unequivocally good thing to honor and remember the moment when news of the Emancipation Proclamation first reached Texas and the last remaining slaves in the Confederate states were freed.  Rare is a country that enters a Civil War driven by such fundamental disagreements about the nature of freedom, bondage, and human rights, and then emerges on the other side with an entire class of people freed, and a country on the way back to uniting together, one which goes on to become the most successful and powerful in the known universe.  Juneteenth has the ability to illustrate and encapsulate an important moment in this journey, taking what was a relatively minor event in the grand sweep of history and transforming it into a true turning point and rallying cry.  While I might find it somewhat of an exaggeration to describe Juneteenth as “America’s true birthday” “as much as the Fourth of July,” like Peniel E. Joseph, writing for CNN, did in a recent article, I can understand the impulse.

At the same time, I’m inclined by a somewhat cynical nature to be skeptical of any new “holiday” that seems to have arisen out of nowhere and is suddenly embraced by many groups I consider political opponents, especially groups that have a tendency to politicize everything, skipping no opportunity to push the same tired policies.  To paraphrase Seinfeld’s George Costanza, where was Juneteenth ten years ago?  It is equally true, however, that holidays arise over time and new ones are created in response to cultural events and changes in cultural norms.  We didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving nationally until the Civil War.  Martin Luther King Day wasn’t formalized until the Presidency of Ronald Reagan in 1983.  Juneteenth can be seen as part of that trend, especially as we more forcefully confront some of the atrocities in our history, and yet I still can’t shake the underlying feeling that much of the desire to commemorate an occurrence over 150 years ago is driven by the politics of the present.  To many, Juneteenth isn’t about honoring the moment when freedom was rightfully bestowed on people wrongfully in bondage.  It is instead about advancing a modern, progressive, political agenda that encompasses a whole lot of things I couldn’t disagree with more stridently.

Thus, Juneteenth is merely another opportunity to harangue America in the present.  Marc. H. Morial and Shannon-Janean Curie illustrate this tendency in an editorial for The Hill, claiming this “Juneteenth Black Americans need true reform – not symbolism.”  Of course, the reforms they have in mind are the of the radical, progressive kind.  They set the stage for their intentions from the very first paragraph, barely taking a moment to commemorate the holiday before noting that “newly freed slaves left the grip of raw servitude penniless” and then concluding “Black Americans continue to this day to struggle to obtain economic equity with their White peers” because they are forced to “navigate an America built on racism.”  This is the Critical Race Theory philosophy in a single statement.  The country doesn’t have racist elements.  It doesn’t even have some racist policies that can be revised.  It’s built on racism itself.  In their view, this translates into the “emotional wear and tear of historical inequities is a deeply personal and consistent economic pain point” in the day to day lives of every black person in the country.  Mr. Morial and Ms. Curie rely on research from the National Urban League in support of their position including that “almost half of black households – even amongst those with college degrees are worried about not being able to put food on the table, having to dip into their savings to pay bills, and-or having to take on debt they can’t afford to pay back.”

They attribute this to other subjective data points, such as “almost 3 in 5 Blacks say wealth inequality between Black and White Americans is a cycle that creates never-ending economic disparity, no matter how hard people work,” and black millennials “feel they are still denied the keys to unlocking longer-term middle-class success,” as if this were purely a racial issue. The reality is many Americans of all races feel precisely this way, especially in the middle and lower cases.  There hasn’t been a poll taken since the pandemic began that found optimism for the future.  For example, CNBC reported on the Mind over Money survey conducted by Capital One and The Decision Lab.  An incredible 77% of Americans report feeling anxious about their financial situation.  58% feel their finances control their lives and 52% have difficulty controlling their money-related worries.  This feeling of economic powerlessness isn’t unique to black people by any means, however the authors would like to spin it in pursuit of progressive goals.  Further, their insistence on viewing things strictly through the lens of racism and oppression takes us from the realm of hard facts and common struggles we can all agree on to grand statements impossible to prove or disprove based on any evidence.  Instead, they proclaim simply that whites inherit privilege, regardless of their economic status, while “Blacks inherit the struggles and strife of an entire race, carrying the pressure of achieving dreams unfulfilled and opportunities denied the previous generation.  This intergenerational trauma is ingrained in the black experience.”

Mr. Morial and Ms. Curie also believe that blacks are “continuously denied the same opportunity as whites to move up the economic and professional ladder,” intentionally confusing the wealth gap with the opportunity gap. They conclude that “no amount of hard work or financial planning can bring the tantalizing fruits of the American dream within reach” even as the black percentage of high income families has increased rapidly over time, meaning that many black families, though not nearly enough, have climbed the very ladder they claim is unclimbable.  Between 1975 and 2010 (the last year I was able to locate this particular data), the share of blacks making $50,000 to $74,999 increased from 12.4% to 15.2% while the share of whites declined over the same period.  More than twice as many black families made between $75,000 to $99,999 in 2010 than in 1975, up from 3.5% to 7.6% compared to a white increase from 9% to 12.14%. Blacks moved up at almost double the rate.  The same is true for those earning more than $100,000 per year, where black families increased their share close to five times over, rising from a meager 1.4% to 6.4%.  This is not to suggest that troubling disparities don’t continue to exist.  The question is what policy is best to address them, and whether we can identify actionable strategies while making bold claims at odds with the facts.  Especially when those bold claims seem explicitly designed to both divide us and support the usual laundry list of progressives goals including solving the “lack of development in low-income communities, followed by the lack of opportunities to own assets and build wealth, lack of access to affordable jobs, and mass incarceration.”  Problems which can only be solved with a “hand-up to correct decades of systemic racism and inequities” because “no amount of wealth, education, or upward mobility can inoculate Black Americans from the cultural, fiscal, and psychological trauma they continue to endure because of subtle and overt racial biases and inequities.”  If that is really true, one wonders what happens when the hand up runs out.

At the same time, Mr. Morial and Ms. Curie seem downright reasonable in comparison to proposals from select Democrats in the House and Senate.  In the midst of the most dramatic spike in violent crime in decades, they chose Juneteenth to push for an expansion of the Thirteenth Amendment in a nonsensical quest to either end prison work requirements or pay incarcerated felons a living wage.  As The Hill describes it, “Members of Congress and others, pointing to the Juneteenth holiday, are pushing for the expansion of the 13th Amendment to provide worker protections for people who are incarcerated and often forced into working for very little pay.”  The Thirteenth Amendment ended slavery and forced labor in the United States, but included an exception for the “punishment of a crime.”  In other words, murderers, rapists, drug dealers, and other violent offenders can still be forced to work at nominal pay.  To most people, this probably isn’t objectionable.  If you kill someone, you forfeit your rights including freedom of motion and action, and while you are incarcerated by the state, you need to do something productive, yet you certainly aren’t entitled to earn a living off the taxpayer.  Once upon a time, I think this was considered a reasonable position by just about everyone, but not anymore.  “I’m bold enough to think that I can change the Constitution, and I know that there’s a national, bipartisan, multiracial movement to get it done. Let’s #EndTheException in the 13th Amendment,” tweeted Georgia Representative Nikema Williams.  Oregon Senator Jeff Markely concurs, writing “Juneteenth is now a federal holiday, but that recognition cannot be a placeholder for action.  We must recognize the lasting impact of slavery and that justice and freedom are still too often denied to Black Americans, and recommit to building a more just country.”  He added, “This clause has fueled re-enslavement and mass incarceration for generations, and must be removed.”

In their view, justice and freedom for hardworking black Americans somehow requires new rights for prisoners.  I don’t think it’s an exaggeration describe this as a perversion of the very spirit of Juneteenth, taking a holiday that commemorates the freedom of a people in bondage for no reason except their skin color, and conflating those innocent victims with murders, rapists, and the like.  It’s a politics turned ugly and insulting, on a day when we should all set aside our political agendas and celebrate an important milestone on the long road to freedom together.  Unfortunately, that is precisely how many progressives chose to celebrate, letting no opportunity go unrealised to divide the country even further apart, and certainly fueling a seemingly justified skepticism on my part.

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