As many Republican controlled states rush to “cancel” critical race theory, Juneteenth became a federal holiday. While the Emancipation Proclamation outlawed slavery in the South in 1862 (going into effect in 1863), it was not until June 19, 1865 that Union Army general Gordon Granger announced General Order No. 3. This order proclaimed freedom for slaves in Texas. Starting in 1866 this event was celebrated, and June 19th became known as Juneteenth, Jubilee Day, Black Independence Day, and Emancipation Day. The official holiday is now called Juneteenth National Independence Day.
From a moral standpoint, I see this as a good thing. It symbolically elevates the end of slavery in America, thus “officially” marking it as an important historical event. One hopes that this makes it clear that this change was a good thing. It can also be seen as a positive sign; one can also hope that it signals that the arc of history is still bending in the right direction. That said, these are troubled times and one can be worried that the holiday will be exploited by bad actors.
While some might think that the “woke” radicals would be the ones exploiting Juneteenth, the real risk is the holiday being misused by those on the right. Ironically and shamelessly, they could attempt to use the holiday to “argue” that systematic racism is over (if it ever existed). After all, since Juneteenth was made into a federal holiday with bipartisan support, then how could racism still exist in America?
One could use the same logic with Armistice Day (now Veteran’s Day in the United States). Armistice Day celebrates the end of the war to end all wars (World War One), so we must infer that war came to an end and there are no longer any problems. That is, of course, absurd. Obviously, the continued existence of systematic racism is consistent with having Juneteenth become a holiday. One could also draw an analogy to Independence Day—having that day as a holiday does not prove that the rights and liberties celebrated in the Declaration of Independence have been eternally secured and nothing needs to be done now to address encroachments on them. As such, just as Independence Day should be taken as celebrating rights and liberties that must be forever defended even after one foe was defeated, Juneteenth should be taken as celebrating freedom that must forever be defended even after slavery (mostly) ended.
The creation of the holiday does not prove that systematic racism has ended or that all evils arising from it have been nullified and rectified. All it proves is that there was enough support to make the event into a holiday. This, as I noted above, is a good thing—but it merely celebrates the end of (most) legal slavery in the United States. It does not mark the end of racism and the harms still radiating from the evils of the past. Perhaps our ancestors will have a holiday that marks the end of racism.
Another concern is that Juneteenth could be exploited in bad faith by those on the right who want to whitewash history. While Republicans profess to be opposed to “cancel culture” and for free speech, Republican lawmakers are working hard to hide the harsh and unflattering truths about our past and to prevent discussion about how our past sins as a nation still bear wicked fruit today. They could exploit Juneteenth as part of this process, asserting that there is no need to have critical race theory, no need to discuss racism, and no need to look unflinchingly at the past because things were not so bad then and there are no problems now. After all, they might say, the end of slavery was celebrated and so that must surely mean that racism ended then (and, of course, it was not so bad).
Despite my concerns that bad faith actors on the right will try to exploit the holiday, it is good that we have finally made it official. As noted above, it is important for us to acknowledge the truth of our past. While creating the holiday is largely symbolic, it is an important symbol if we choose to use it to inspire us to be better at being the people we profess to want to be.