As President Joe Biden prepares to sign the bill making Juneteenth the nation’s 11th federal holiday, many in the Black community see the gesture as an attempt to pacify demands for transformative justice and reparations.
Juneteenth is a day recognizing the emancipation of enslaved Black people in the United States and has been celebrated in dozens of states for years. Lawmakers unsuccessfully tried to approve it as a federal holiday during the Trump Administration last year but suffered defeat at the hands of Republicans.
U.S. Senator James Lankford representing Oklahoma, supported an objection to the legislation last year, saying at the time, “we should celebrate these strides on the federal level while remaining cognizant of the impact the existing 10 federal holidays have on federal services and local businesses.”
Juneteenth gains widespread approval
Yet this time around, the bill received unanimous approval in the Senate with Oklahoma’s two members, James Lanford and Jim Inhofe, supporting the measure. Each of Oklahoma’s five Republican House members voted to make Juneteenth a federal holiday as well. This appeared as a welcome change to the Black community after their previous votes to oppose the presidential election results confirming Biden as president.
The votes against democracy by Republicans were Rep. Kevin Hern (OK-1), Rep. Markwayne Mullin (OK-2), Rep. Frank Lucas (OK-3), Rep. Tom Cole (OK-4), Rep. Stephanie Bice (OK-5), and U.S. Senator James Lankford (R-OK). The votes came after the Capitol insurrection on January 6.
Now based on the news, it would appear that Congress has suddenly found bipartisan support for recognizing the humanity of Black people, despite not being able to agree on investigating a White supremacist domestic terrorist attack against the Capitol building. Politicians have gone as far as to say the country has become racially united by the new holiday designation.
U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee
“After a journey of 10 years, I just want to take this moment for thanking all of my colleagues, Democrats and Republicans, who showed America there is unity in the understanding of our history,” U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18) said on the House floor shortly after the bill’s passage.
“The history of slavery is the original sin and should never be ignored. But now we have a national independence holiday for Juneteenth. Let us come together.”
Rep. Jackson Lee, who is also a sponsor of H.R. 40, the bill to study reparations for descendants of enslaved African people, painted a picture of a country that was beginning to break down the systemic racism that has plagued the Black community for centuries.
U.S. Rep Cori Bush
Yet, many of her colleagues who supported the vote to make Juneteenth a federal holiday still refuse to voice support for voting rights legislation, refuse to voice support for ending qualified immunity in the Justice for George Floyd Act, and refuse to voice support to study reparations on a national scale.
U.S. Rep. Cori Bush (MO-1), the first Black woman to represent Missouri in Congress and an unapologetic Black Lives Matter organizer, highlighted the disconnect between demands for transformative racial justice and the bipartisan push to make Juneteenth part of the country’s national identity.
“It’s Juneteenth and reparations. It’s Juneteenth and end police violence and the War on Drugs. It’s Juneteenth and end housing and education apartheid. It’s Juneteenth and teach the truth about white supremacy in our country. Black liberation in its totality must be prioritized,” Rep. Cori Bush recently posted on Facebook.
Some see Juneteenth designation as performative politics
As Republican legislatures across the country pass restrictive voting laws, excluding a few like Oklahoma’s, and as Republicans in Congress continue to ignore demands to end the pandemic of police murdering Black and brown people, they’ve instead chosen to embrace the designation of Juneteenth as a federal holiday.
Even President Biden was quoted as saying he doesn’t expect much movement on the bill to study reparations this year, according to Politico.
To be sure, activists, politicians and others have been seeking this monumental recognition for decades. But for many in the Black community who’ve watched lawmakers respond with moderate indifference to or outright support for the crimes against Black people in this country, the bipartisan push for Juneteenth rings hollow.
For many, it appears as a convenient distraction from lawmakers’ refusal to accept the legitimate votes from urban communities, their refusal to dismantle the oppressive system of policing that criminalizes Black and brown skin, and their refusal to have the government pay what it owes.
Oklahoma’s all-Republican Congress members have chosen the low-hanging fruit of finally recognizing a centuries-old holiday while ignoring the “Strange Fruit” of lynchings and systemic hurdles against Black people depicted in Billie Holiday’s famous song more than 80 years ago.