Juneteenth and the Legacy of Slavery in Today’s Economy

June 19, 2019

Marking the country’s independence, the Fourth of July is celebrated annually with fireworks, backyard barbecues, baseball games, and all things Americana. Too many, Independence Day represents the ideals of this country–freedom, equity, and independence from tyranny. But not everyone was or is included in those ideals; in the period between 1776 and 1790, slaves comprised approximately 20 percent of the population of the young country. The cruelty of treating humans as property can hardly be overstated, and yet on the Fourth of July, when we celebrate a day that is quite literally about independence and freedom, the legacy of slavery is still very much present in our society.

A much less widely celebrated holiday–but arguably a more apt celebration of true freedom–is Juneteenth, which takes place annually on June 19th. Dating back to 1865, Juneteenth commemorates the abolition of slavery, when Major General Gordon Granger, leading Union soldiers, arrived in Galveston, Texas, to announce that the Civil War  had ended: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.” Though President Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation two years earlier, news traveled slowly in the pre-digital age, and June 19th, 1865, is widely acknowledged as the most important celebration of the end of slavery.

Many people are unaware of Juneteenth; only in 2018, for example, did Apple add Juneteenth as an official US holiday to its iOS calendars. However, just as the legacy of Juneteenth should be more widely recognized today, so should we recognize the ways that the legacy of slavery lives on in today’s economy and society.

And Congress is beginning to do so. On Juneteenth of this year, a House Judiciary Subcommittee will hold a hearing to discuss reparations. The hearing will center around HR 40, which was sponsored each session starting in 1989 by Former Rep. John Conyers until his resignation in 2017. The bill would establish “the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans to examine slavery and discrimination in the colonies and the United States from 1619 to the present and recommend appropriate remedies.”

A conversation about the legacy of slavery–and the active steps our government could take to begin to compensate for the emotional and material extraction of this barbaric institution–is long overdue. After all, taking cues from the horrific institution of slavery, we have made active policy choices that curtail opportunities for Black Americans and tilt the economic playing field against them. From sharecropping to Jim Crow laws to redlining and segregation, these policy choices have had effects that have persisted long past their time of enactment. As a result, Black Americans continue to face structural barriers to economic mobility and dignity, while those in power continue to consolidate it.

For example, the combination of redlining neighborhoods and the government’s willingness to allow telecom companies to behave like monopolies has resulted in the exclusion of Black communities from broadband investments and contributed to a growing digital divide. Without broadband access, people living in those communities face barriers to activities that are fundamental to economic participation: applying for a job, doing homework, applying to college, to name just a few.

The historical through lines to slavery run strong in the modern-day economy. If we are to fully honor the spirit of Juneteenth—and Independence Day—we must proactively address the potent ways that the deep racial income and wealth divides intersect with how our economy works. That intersection perpetuates a vast opportunity gap between white and Black Americans. For example, conventional wisdom holds that if you work hard, your labor will be rewarded. In many ways, this is the foundation of the American dream. However, for Black Americans, the policy choices we have made throughout history–and many that we are making today–present immense barriers to achieving this ideal.

In the 21st century, our labor market provides much less of a pathway to economic stability than it once did. Long-standing wage gaps between Black and white workers are only growing, and these wage gaps hold across all levels of education. Work is becoming less secure, and workers can no longer rely on their employer to provide work with dignity. Moreover, a decades-long decline in unionization rates has particularly harmed Black Americans, who historically benefited disproportionately from union membership.

Racial wealth gaps are ever widening, preventing Black and Latinx workers from building assets and investing in their children and future generations. White households have 10 times more wealth than similar black households, and when adding the lens of gender, the wealth gaps are astounding. Single white men hold about 145 times the amount of wealth as single Black women. Wealth is fundamental to the story of the American dream; it is a vehicle for opportunity and freedom. As the story goes, working hard allows one to save for the future and eventually allows for social mobility. In reality, that dream is being denied to many Americans. Today’s economy simply does not live up to the spirit of freedom and dignity promised on Juneteenth.

Racial wealth and income gaps are just the tip of the iceberg. From predatory lending practices in housing and education, to a tax code that privileges the white wealthy, to policy barriers to dignified work, to an exploitative criminal justice system – these are not standalone problems. They are the consequences of an interconnected web of historical and contemporary rules that hold people of color back.

In marking Juneteenth, we should acknowledge a truer picture of this country than the one we usually allow ourselves to see–one that is rooted in exploitation and deeply flawed notions of equality and justice. But there is redemption and hope in the perseverance and courage of Black Americans under horrific circumstances. The holiday reminds us that this country is a work in progress. Without acknowledging and concretely dealing with the racism that this country was built on, we will never be able to deliver equitable progress for all. Ultimately, Juneteenth is a day we should commemorate–in part because of how far we have come, but also as a reminder of how far we still have to go.